Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Cutting out the talking platypus


 (This blog was written as part of the multi-disciplinary workshop: Popularising Palaeontology: Historical & Current Perspectives, held in 2016 (Find out more)

You can’t say half of what you want to say in a public talk. Whether it’s at a huge international conference or among a small cosy research group, whether enthusing children or sharing your subject with keen-minded adults, there is always so much more to share than can ever fit into your allotted time.

There are a few approaches to this problem. Some speakers can’t bring themselves to part with a single slide. They get three-quarters of the way through their talk, then tear through the unwieldy number of slides still remaining while the session Chair stands behind them, tapping their wristwatch and impatiently clearing their throat. Another approach is to cram oodles of information onto each slide, hoping that even if you can’t say everything, the audience can at least see your copious thoughts, packed between the dense text and brain-boggling array of images.

For the rest of us, we admit defeat. You just can’t say everything you want. Embrace the burn: pick out the very best slides to illustrate the main themes, and then have a stiff drink to lament the creativity and knowledge you have no time to share. You can even allude to these “lost slides” during the presentation, or perhaps invite your audience to ask you about them afterwards.

I’d like to share with you my forgotten slides from Popularising Palaeontology: Historical & Current Perspectives. In it, I discussed the challenges of popularising my animals of study: mammals from the Mesozoic (#MesozoicMammals).


The title slide from my talk at the workshop - but as with all presentations, some of the slides I created never made it to the final version.
My omitted slides involve a talking platypus. I know what you’re thinking: how on earth could such a thing not be of utmost importance for any talk, whatever the subject? In this case, despite it being my favourite part of the research I did for my presentation on the challenges of popularising mammals from the time of dinosaurs, these slides didn’t contribute enough towards the main narrative of the presentation.

While doing research, I was exploring the appearance of early mammals in the public consciousness. These creatures - scientifically perhaps the most important fossils to come from Mesozoic rocks - have long been overshadowed by the giant reptiles they lived alongside. I went spelunking for popular references to Mesozoic mammals in art and literature, and in doing so came across the wonderful, Dot and the Kangaroo.

Frank P. Mahony’s lovely illustration of a scene from Dot and the kangaroo (1899).
In this Australian children’s book, written by Ethel C. Pedley and published in 1899, a little girl named Dot wanders into the outback near her home, and gets lost. As children are wont to do in fiction, she befriends an animal: a kangaroo who has lost her joey. The kangaroo agrees to help Dot find her way home, and suggests they consult the platypus, who has been around so long it knows everything. The platypus, according to the highly strung creature in Pedley’s tale, existed “millions of years before the ignorant Humans”. While the same can be said of a great many animal lineages on earth, what Pedley is specifically referring to is a hangover from early Victorian misunderstandings about mammal evolution.

The first scientists to encounter mammals from the time of dinosaurs misidentified them as marsupials (animals with pouches, such as the kangaroo) and monotremes (the platypus and echidna). They considered life to have “progressed” up a ladder; with humankind wobbling on a throne at the top. In early evolutionary scientific models, mammals began as primitive egg-laying monotremes, then stepped up a rung to become marsupial, before reaching the perfection of the placental (giving birth to live young). This led to depictions of Mesozoic platypuses being gobbled by crocodiles beside fern-lined swamps.

The true course of evolution is more beautifully complex than this. Monotremes, marsupials and placentals all share an ancestor. These lineages have lived alongside one another for millions of years, rather than evolving from one another along some anthropogenically judged scale of “primitive” to “advanced”. While platypuses and echidnas share many characteristics with our Mesozoic ancestors (which provides clues to ancient mammal biology) they are as advanced along their own path of evolution to the present day, as we are along ours.


From H.R. Knipe’s Nebula to Man (1905). A depiction of Mesozoic platypuses being eaten by crocodiles.
While science moved on from this misunderstanding before the end of the 1800s, the misconception of monotremes somehow belonging to the time of dinosaurs and being more ancient than placental mammals, remained alive and well in popular culture for decades (arguably, vestiges of it still remain). The platypus in Pedley’s story rants at Dot about its multi-million year origins; “I can prove by a bone in my body that my ancestors were the Amphitherium, the Amphilestes, the Phascolotherium, and the Stereognathus!"

This speech stunned me. Where did Pedley dig up these names for creatures relatively unknown to the public? How amazing to see them in a child’s story, when our current culture is hell-bent on over-simplification for fears of frightening the villagers with fancy science-talk. As palaeontologists know well, children are not afraid of scientific nomenclature (though many adults are). Pedley lifted her monotreme’s ancestry from Charles Lyell’s Elements of Geology (1841). How wonderful to think that a generation of Australian kids might be familiar with the obscure early mammals I’m endeavouring to popularise over 100 years later.


One of the deleted slides from my presentation, containing a short film clip from the 1977 adaptation of Dot and the Kangaroo. (Watch from 42mins 20secs into the film, but be warned, it ends with singing.)
By the 1970s, the feature-length animated adaptation of Dot and Kangaroo had already begun to whittle the number of names: “…my ancestors were the famous Amphitherium, the illustrious Phascolotherium, and the renowned Stereognathus!" It is maliciously delicious to hear the voice-actor strain over pronouncing these unfamiliar beasts.
I screen captured the platypus scene from the film for my slides, but admitted to myself later that including the story of Dot and the Kangaroo was an indulgence on my part. It excited me to hear the beautiful little mammals I study mentioned in literature and blurted out in a cartoon. However, the clip ate a large chunk of presentation time, without adding a great deal to my point.
While I shed it for the workshop, I can share this delightful morsel of Mesozoic mammal cultural history with you here. I hope it tickles you, as it did me.

(This blogpost is dedicated to the memory of all the slides that never made it into our talks. May they live on it our memories - and in uncut powerpoint files on our computers.)

 

This blog was also published on the Popularising Palaeontology website - here.