Friday, 14 November 2014

Of tiny tyrants and Triassic big-heads: Tyrannosaurus rex and Garjainia madiba

This week sees two new pictures of mine being 'released' in one way or another. Much as I'd like to go into lots of detail about each, that realistically isn't going to happen anytime soon. I'm going to attempt a sort of 'picture[s] of the day'-style writing. I'm sure I can do it... right?

Chidumebi Browne's resting Tyrannosaurus teens

Two young adult old male (left) and female Tyrannosaurus on a break from pillaging and destroying the Cretaceous, distracted by a group of ruffian moths. Concept and animal colouration by Chidumebi Browne. Prints are available.
First up is one of my '£100 palaeoart offers', painted for Chidumebi Browne. Featuring Tyrannosaurus, which needs no introduction as an dinosaur most famous for antisocial tendencies, Chidumebi wanted a more relaxed approach to tyrant dinosaur art. The concept called for Tyrannosaurus at the smaller end of their size scale, settling on individuals approximating the size of the 'Jane' specimen - about half the length of a fully-grown animal. There were also requests for contrasting blue and red colours on a male and female. I was happy to oblige, seeing as some degree of dimorphism is defensible for dinosaurs even at on half their full-grown size. Like mammals and non-avian reptiles, Mesozoic dinosaurs hit sexual maturity well before attaining fully ossified, completely grown skeletons and, for Tyrannosaurus, specimens in their early teens were probably reproductively active. In that sense, some features related to sexual behaviour might be expected in 'teenage' animals. Such individuals - better considered very young adults rather than large children - look rather different to their super-size contemporaries with their longer legs and more gracile build. Some of that is obscured here by the extensive feathering covering both animals (if you look very closely, you can just make out the arms of the sitting male), but their long legs at least show through.

The concept called for a a series of moths catching the attention of the male tyrant: initially one was ordered but, even at half-size, Tyrannosaurus is pretty big, so a few more were added to make them more conspicuous. My initial thought was to use butterflies rather than moths for the role of the lepidopterans, but I was surprised to learn that butterflies don't appear in the fossil record until well after the K/Pg event. Moths have a fair, if not especially extensive Mesozoic record, so they seemed a safer bet. They certainly add an air of tranquility to the scene not featured in a lot of theropod art: well done to Chidumebi for an excellent idea.

There'll be more output from the '£100 palaeoart offers' soon, although note that the offer is now full - over-full, in fact. There's some great ideas which I'm hoping to do justice to, so thanks to all who got their orders in - the offer sold out very quickly. If you didn't manage to get something to me on time, prints are still available - wittonprints@gmail.com is the address to contact for them.

Gower et al.'s Garjainia madiba: yes, the head is that big 

Gargainia madiba sp. nov., South Africa's newest erythrosuchid. From Gower et al. 2014.

Art number 2 is a life restoration of a new species of Early Triassic stem-archosaur, the erythrosuchid Garjainia madiba, described by David Gower and colleagues in this week's PLoS ONE. Unearthed in South Africa and named for Nelson Mandela ("Mr Mandela was known affectionately as 'Madiba'" - Gower et al. 2014), G. madiba has been making surprising ripples on Twitter and Facebook because of its rather enormous head. I say surprising because, for an erythroshucid, G. madiba is fairly typically proportioned - so far as anyone can tell, anyway. We don't have anything like a complete skeleton for G. madiba, although many aspects of its anatomy are represented in fragmentary specimens. It is currently distinguished from its relatives by fine anatomical details, perhaps the most notable being its large postorbital and jugal bosses of unknown function (best seen in the reconstructed anterior aspect, above). The discovery of more substantial G. madiba fossils may reveal more obvious distinction from other erythrosuchids, but, for the time being, the best we can do reconstruction-wise is show G. prima with a madiba upgrade package. Still, given how similar the two Garjainia species seem to be, this does not seem unreasonable.

Restoring Garjainia was a lot of fun because it forced a 'back to basics' approach to the artwork where David Gower, Richard Butler and I spent a lot of time discussing proportions, muscle distribution and posture. Many fossil animals - dinosaurs, pterosaurs, etc. - have been restored so often that the basic foundations of their anatomy are very well known, but this is not so for Garjainia and other erythrosuchids. A personal revelation to come from this process was evidence for enlarged areas of axial musculature on erythrosuchid skeletons, indicated by the rather tall neural spines of their necks and backs. This might give some insight into how their large heads were supported: a particularly well-developed, strong set of axial muscles. The posterior faces of their skulls are also wide and robust, providing space sufficient to anchor powerful neck muscles. But erythrosuchid anatomy was likely not held together only by brute strength: there's also some clever biological engineering at work. Like many archosauriforms with huge-looking heads, their skulls are more gracile and lightweight than they first appear, actually being fairly narrow for much of their length and riddled with fenestrae. We tried to show the former in our anterior aspect reconstruction: note how slender the snout of the animal is compared to the cheek region. The result is a head which is undeniably large, but probably much more manageable than it first seems.

For a lot more on Garjainia and other erythrosuchids, including the life restoration in situ, full descriptions of G. madiba anatomy and revisions to the diagnosis of the group, Gower et al. (2014) can be read here (hurrah for open access!). Thanks to David and Richard for bringing me on board, and congrats to them on the paper.

Coming soon: small, brown Mesozoic mammialiaforms! Yes, they are exciting. Really.

Reference

  • Gower, D.J., Hancox, P.J., Botha-Brink, J., Sennikov, A.G., & Butler, R.J. (2014) A New Species of Garjainia Ochev, 1958 (Diapsida: Archosauriformes: Erythrosuchidae) from the Early Triassic of South Africa. PLoS ONE 9(11): e111154. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111154

Friday, 7 November 2014

Prints, custom palaeoart, and antisocial Triceratops

Hey now - look at this: there's a way to buy high-quality prints of my artwork, and it's dead simple. Drop me an email at wittonprints@gmail.com with your requirements, pay off the invoice, and wait for your prints to arrive - hopefully within a week or so of order confirmation. Prices, sizes and all are discussed over here.

To celebrate this occasion, I'm also offering a limited number of über-cheap palaeoart commissions for private clients:


Yep - your own palaeoartwork, a print and delivery for just £100, which is a stupidly cheap price for original artwork. Full details (including a few important conditions) are here. As you may expect, I can't sustain working at that price for long. For that reason, there's only five of these deals being offered, and at time of writing, three of these deals have been taken. If you want in, don't delay. Don't despair if you miss this deal but would still like your own commission: drop me a line and we might be able to work something out.

Finally, because things have been a bit quiet about here for the last month or so, here's something to fill the void: a monochrome bristly Triceratops horridus, the dromaeosaur Acheroraptor temertyorum, and an interaction inspired by the wise, yellow philosophy of The Simpsons.

"...and like people, some [animals] are just jerks."

Apologies for yet another short post. Coming soon (when I'm allowed to publish them): Mammaliaformes! Heaps of pterosaurs! Deinonychus! Diminutive tyrannosaurines! And perhaps other subjects too!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Dorygnathus tweets its way through development

For various - and mostly good - reasons, there's not been much chance for blogging of late, but the upside is that I have a lot of new art, discussion and science to share in the near future. In the interests of not completely abandoning the blog in the interim, here's a series of Tweets posted over the last two days documenting work on a painting of the Early Jurassic pterosaur Dorygnathus banthensis. I can't say too much about the painting at this stage, because it's earmarked for an upcoming project and its context will be best explained there. Still, there's no harm in leaving a few notes about the restoration and painting process, so here goes...

The initial digital sketch, complete with Kevin Padian's (2008) Dorygnathus skeletal reconstruction in the top corner for basic guidance. Padian's (2008) work was my principle reference here, and is probably the go-to paper for all things Dorygnathus. Those of you who know a bit about pterosaur research may be aware that Kevin was the main, and rather vocal, proponent of pterosaur bipedality in the 1980s and 1990s, so may be surprised to see his name attached to a quadrupedal pterosaur skeletal. Kevin is now on board with the consensus view that pterosaurs were primarily or exclusively quadrupedal animals, although he still argues that bipedality was essential for rapid terrestrial locomotion. I don't really agree with him, but that discussion will have to wait for another time.
A little rotation of the underlying sketch, some basic outlines of the background complete the overall composition. I've had this image knocking about my brain for about a week now, and think the layout is a fairly good approximation of what I've been imagining. This painting has a message to deliver about the sprawling posture of the animal, and I think this composition demonstrates that well enough. There is a lot of compelling anatomical evidence that Dorygnathus and many other non-pterodactyloids could not adopt erect forelimb postures, which is partly why they're considered inferior terrestrial animals to pterodactyloids. But is that the case for all non-pterodactyloids? I'm saying nothing else at this stage, other than that this painting has a contrasting sister image.

A lot more detail by the end of day one. The eye was shrunk to fit the orbit a little better, and the animal now looks generally larger as a result. This is good: Doryngathus is about 1.8 m across the wings, so needs to look seagull-sized. The basics of the colour scheme are added now too. There's a lot of evidence that rhamphorhynchines* like Dorygnathus were seabird like in their habits, so it makes sense to use common seabird colours - whites, greys, blacks and - here. There's a butt-tonne more detail here than I'm used to working with, the result of a big upgrade to my painting hardware and software. A graphics tablet built this decade? Imagine that!

*I don't really agree with Bennett's (2014) proposal that Dorygnathus is a scaphognathinid/ine/whatever. Ah, non-pterodactyloid pterosaur taxonomy: what a mess.

Lots of laminae - fine scaling bedding - in the rock here. Got to put that training into sedimentology to use somewhere.

Nearly there by this stage. Note the similar dip-direction on the rocks jutting out into the sea. Their angle means we can have a few splashy waves here and there, which is nice, and you could map the geology of this bay quite effectively. Because if you had a time machine and visited the Jurassic, mapping grey rocks would totally be the thing to do.

And done. The only real differences between the last two images are some tidier shading, a few background Dorygnathus and some splats of guano on the hero rock. I've long thought that locations supporting lots of pterosaurs would literally be a bit crappy, but never put it into art until now. I expect their guano looked a lot like that of birds and other reptiles: a mix of white, pasty stuff and darker gunge. Nice.

OK, time at the blog. Sorry for the short post, but I may have some good news soon for anyone interested in buying prints of my stuff - just in time for Christmas! I'll leave you with a larger version of the image than the low-res versions afforded by Twitter.

Dorygnathus banthensis at the coast, surrounded by the filth of its contemporaries.


Reference

  • Bennett, S. C. (2014). A new specimen of the pterosaur Scaphognathus crassirostris, with comments on constraint of cervical vertebrae number in pterosaurs. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie-Abhandlungen, 271(3), 327-348.
  • Padian, K. (2008). The Early Jurassic pterosaur Dorygnathus banthensis (Theodori 1830). Special Papers in Palaeontology 80: 1-64.

Monday, 29 September 2014

'Support Original Palaeoart': we take it to the mainstream

The industry of reconstructing extinct animals in illustration, sculpture and animation - we all know it as 'palaeoart' - is a paradoxical place. One the one hand, there is more demand for palaeoart than there ever has been, increasing recognition of the role of palaeoart as a scientific and outreach tool and, because of the internet, more interesting and thought-provoking palaeoart being produced than ever before. This would make it seem that palaeoartistry is a flourishing, economically viable and interesting place to work within. On the other hand, much of our widely published, well-paid and/or high profile palaeoart work is rife with plagiarism, is creatively stagnant, has limited commercial appeal and presents gross inaccuracies to the fossils it is meant to represent. Given the elevated public influence and larger economy of these high profile artworks, it might be argued that this less interesting, ethically-questionable and scientifically dubious side of palaeoart overrides the independent sphere as the current 'status quo' within the palaeoart industry.

These issues are not new: since at least the late 1990s, artists and palaeoart aficionados - including well known artists like like Bob Walters, Tess Kissinger and Gregory Paul - have made noises about generally poor working practises in palaeoart and called for change - sometimes in radical ways. However, most of this commentary has been published in esoteric online venues with limited prospects for reaching those involved in palaeoart production. Moreover, because these discussions have taken place in online forums, mailing lists and blogs rather than more 'officious' venues such as magazines or journals, they may be largely discredited or ignored by those who only have time for 'real' literature appearing in mainstream venues. This is a genuine and relevant problem: many scientists - including individuals involved with the production of palaeoart - see little value in the online palaeontological community or the opinions it expresses.

Today, Darren Naish, John Conway and I are attempting to bring the problems within the palaeoart industry into the light via an open-access commentary piece at Palaeontologia Electronica. We hope that by publishing this piece at a respected online venue that it will be more visible and credible to the academics and financiers involved in palaeoart production, and help stimulate the discussion needed for changes desired for years. Much of what we cover in our article will be familiar to regular denizens of the online palaeontological community. We outline why we think palaeoart is important (its long history, importance to science and the millions dollar industries it underpins); what we think is sour with modern working practices (that copied, objectively inaccurate art forms the majority of high profile/commercially produced art, while truly original and progressive artists are overlooked and sometimes deliberately ignored) and what we think can be done about these issues (artists being more circumspect about their trade; palaeontologists being more prudent in their consultancy roles; and art patrons improving their knowledge of and financial approach to palaeoartistry). There's a lot more to say on each of these issues, but I do not want to simply rewrite our article here: head to PE or download the pdf version for more details. There are a few comments and questions I want to nip in the bud, however:

The money issue

Yeah, we suggest artists take a firmer line about their costs. Cue comments about dictating industry workings, comparison to infamous 2011 Greg Paul palaeoart debate, etc. But look at what we say carefully: we encourage artists to be more realistic with their costs beyond a certain career stage, and we give no opinion on what their art should cost. We suggest working standards will improve if folks who've proven their palaeoart mettle, and are 'getting serious' with their palaeoartistry, appreciate that their work is worth something. Of course it is: it takes hours or days or research and labour to make. We should be proud of that, and not undervaluing it. Ultimately, palaeoart will continue to be treated as a disposable commodity - a point we make time and again - until the collective producing it makes it worth something to those buying it. There's a lot more to say on this point, so please read what we say over at PE before leaping to the comments box below.

So, palaeoartists need to be cold, heartless businessmen now, right?

No: we just arguing that there needs to be greater respect all round for the palaeoart trade. Like any industry, there will always be room for personal favours, 'mates rates' and that sort of thing, but these should be exceptions, not the standard. We're not asking for people to be inhuman, or trying to take the enjoyment out of producing palaeoart, only for standard business practises to be more routinely applied to palaeoart production and financing.

You guys are hypocrites. You've asked for/given free art, for instance, and been involved with products featuring awful palaeoart

Yep. Like all human beings, we're a mess of hypocrisy and mixed-messages, and we fully admit to being associated with behaviour which we suggest is detrimental to palaeoartdom. However, we can also honestly say that we try to implement our 'best practises' where we can. Darren, for instance, pushes for using independent artists wherever he can in his books and articles, and fights for payment for image use. Both John and Darren (along with Memo Koseman) have been important voices in the call for more interesting palaeoart with the publication of All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2012). John has also outlined earnings for his art and explained how, realistically, art needs to be costed to make a living from it. Given the cultural taboo associated with declaring earnings and salaries, that's a bold but important set of figures to release to the public. Along with John and Darren, I do my best to promote excellent palaeoart, work genuinely hard in my consultancy roles, and endeavour to strike realistic costs with my patrons (it's been a long time since I've done art for free, for instance). We're not always successful in these bids, but we push hard wherever we can for the better standards we would like.

I don't see a recommendation for any 'good' palaeoartists in the article. Who do you recommend?

We each have our favourite artists - modern artists who do great work, past artists who broke new ground and so forth - but we have deliberately avoided promoting any services in the PE piece, including our own. The only artwork featured therein are a few incontrovertibly classic pieces of vintage palaeoart or modern works used to make specific points (e.g. John's reptile cat from All Yesterdays, which we use to mirror the inaccuracies present in many modern palaeoartworks). We want people thinking more about what makes palaeoart good and bad, and using their own research to make informed decisions about palaeoart services. Stating who we think are the 'best' artists conflicts with that message.

So what can we do?

Regular visitors to this blog or related works may have seen this image knocking about in various posts:

From Witton et al. (2014).

This is actually a figure from our article, and is our way of making it easy for you - a member of the palaeoblogosphere - to promote this cause. The three elements listed along the bottom touch on the cornerstones of our arguments:
  1. Accuracy: adherence of palaeoart to fossil and biological data; realistic depictions of contemporary palaeontological hypotheses; excellency in consultancy
  2. Creativity: ending of the widespread issue of palaeoart plagiarism and the production of meme-worthy art; promotion and appreciation of artwork and individuals who bring new perspectives and insights to the depiction of extinct animals
  3. History: appreciation of palaeoart as a 200 year old institution with its own important fashions, movements and individuals; realisation that the 'when, where and who' of palaeoartworks are as important as the artworks themselves
We want our graphic on blogs, articles, videos and even conference presentations as a means of promoting these issues as widely as possible. Remember that the whole reason for writing the Palaeontologia Electronica piece was to break these issues out into the wider world. The way to do that is through promotion in as many places as possible. We want it Facebooked, Tweeted, blogged, Tumblr'd and whaever else you can do on social media. We want it on respected, widely-read websites so those who don't frequent the depths of the palaeoblogosphere can't avoid it. We want SVP 2014 audiences seeing this in so many presentations that Berlin erupts with discussion of 'what's with all those palaeoart logos?'. However you do it, we're simply asking for a bit of a fuss. Ultimately, we want this widespread enough that the folks involved in palaeoart production can't ignore it, and will hopefully start thinking about palaeoartistry and its practitioners with the respect they deserve.

That's enough from me on this: head to Palaeontologia Electronica for more. Again, if you agree with what we're saying, please help us promote this widely and, if you're in the lucky position to be influencing palaeoart projects, please consider what we're saying here especially carefully.

References

  • Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M., & Naish, D. (2012). All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books.
  • Witton, M. P., Naish, D. and Conway, J. (2014). State of the Palaeoart. Palaeontologia Electronica Vol. 17, Issue 3; 5E: 10p;

Friday, 26 September 2014

Does Deinonychus really have one of the most powerful bites of all dinosaurs?

Quick sketch of Deinonychus antirrhopus with expanded, bone-puncturing jaw muscles, a requirement of having a bite as strong as a modern alligator. Say what? Read on...
There's a part in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park novel where Velociraptor attempt to bite through bars to reach a people-shaped lunch. Presumably, they're meant to give readers something to rally behind seeing as one person in the line of fire is Ian Sodding Malcolm - I'd be chewing through steel too if it meant we could enjoy a few moments without another preachy monologue. Crichton describes them as hyena-like in their ability to bite through steel, delivering thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch and gnawing their way through thick metal bars in 15 minutes.

Dromaeosaurids biting through steel bars - heck, any animal biting through steel bars, including hyenas - intuitively sounds like crazy talk*. But was Crichton at least right about the strong bites of dromaeosaurids? I've been doing some investigating on dromaeosaur jaw muscles for a new palaeoart commission, but I've come unstuck. Here's why.

*Is there any substance to claims about modern animals biting through steel? Given that tooth enamel is only very slightly harder than straight steel, I wonder how long teeth would last when gnawing through anything but the thinnest metal sheet.

Recently, Gignac et al. (2010) presented a suite of bite marks on Tenontosaurus bones argued to show Deinonychus as capable of deeply puncturing bone with powerful bites. The tooth gouges match those of large Deinonychus in many aspects (bite mark size, shape, correspondence with dental arcade) and broken teeth associated with the same Tenontosaurus corroborate suggestions that Deinonychus fed from the carcass. Other teeth, not from Deinonychus, were also at the site, but their owner does not seem to have left any other obvious traces. Experiments with modern cow bones suggest Deinonychus needed a whopping 8200 N to puncture Tenontosaurus bones to the degree seen in the fossil remains. This value puts Deinonychus bites on par with those of adult alligators and leaves hyenas in the biomechanical dust. It also grants Deinonychus one of the highest estimated bite forces of any dinosaur, even greater than animals of much larger size. The tooth marks only match the largest known Deinonychus individuals, possibly indicating that juveniles were incapable of delivering such bite forces. Because Deinonychus puncture wounds are rare, Gignac et al. argue that puncturing bones was not common in Deinonychus, and that their powerful bites were primarily used for aggressive behaviours instead.

Bitemarks in the radius of Tenontosaurus specimen FMNH PR 2261, below, compared to the dental arcade of Deinonychus antirrhopus, above. This is one of many pathologies on FMNH PR 2261, almost all of which have been attributed to Deinonychus feeding behaviour. From Gignac et al. 2010.

For artists, Gignac et al.'s paper has important implications. Generating 8000 N of bite force requires a lot of muscle, so we might predict that Deinonychus jaws had the same swollen jaw muscles of modern crocodiles to generate all those bone-smashing newtons. This is at odds with other reconstructions of Deinonychus, where the jaw muscles do not atypically alter the contours of the face. I don't know how visible expanded, crocodile-like jaw muscles would be on deeply feathered maniraptorans, but reconstructions with sparse or naked faces would certainly need to take this on board. I've had a quick play about with this concept in the conservatively feathered Deinonychus above.

Problem is, Gignac et al.'s conclusions are not uncontested. Biomechanical assessments of Deinonychus jaws have found they were mechanically weak and ill-suited to delivering powerful bites (Therrien et al. 2005; Sakamoto 2010; Fowler et al. 2011). Therrien et al. (2005) estimated Deinonychus bite force at a relatively wimpy 15.7% of alligator jaw power, which Gignac et al. translate into 1450 N. This isn't unimpressive - as strong as that of a 30 kg wolf - but a far cry from an alligator-like bite, and certainly deflates our reconstructed jaw muscles to their traditional size. On the face of it, I certainly find the arguments for weak jaws more convincing. Hyenas and alligators have robust, wide and solidly-built skulls with generous room for jaw muscle placement, whereas the skull of Deinonychus is full of holes, is relatively narrow and slender, and with comparatively little room spaces jaw for muscles.

So, what to do? Jaws with relatively small muscles have been the norm in Deinonychus palaeoart since its discovery, but is it time we changed that? Were their jaws actually visibly and powerfully muscled as inferred by their trace feeding evidence, or is there something missing here? Is it significant that lower estimates of their bite forces match those of animals which can also puncture bone (wolves - see Haynes 1982)? If anyone has anything to add, please let me know...

References

  • Fowler, D. W., Freedman, E. A., Scannella, J. B., & Kambic, R. E. (2011). The predatory ecology of Deinonychus and the origin of flapping in birds. PLoS One, 6(12), e28964.
  • Gignac, P. M., Makovicky, P. J., Erickson, G. M., & Walsh, R. P. (2010). A description of Deinonychus antirrhopus bite marks and estimates of bite force using tooth indentation simulations. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 30(4), 1169-1177.
  • Haynes, G. (1982). Utilization and skeletal disturbances of North American prey carcasses. Arctic, 266-281.
  • Sakamoto, M. (2010). Jaw biomechanics and the evolution of biting performance in theropod dinosaurs. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277(1698), 3327-3333.
  • Therrien, F., Henderson, D. M., & Ruff, C. B. (2005). Bite me: biomechanical models of theropod mandibles and implications for feeding behavior. The carnivorous dinosaurs, 179-237.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Spinosaurus hindlimb controversy: a detailed response from the authors

No-one with an interest in Mesozoic reptiles will have missed the week of controversy following Ibrahim et al.'s (2014) new reconstruction of Spinosaurus. The most important debate has focused on the allegedly reduced Spinosaurus hindlimbs, which are integral to the proposed locomotor and lifestyle hypotheses proposed for the 'new look' animal, but also difficult to reconcile with presented data. Scott Hartman, who's no stranger to producing high-quality skeletal reconstructions, blew this whistle first when he found the reconstructed proportions of the Spinosaurus neotype specimen - a series of vertebrae and hindlimb elements - were questionably scaled against measurements of the bones themselves. Lead author of the Spinosaurus study, Nizar Ibrahim, publicly responded and suggested that the measuring landmarks Scott used in comparing vertebral and hindlimb elements may be wrong. When reviewing the controversy before the weekend, I attempted my own scaling effort, using Nizar's suggested landmarks, but ended up replicating Scott's results almost exactly. I concluded "[s]omething - the original measurements of the specimen or the reconstruction - just doesn't add up, and I suspect the latter, as I figure someone would have owned up to and corrected simple numerical errors in the paper by now."

It turns out that I've got to eat a few of those words. Following my post, Nizar opened a chain of correspondence where I directly asked about these scaling issues. Nizar's response was bringing his coauthor Simone Maganuco into our chat, who had taken the time to demonstrate and describe how the restored vertebral and hindlimb lengths match the dimensions reported in the paper. In his screenshot and email, Simone provided an enlarged view of the restored Spinosaurus trunk and took the time to explain where he thought the alleged scaling errors came from. Appreciating their interest to a wide audience, Simone has kindly allowed me to reproduce his screengrab and email here.

Image courtesy Nizar Ibrahim and Simone Maganuco, used with permission.
Dear Mark,

It is nice to be in touch with you. I am writing to comment briefly on my photoshop image, forwarded by Nizar a couple of hours ago.

I hope it is the key to understand the misunderstanding about the measurements, so I would be really glad to know your opinion about it.

I have tried to replicate the coefficients for scaling obtained by you and Scott Hartman and here is my line of reasoning.

Look at the vertebra D8 in my photoshop image. For convenience, we can focus our attention on the D8 on the left.

The yellow line is 18 "units" (and matches our measurements in the table) but if you include the posteriormost margin of the slanted posterior face and the condyle you have nearly 23 units.

23:18=X:71 where 18 and 71 are also the measurements in cm in the table of the Science paper; 23 units is the length of the whole vertebra in the drawing; and X should be the length of the ilium to match the length of the vertebra in the drawing, if one assumes that the whole vertebra - and not the yellow line - is 18 units, i.e., if one thinks  we used different landmarks and measured the maximum length of the centrum.

The value of X is 90.72  units.

90.72 /71  = 1.27 that is exactly the coefficient for pelvic girdle and hindlimb scaling suggested by Scott @ skeletaldrawing.com to resize the pelvis and the legs to match the size of the D8 vertebra measured with different landmarks (i.e., if 18 is considered the maximum length).

I can see that your coefficient is slightly lower, and I wonder if you have taken slightly lower measurements (it seems to be the case looking at the white lines in your test).

Do you think that this could be the explanation of  what happened?

In the paper, we thought it was better to measure the vertebrae from rim to rim (the rounded margins of the faces), excluding the condyle, and at the same dorsoventral height (because some vertebrae are like parallelograms). It is easier to compare anterior dorsals and posterior dorsals in this way, and it is easier also to compare the centra with those of some specimens not prepared three-dimensionally but preserving well-articulated vertebrae, i.e. specimens in which it is difficult to look at the anterior condyle.

As what concerns the femur, it must be taken into account that there is also a slight perspective effect, because in the digital model it points a bit laterally. i.e., it is not 100% parallel to the sagittal plane.

The misunderstandings generated by the comparison between the figure and the table clearly indicate that we had to indicate our landmarks in one extra figure, or dedicate a couple of lines to this into the text to satisfy the need to compare figure and measurements by people who want to test our skeletal reconstruction.

When I work with palaeoartists to prepare illustrations and flesh-models I also compare figures and measurements, so I can understand this need.

Sometimes there are figures that are not 100% in the view indicated in the caption (also because it is not easy to put a bone in plane!) and sometimes it is difficult to understand the landmarks used to take measurements. What if I were in your shoes? Who knows... but I can understand that the new look of Spinosaurus has unexpected proportions that leads to think that there is something wrong.

In the monograph everything will be more clear because the detailed figures will report measurements directly on the bones, permitting everybody to see the landmarks.

In the meantime, however, I think it is useful to clarify this aspect.

Best wishes,

Simone

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So there we have it: the measurements, landmarks and an image where they can be measured accurately. The latter is especially important because dorsal vertebra 8 in the full restoration is rather small, and thus prone to measuring errors even when measuring landmarks are known. A slip of a few pixels may not seem like much but, because the bone is a tiny component of a huge reconstruction, such minor errors can throw a scaling calibration right off. These risks were identified in Scott's original posts, and it seems they have been borne out. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Scott and I - and others, according to some Facebook chat - found such similar results: this could be coincidence, or it might be that the published reconstruction lends itself to a erroneous interpretation. Either way, there is plenty of food for thought here as goes presentation and reading of reconstruction data. For the record, when attempting to replicate the scaling again, this time on the screenshot, I found my results matched measured values given in Ibrahim et al. (2014) within a few percent. My confidence in the published proportions is thus fully restored.

Hopefully this helps resolve the scaling controversy with the 'Spinosaurus reboot', and the result is much more confidence about the downright weird and remarkable anatomy of this genuinely unusual animal. Thanks to Nizar and Simone for taking the time to explain their work, and allowing me to post their response here.


Reference


  • Ibrahim, N., Sereno, P. C., Dal Sasso, C., Maganuco, S., Fabbri, M., Martill, D. M., Zouhri, S. Myhrvold, N. & Iurino, D. A. (2014). Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur. Science, 1258750.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The 'Spinosaurus reboot': sailing in stormy waters

UPDATE: 21/09/14: Following chats with Nizar Ibrahim and Simone Maganuco, it appears the Spinosaurus 2014 saga has another twist to take concerning the controversy over the revised hindlimb proportions. I'd rather write about it in a comprehensive fashion when I have the time (hopefully tomorrow) and am hoping to deliver some definitive, knock-out information from the authors which puts this controversy to bed. Bear this in mind before you read the following...

ANOTHER UPDATE: 22/09/2014: Read this.

Are depictions of Spinosaurus like this now redundant? Answer: who knows? After weeks of anticipation and teased images, the 'new look' Spinosaurus has met a sceptical reception from academics and the online palaeontology community, and they've not kept their opinions quiet.
One thing is clear a week after the 'Spinosaurus reboot' (a phrase coined by Mickey Mortimer) was revealed amidst a furore of academic and media swirl: Spinosaurus c. 2014 has not met the warmest reception from the palaeontological community. A sceptical tone, sometimes very openly so, can be seen in numerous articles from the first popular science write-ups to articles penned by professional palaeontologists. As we all know by now, the primary concerns centre around Ibrahim et al.'s (2014) new Spinosaurus aegyptiacus reconstruction, which Brian Switek describes as a 'hodgepodge [of] different dinosaurs... the new subadult skeleton, digital representations of the original and long-lost Spinosaurus bones, vertebrae and hands that may or may not belong to Spinosaurus, as well as replacement parts from an assortment of spinosaurs'. Allegations have been made that scaling errors are responsible for the unusual new bauplan rather than an unprecedented lifestyle, with the allegedly tiny legs being far more proportionate once the scaling problem is addressed. These undermine the credibility of the furthest reaching claims of the authors - theropod quadrupedality and a lifestyle/locomotory strategy akin to early whales. Two widely shared and commented blog articles on this topic over at Scott Hartman's Skeletaldrawing.com have cast enough doubt over the new reconstruction that the Spinosaurus 2014 authors publicly responded to the criticism, but the reply is really just a holding message. Other than pointing out well known problems of measuring images rather than fossils (which, to be honest, are unlikely to produce the large scaling problems levelled at the paper), the message is essentially 'all will be clear in an upcoming Spinosaurus monograph'*.

*For what it's worth, I took five minutes to measure up the new Spinosaurus skeletal restoration myself following Nizar Ibrahim's measuring instructions for dorsal vertebra 8, just to see if I could make head-or-tail of the debate. Differences in measuring landmarks were chalked up as being a potential problem, so I measured the ilium and femur blind to other methods, instead using whatever landmarks were most intuitive. For both the ilium and femur lengths, I arrived at almost identical scaling errors to Scott, and the legs should - according to the data in the paper - be c. 25-27% larger in the reconstruction. Something - the original measurements of the specimen or the reconstruction - just doesn't add up, and I suspect the latter, as I figure someone would have owned up to and corrected simple numerical errors in the paper by now. My working is below.

Independent test of the alleged hindlimb proportion issues in the new-look Spinosaurus. Skeletal reconstruction from Ibrahim et al. (2014); see Skeletaldrawing.com for the posts inspiring this test, especially this and this.
The controversy extends much further than just scaling, however. Across other articles, multiple issues have been raised including the incorporation of isolated spinosaur elements and other taxa to a single Spinosaurus reconstruction; whether all the material used in the reconstruction is of spinosaurid origin (e.g. this humerus); the likelihood for theropod quadrupedality (remember that we don't know anything concrete about Spinosaurus forelimbs: there is really nothing to suggest quadrupedality in this animal other than its alleged proportions); the authors taking too much credit for the 'semi-aquatic hypothesis'; the suitability of their journal choice and the somewhat ambiguous circumstances surrounding the provenance of the new material. And this is to say nothing of the extensive discussion on social media, much of which revolves around the same topics. This is not to say the Internet is hating on Ibrahim et al. (2014) - I think the pieces linked to here are balanced, reasoned critiques, not slanderous attacks - and, before anyone asks, I'm not saying I agree with, or even have opinions on a lot of these issues. The point here is that the 'Spinosaurus reboot' has experienced a very bumpy, almost slightly hostile landing.

The response to the Spinosaurus reboot is of some interest. Controversial, questionably-supported claims are made in palaeontology all the time, but they don't get the online palaeontology community anywhere near as riled as Spinosaurus has in the last seven days. Ibrahim et al. (2014) clearly hit a nerve, perhaps because they have inadvertently created a 'perfect storm' for scientific backlash.

At the heart of the storm is a data vacuum about Spinosaurus - an odd state to be in seeing as we're now meant to have a good idea what it looked like. The main discussion about Spinosaurus in the last week has been methodological: that is, trying to figure out how the new reconstruction has been put together. This is because the paper lacks essential details concerning how the 'hodgepodge' of spinosaur bits were scaled to size or identified as Spinosaurus aegyptiacus in the first place. In skipping these details readers are left guessing - and discussing - how the proportions were ascertained and whether they are trustworthy. That people would want to know this was predictable: you can't propose a radical notion like a famous theropod being a semi-aquatic quadruped, even converging on whale ancestors, without academics, enthusiasts and dinosaur nerds wanting to know more. While the paper does have plenty of good data, it lacks transparent methods and discussions where it counts, leading readers to make their own tests and discoveries. Lest we forget, people like talking about dinosaurs online at technical levels, and it's only natural that blogging software and social media is being fired up to discuss these revelations. It's quite likely that there'd be less fuss made if the paper stood on sounder methodological ground but, ultimately, controversy sells, in part because the continual uncovering of new information and scientific debate makes for good copy.

Compounding this effect is the star of the show: Spinosaurus itself. By now, Spinosaurus has to be one of the most popular dinosaurs of all. It's the one widely known theropod to have a size advantage over Tyrannosaurus, has starred in a couple of big movies and documentaries, is undeniably cool looking, is a bit 'alternative' as dinosaurs go... for lots of reasons, it's a major dinosaur celebrity. Even among po-faced academics, the sheer size and unusual anatomy of Spinosaurs means most - probably even guys who work on brachiopods - find it a little bit more interesting than usual. Any publication on this animal is guaranteed a good amount of casual interest, but one where the animal is almost completely reinvented will send the online palaeontology community into overdrive. Did anyone else have to wait for the Science website to stop crashing when the embargo was lifted last week? I'd be interested to see how riled the internet palaeontology community got if someone questionably reconstructed a small ornithischian. For contrast, consider that the publication of another dinosaur with a radical lifestyle - the burrowing dinosaur Oryctodromeus - ruffled relatively few feathers when it was published, despite it's PR. I remember most discussion of it on the Dinosaur Mailing List concerning the formulation of its name.

Driving the storm is the considerable hype surrounding the paper, which bears little resemblance to traditional scientific press releases and is more akin to the launch of a summer blockbuster. 'Surrounding' is the right word, too, as tantalising glimpses of the new reconstruction were online weeks before the paper's release, foreshadowing the avalanche of 'official' art, articles, and videos which would follow. There are documentaries, a tie-in exhibition in Washington DC, press conferences and lectures. You'd think Spinosaurus and its wranglers were rock stars. I mean, can you name one other palaeontological PR event which needs dry ice?

The popular side of this release has been a resounding success, which - whatever you think of science being spun as a media event of this kind - is certainly well earned. In concert with National Geographic, Ibrahim et al. (2014) have put on a very slick, professional show with some wonderful art and graphics, and they've certainly made it difficult to miss. But publicity can be polarising, not to mention difficult to steer. It seems the PR for Spinosaurus 2014 has somewhat backfired in the palaeoblogosphere, the conspicuous, sensational nature of the story encouraging interested minds to investigate and test, and ultimately question the findings at the core of the hype. I expect the extensive publicity surrounding a widely-questioned paper also brings a faint sense of irritation to some, prompting them to advertise the fact that the conclusions are not as watertight as the documentaries, exhibition and magazine covers indicate. Whereas other studies with problematic conclusions would slip away into the literature to be discussed within the closed confines of scientific journals, Spinosaurus 2014 cannot hide easily: the advertising and publicity for this paper is keeping the controversy relevant and prompting more responses. I do wonder what National Geographic, presumably footing the bill for all this press work, are making of the frosty scientific response to Spinosaurus 2014.

Between the data vacuum of a radical new proposal, a megastar fossil animal and persistent reminders of a controversial study, it's hardly surprising that the online palaeo community has spent the week giving the Spinosaurus reboot a good grilling. What does the future hold? With the promise of a Spinosaurus monograph, we can be sure that there will be more discussion eventually, but, more realistically, the next major ripples will follow response papers. Some authors are already in talks about this and - given what's been demonstrated online already - there are strong cases to be made against the main hypothesis of the Spinosaurus reboot. Is a rebuttal article appropriate with another paper on the way? Yes, entirely, because we have to work with data which is available and test the hypotheses presented to us. In this case, the new-look Spinosaurus and the many implications made about its habits have been quickly questioned - deemed irreproducible, even - by a number of scientists, and this should be 'formalised' as a genuine concern about the initial paper. The upshot, of course, is that the eventual monograph will have to take this into account, which should make for a stronger publication, and hopefully an improved understanding of Spinosaurus itself.

I can't help think that there are a few causalities from the last week, not least being the good new data in Ibrahim et al. (2014), such as Spinosaurus weirdly tetradactyl feet, unusually short femur and dense bones (Ibrahim et al. 2014). What do these mean, in light of the hindlimb scaling controversy? Is the long first toe more to do with spreading weight than creating a flipper? Are the thickened bone walls more to do with relocating the centre of gravity than swimming? There are interesting discussions to be had there, but they've been overshadowed by other details. Also, scaling issues or not, I imagine the 'dachshund' Spinosaurus is here to stay for a while, so we can look forward to having to downplay confidence about the new reconstruction of Spinosaurus for the foreseeable future. It's very doubtful that the press will be interested in a story about the uncertainty over a new paper, nor is National Geographic likely to replace the legs on its Spinosaurus model with question marks. This is a constant bugbear of working within science of course: the media is interested in new and exciting discoveries, but has virtually zero attention span for scientific debate.

Finally, is there anything to learn from this? For me, the message is that while publicity is largely about presenting conclusions and results, we can't just assume our audiences are passive. Particularly if you're discussing a fan-favourite species (and let's face it, 'fans' here includes a good number of vertebrate palaeontologists), people remain just as interested in what you've done as what you conclude, and omitting those details leaves papers, and those associated with them, vulnerable to misunderstandings and criticism. As demonstrated this week, even the combined might of Spinosaurus and its PR campaign is not immune to this: when the world's largest theropod took a bite out of the Internet, it was bitten right back.

Reference


  • Ibrahim, N., Sereno, P. C., Dal Sasso, C., Maganuco, S., Fabbri, M., Martill, D. M., Zouhri, S. Myhrvold, N. & Iurino, D. A. (2014). Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur. Science, 1258750.