Monday, 2 April 2018

What's in a name?

Twitter has recently had many scientists highlighting the first species they have named (#Myfirstspecies). I am yet to get such a privilege, although got awfully close with finding a new fish species for India.

Whilst we all know a lot of species by their common names, in science we have been using a two part (binomial) naming system officially since Carl Linnaeus in 1753. These include things like Tyrannosaurus rex (T. rex), Felis catus (domestic cat), or Gorilla gorilla (Western gorilla). On a computer they are italicised and the first name (genus) is capitalised whilst the second (species) name is always lower case. If hand-written we underline both names beacuse italicising is tricky in handwriting. Sometimes a subspecies name also exists e.g. Gorilla gorilla gorilla (Western lowland gorilla) as opposed to Gorilla gorilla diehli (Cross River gorilla).

So why do we have this system for naming? It was a way to standardise all naming as previously we may have had many common names for different species. My favourite crazy example concerns the largest deer species from North America and Europe. What is an elk, and moose? In Europe (at least to Brits), an elk is what North Americans would call a moose (Alces alces), whilst an elk/wapati (Cervus canadensis) to North Americans is a smaller species of deer resembling a European red deer (Cervus elaphus).

Cervus canadensis. By MONGO - Own work, Public Domain,
Alces alces. By USDA Forest Service -, Public Domain,
Cervus elephas. By Lviatour - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

So we in science have done away with common names for our sanity and stick to binomial names in publications. Usually the binomial names indicate something about the animal, e.g. C. canadensis from Canada (well N. America, but you get the idea), the discoverer/person who contributed to the field e.g. Lambeosaurus (after Lawrence Lambe who did a lot of work in Canada and on the genus before its naming), or something interesting/distinct about the animal e.g. Dilophosaurus (two-crested lizard - after the two ridges running down its skull) and Maiasaura (good mother lizard - as hatchlings were found in nesting colonies), but the naming can be as wild or weird as the naming people want as long as it follows certain rules (e.g. the name isn't already in use, you've correctly joined all the bits of the name depending on the language used - this is why its the feminine Latin Maiasaura rather than Maiasaurus, you can't name it after yourself etc. etc.).

I don't know if this is the case for everyone, but below are some names that have stuck with me for all sorts of reasons:

1. Scrotum humanum - Plot, 1677. Technically this is no longer a valid binomial name as it fell out of common usage before 1900 (the cutoff for a lot of old names), but this was actually the first binomial name given to a dinosaur (and before Linnaeus got around to standardising binomial naming). Now known as Megalosaurus bucklandii. The naming is perhaps not surprising when you see the figure below, but it is actually the broken bottom end of a femur. I'm kind of hoping someone revives this name.

Figure from The Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677). Taken from 
2. Nqwebasaurus thwazi - de Klerk et al., 2000. This dinosaur name is a proper mouthful, but not how it looks. The Nq is actually a "click" sound from the southern African Xhosa tribe. I sadly have never heard anyone pronounce it correctly at a conference and most talk about it in the anglicised version where it is said as it spelt.

3. Tianchisaurus nedegoapeferima - Dong, 1993. The genus name here isn't the reason for loving the name, it is the species name. The jumbled nedegoapeferima are the first two letters of the original cast of Jurassic Park's surnames (except Attenborough who only got the A): Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello. Added factoid is that the genus name was originally Jurassosaurus by Spielberg himself who funded the Chinese dig, but that name did not stick. Whilst not unique in being a species named after a celebrity, it may be the one named after the most!

4. Mei long -Xu & Norell, 2004.  Whilst originally most species were named using Latin, as you can see from the above examples this is no longer the case with other languages such as Chinese becoming commonly used. Mei is a favourite just because the binomial name means "sleeping dragon" and was named because the dinosaur was found with its head behind an arm like modern birds.
Mei long. Figure from Xu & Norell, 2004.
5. Protoceratops andrewsi - Granger & Gregory, 1923. This is the answer I give to the question "which is my favourite dinosaur?" after T. rex. The reason? My name appears in it. Well actually the famous Roy Chapman Andrews name appears in it, but I'm taking it for now. Roy Chapman Andrews was a very interesting person. Thinking that humans originated in east Asia, he led expeditions to Mongolia where he would go on to discover an enormous wealth of dinosaurs, and the first dinosaur eggs. His expeditions may also have provided the inspiration for Indiana Jones.

I went and picked some other people's heads to so you didn't just get a list of funny dinosaurs names (although there are still a lot on here).

1. Zanabazar junior - Barsbold, 1974 (Genus was Norell et al., 2009). Alessandro Chiarenza's choice because of the great sounding name, which actually derives its name from the first Tibetan Buddhist figurehead Zanabazar.

2. Irritator challengeri - Martill et al., 1996. Ryan Felice's choice due to the name being an apt description of the difficulties of fieldwork. The name comes from the specimen being illegally collected and "enhanced" with plaster with Irritator specifically "from irritation, the feeling the authors felt (understated here) when discovering that the snout had been artificially elongated."

3. Babyrousa babyrussa - Linnaeus, 1758. Amber Collings' choice as the common name is the Buru babirusa (Buru being the island it is native to and babirusa being the name for the pig-like animals). Just for the mess of a brain tease it is, none of the names are the same, so best of luck remembering it all!

4. Vampyroteuthis infernalis - Chun, 1903. Mary Offutt's choice as the name literally means the vampire squid from hell. What's not to like?

5. Ninjemys oweni - Woodward 1881 (Genus was Gaffney, 1992). One of Thomas Haliday's choices for the reason for the Ninjemys genus name was created by Gaffney: "Ninja, in allusion to that totally rad, fearsome foursome epitomizing shelled success; emys, turtle". I think we all accept that we are nerds...

6. Yi qi - Xu et al., 2015. Another of Thomas' choices.This is a crazy dinosaur with bat like wings and also holds what may well be the shortest binomial name.

7. Dicraeosaurus sattleri - Janensch, 1914. Franzi Sattler's choice. Apparently it is "the best sauropod." I don't think I need to elaborate on why as it is less tenuous than the P. andrewsi I went for...

8. Turdus migratorius - Linnaeus, 1766. Catherine Early's undergraduate course choice. Mainly for the genus name giving her, and most people, a good chuckle. Poor American robin.

There are countless more that probably deserve to be elaborated on that have been discussed. Feel free to check out these: the fungus Spongiforma squarepantsii, the moth Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, the horse fly Scaptia beyonceae, the 19 (as of 2017) species named after Sir David Attenborough, the hundreds named after Alexander von Humboldt (if you don't know much about him, I thoroughly recommend reading "The Invention of Nature" by Andrea Wulf), or the countless other species with names that actually are informative about the animal or where it was found.

Hopefully binomial naming makes as much sense as it is going to. If you want to get a proper brain melt, oology (study of eggs), or at least for the fossils, has a similar binomial system that does not link to the species that laid them (if that is even known), as does ichnology (trace fossils). In fact ichnology may have multiple "Genus species" names for different steps as part of an trackway depending on the sediments (e.g. if the animal goes from wet to dry) despite it being a single maker.

If you have any good ones, please do comment!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Argentina 2018: Patagonian adventures

I've recently returned from my most recent field work excursion, again to Argentina. However. this time I was not with Anjali, but with Alejandro Otero with whom we are currently collaborating on a project on Mussaurus as part of the DawnDinos research that I am a part of. As such I would not be returning to Salta Province, I would be heading much further south. To Patagonia.

Flights from London to Trelew took the better part of 30hrs (including layovers in Rome and Buenos Aires), and when I touched down in Trelew I had flown about 8500 miles/13700 km.

Thankfully it all went off without a hitch and my bag rapidly arrived in an amazing little airport filled with dinosaurs and fossils.

Baggage claim
Dinosaur diorama
Some of the vertebrate fossils
This is due to the local museum, the Museo Paleontol√≥gico Egidio Feruglio (MEF for short) being one of the primary tourist attractions in the city. The MEF may not mean much to you, but you probably will have heard about its star dinosaur, Patagotitan (also known as the biggest dinosaur in the world and co-star in Attenborough and the giant dinosaur). Patagotitan is an enormous dinosaur belonging to the sauropod family, which also includes things like Diplodocus (as in Dippy from the Natural History Museum), Brachiosaurus etc. which are all famous for their large sizes, and highly elongated necks and tails. Patagotitan is just crazily big (photo with me and its leg here taken inside the MEF), and the American Museum of Natural History in New York has a great mount with its body in one hall, and its head popping out into the next corridor (photo of me with it here). If you are in the USA and want to see one, a newer (apparently more accurate mount) is appearing in the near-ish future in Chicago at the Field Museum in the main hall where SUE the T. rex used to be on display.
The house of the grand dinosaur. They are building an extension to the museum to house Patagotitan.
The MEF also happened to be home base for most of the equipment, the technician (Mariano), and Diego Pol (also a collaborator on our project, who would join us later in the trip), so it was here that I would go after dropping my bag into a hotel room for the night to help load the vehicle for the trip. In fact most of the equipment is stored in an amazing old factory/warehouse where wool used to be processed. Now it is home to Patagotitan bones, many moulds, and the casts that are going into making the new Chicago mount.

Patagotitan vertebrae moulds, with the wool processing machines in the background
Alejandro, Mariano and I loaded the vehicle, got an early night, and were on the road at 7am the next day. We drove from Trelew southbound, first through fairly flat plains dominated by yellow grasses, and small bushes ranging from greens to dried out browns and purples. The roads here are regularly lined with rhea (known locally as nandu or choique), guanacos (llama relatives), and tinamous.

Awful picture of a rhea
There is a fox here (promise)

As you approach Comodoro, the flat plains disappear into hills and gulleys as you drop down onto the coast and continue to Caleta Olivia and cross from Chubut Province into Santa Cruz Province. The 3 highway from Comodoro to Caleta Olivia (and the bit just beyond) may be one of the most beautiful coastal roads (we had nice relatively nice weather, suspect in winter it would be less beautiful) and we saw a range of birds, sea lions on the beach and whale spouts in the distance. Another hundred or so kilometres down the road we got to Tres Cerros which was the last spot for internet, paved roads, and true running water we would see before we turned off onto some dirt roads.

Another couple of hours, including brief moments spotting foxes and armadillos, and we hit the estancia we were staying at, which whilst basic, still had rooms we stayed in (sleeping bags on the floor style), gas burners for cooking, fresh water, and a toilet flushed by buckets of water. Not bad really. This was base camp for the next 12 days. The next day we were joined by 3 others (Adriana Mancuso, Claudia Marsicano, and Roger Smith) who had worked on the site in 2012/2013 when it had last been visited.

Cannot fault the sunrises and sunsets in Patagonia
We were working in an area known as El Tranquilo (The Tranquil). The locations are all Triassic/Jurassic in age, and have plant fossils above and below (actually the reason the sites were found back in the 1950s/60s), with basal sauropodomoprhs being the dominant vertebrate fossils. Sauropodomorphs is the larger family which includes sauropods (long necks and tails return), but includes some earlier forms that tend to have shorter necks and are much smaller (previously known as the prosauropods). In El Tranquilo the main sauropodomorph is Mussaurus. The site is home to a full growth series from eggs to adults, but the first individuals found were the young ones ranging from hatchlings to juveniles. It is these young ones that were the inspiration for the name Mussaurus which translates as mouse lizard (due to the small size of the little ones).

Over the next two days we would focus on one of the sites where a skeleton had previously been excavated (the hole is still very visible) and prospected, with finds of bits of skull, a new partial skeleton, some bits of eggs and plenty of plant fossils.

Plant fossil
Plant fossils
Bits of two articulated vertebrae
We moved onto another location that was also well known where there was an abundance of fossil bones, several nests of eggs, and a beautiful 3D skull (you'll just have to wait for this one, and it is worth it).

Fossil egg shell
Rhea egg shell
Bits of dinosaur bone
In between walking through the fossil rich areas, you would regularly come across stone tools (scrapers, debitage-the unwanted flakes produced during stone working, and even an arrowhead).

Whilst in the field we were joined by Paul Sereno and a group of his friends from Oklahoma who were doing a motorbike trip from Chile down to the southern tip of Argentina. In return they very kindly brought us beer (in a suitcase full of ice). After a week of not having any cold food/drinks due to our fridge/freezer not working, a cold beer was amazing. They were an interesting group from a range of walks of life, with some having bought a large area of land that has dinosaur fossils and actively engaging young Native Americans (who are typically really under represented at university and in higher degrees) and teaching them about the land/natural history. The group was back on the road the next morning and the rest of us returned to the field.

The team out in the field
Over the next few days more bits were found, but most of the areas seemed prospected out. As such a few people continued to prospect, whilst Ale, Mariano and I returned to an old skeleton that had been winter jacketed a few years ago. Basically a plaster/burlap jacket was made over the top of the exposed skeleton to protect it from the elements and it was left in the field to be collected. We dug around the skeleton exposing the limits where a few ribs extended the previously jacketed limit, then trenched around the whole area, and then re-jacketed it.

Successful workers
Inevitably this was the final day, and the last hours went quickly. As we got ready to take a photo of the group before heading off, Diego was found lying on the ground in an area we had prospected past several times (as had the field trips years before). Typically he had done the usual thing and found one of the best fossils right at the end, in this case a nest of eggs, with tiny embryonic bones in at least one of the eggs. Whilst not the first at the site, it didn't make it any less amazing to see!

The rest of the day went by in a hurry as everything was packed and we had our final asado (Argentine BBQ/grill) with the locals who owned/maintained the estancia. Then it was up bright and early and on the road at 7am for the long return back to Trelew, getting back in at 7pm and getting into the hotel to have a proper shower. First one since leaving Trelew to go to the field (ignoring 2 buckets of water and some baby wipes), and it took a few rinses to finally get all the dirt out. Ale and I had dinner in the old hotel in town and got an early night. The next day we unloaded all of the equipment and fossils from the dig, and then I got to have an explore around the museum. What an awesome little museum!

Main dinosaur hall of the MEF with various sauropods, the Patagotitan leg (left) and Giganotosaurus dominating the middle
Then it was onto a plane, another plane, another plane and I was back in snowy England at 11pm, trying to clear immigration and customs before jumping the last cab to leave Terminal 4 at Heathrow and get home sometime just before 1.

S. Atlantic from Trelew
Buenos Aires at night
Snowy touchdown in London

It was a great trip and I've been invited again, although I am not sure when they will next be doing a big explore there (although bones were found in some new rocks on the last day that need more searching). Patagonia is beautiful, and the food, drinks and people are always amazing. If you ever get the chance to go, do it, although maybe skip the 12 hour drives!

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Caution: Animals may bite

So the past 6 months have been absolutely manic as many people may have known. For those of you who don't know the reason, it was possibly the worst kept secrets at the vet college. Crocodiles, Nile crocodiles. We had been working with a group of them trying to understand their locomotion across a range of behaviours (see the project website here). What this actually means is we had been trying to get crocodiles to walk, run, turn and jump in a runway or a treadmill (all work fully approved of by both the RVC in-house ethics board, and the UK Home Office). During these activities we were looking at the crocodiles' movements, and to get the best insights we used a combination of light videos, X-rays (to look at how the bones move during locomotion), force plates (to measure the forces exerted by the crocodiles on the ground as they move) and EMG (electromyography - measures muscle activity by measuring their electrical activity).

And when I am talking about working with crocodiles, everyone instantly thinks of the famously enormous ones in the Masai Mara taking on wildebeest. It leads to an abundance of concern (the health and safety people had a field day), which is obviously healthy to have around animals that have dozens of teeth and eat meat. Let me allay fears now, or reduce how impressed you are about my awesomeness as the new Crocodile Dundee, these crocodiles were all small (all less than 2m and 7.5kg, with most less than 4kg). Why would we pick small ones? Besides the health and safety, and the difficulty in working and housing large crocodiles, small crocodiles actually exhibit a wide range of locomotor behaviours, including low walking/belly sliding, high walks, trotting/galloping, jumping, and climbing (ours regularly were found in the foliage added to their enclosures). As crocodiles get bigger, they are unable to perform some of the higher energy behaviours due to their increased weight .
One of the crocodiles looking out of the straight runway through an acrylic end
Crocodile showing off a high walk. Force plates just visible below the crocodile's neck, and the two X-ray systems receiving drums visible in the background.

Our work with them has now ended, and in the end we have something like 150 hours of working with the crocodiles and have collected some incredible data. There will be many months of analysing it, writing papers, and then combining the data into digital models of an "average" crocodile.

X-ray picture of a crocodile skull
However, it was not all smooth sailing. Working with animals is incredibly difficult (see post on felid field work), let alone mostly aquatic animals who tend to enjoy dominance in their environments. This means motivating them to walk (or run) on demand can be difficult. Or often, impossible. As such, we often had hours of crocodiles being nothing more than angry lumps refusing to do anything. This leads to great videos of stationary crocodiles, and increasingly delirious conversations between the people present.

For our data collection we also needed to move the crocodiles regularly from their enclosures to the research area, which undoubtedly meant lots of handling crocodiles. We were trained by crocodile experts in how to handle crocodiles safely (more for our safety than the crocs I think). Inevitably, I was the one who got it wrong one day trying to tape the jaws of our smallest crocodile shut (in the oral history of this story, she was far bigger, and I may have been doing some heroic act to save some small child). The tape slipped and the croc did what crocs do, and bit the nearest thing. Just this time it happened to be my finger. 
All taped up, finger still attached. The healed picture is even more disappointing so wasn't worth showing
No major damage (think cat bite), just a few punctures and a nice cut across the top of my finger which will leave a memorable scar. I had to go to the hospital to get it cleaned up and get my antibiotics. Funnily they had run out of tetanus jabs (in a walk in centre for minor injuries no less), and it has led to health and safety having to write a bunch of new forms (oops).

I have to say this was one of the more interesting and most frustrating parts of my career. However, the work continues on new things! Keep an eye out on the blog for future updates on our research, and crocodile updates.