Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Welcome to Jurassic Park 4?


Unless you’ve been so far out in the field that you haven’t been able to receive the latest news via the blogosphere and media news pages, then you will know that Steven Spielberg has announced plans for Jurassic Park 4. Spielberg made the announcement during the San Diego Comic-Con and was quoted as saying:

“We have a story. We have a writer who is writing the treatment and hopefully we are going to make Jurassic Park 4 in all our foreseeable futures, hopefully in the next two or three years.”

The first thing to say here is that I wouldn’t hold your breath because JP4 has always been two or three years in the making since JP3 was released way back in 2001. The rumour mill has been rife throughout the following ten years with all sorts of possible story lines, directors and actors – all of which have turned out to be meaningless rumour. But assuming that Spielberg is true to his word, then we can expect another film in the franchise around 2014 which will almost certainly add to the significant global takings by the other three films of $1.9 billion and will no doubt be swelled yet again by the trilogy being released on Blu-ray for the first time later this year.

What has surprised me, however, is the amount of people demonstrating their opposition to the film being made at all, and that is without the criticism of the project that has been demonstrated on social networking sites, blogs and also by the paleocommunity at sites such as the DML. I understand people wanting to protect the legend of the original Jurassic Park but it was inevitable that sequels would be made and that the franchise would escalate. Incidentally, I don’t think the sequels were bad films anyway – they were good fun and entertained people, which brings me too the main point of this post.

The central focus for the anti-JP4 group seems to be the fact that the films were not and will not be scientifically accurate despite the fact that there have been some superb consultants involved from day one including palaeontologists such as Jack Horner. When the original Jurassic Park was released back in 1993, the standard of the effects, attention to detail and scientific accuracy was unmatched – at that time. Subsequently the film was methodically scrutinised and taken apart by both expert and amateur alike and it seemed that, all of a sudden, the film that broke the mould was considered flawed.

By the time JP2 was ready for release the critics were waiting with their sharpened knives in hand, ready to get stuck into it and, unfortunately, the film gave them plenty of ammunition. The biggest concerns at that point were that the raptors were still featherless since the first dinosaur fossils with feathers were already being recovered in China. There’s something about dromaeosaurids portrayed without feathers that really annoys some people – and I mean annoy!

When JP3 went into production it was already being ripped to bits as snippets of information regarding the script leaked out. The film makers were on a hiding to nothing as far as some people were concerned and, despite doing good box office business, the film left a little to be desired as far as some critics were concerned. Although the raptors in JP3 did sport some quills, this was by no means enough.

Now that JP4 has been announced (again) the knives are out once more and you have to ask the question – why? Some people seem to forget that the Jurassic Park movies are made to entertain the public at large – entertain, not to be as scientifically accurate as possible although we would all like to see the situation improve. Not that it would matter if it was accurate since our science is moving so rapidly these days the chances are that a scientifically perfect Jurassic Park would be obsolete within 24 months.

Now I would love these films to be as scientifically accurate as the next man but I accept that this is unlikely because these films are being made to entertain the public at large. Time is money and I suspect that scientific accuracy is somewhat down the priorities list when it comes to getting the film finished and on public release. Even then, these films are a quantum leap better than anything else made and you cannot help but be impressed by the sheer scale and the standard of special effects.

Do I have issues with the Jurassic Park series? Well of course I do and if I am to be pinned down to one inaccuracy it would have to be the Spinosaurus / T.rex conflict in JP3 – not good. That might have worked if the film makers had not depicted the T.rex holding the spinosaur by the neck in its jaws and letting go with absolutely no after affects. In reality the power of the tyrannosaurs jaws would almost have certainly mashed the neck to pulp, perhaps even decapitated it. There would have been no fight to be honest.

The other issue that needs to be raised is that I find it difficult that people see fit to criticise a movie for not being accurate when nearly every single “serious” documentary on television is so often inaccurate, sensationalistic, repetitive and downright misleading. I am always critical of documentary’ s that portray possibility and theory as fact since that is misleading the public in every sense of the word. Most people are not bothered when they are watching the Jurassic Park series since they are at the cinema for the ride – except for us palaeo-types of course!


Come on everyone, film entertainment is exactly that – entertainment. Let’s try and not take them too seriously and enjoy them for what they are. Perhaps when all the serious documentaries are correct then we may have an argument to concentrate on getting the movies right. Incidentally, the two new big television dinosaur documentaries are not too far from broadcasting now and both Planet Dinosaur and Dinosaur Revolution are looking the part. Let’s hope the science is equally as good as the CGI.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Why IS it so Hard to Believe in Gregarious Tyrannosaurids?


The recent documentary Dino Gangs has met with the usual mixed reaction. The general opinion appears to be that the program (in the UK) was too long by at least an hour and suffered the usual mix of repetitiveness and also that the amount of CGI used was excessive. Still, any new programme on dinosaurs is always welcome and Phil Currie is very watchable.

When discussing the programme with Mark Graham, a colleague of mine, and the newly appointed preparator at the Natural History Museum in London, Mark made a comment which made me take a step back and do a little thinking. He said “How is it that pack hunting in dromaeosaurids seems to be generally accepted but whenever pack hunting is suggested for tyrannosaurids there is always a huge outcry declaring it unlikely?” Good point.

The focus in Dino Gangs is too concentrated on pack hunting tyrannosaurs – something akin to pack hunting in today’s extant mammal populations and yet it is wrong to compare. Don Henderson remarked that the dinosaurian brain was small and relatively underdeveloped when compared to mammals. His observation that "I doubt the thought would cross their tiny reptilian brains" when discussing the possibility of co-ordinated pack hunting tyrannosaurs is probably correct. And yet we should not be too dismissive about the possibility.

It was interesting, however, that throughout the programme, there was not one dissenting voice arguing against tyrannosaurs displaying ANY gregarious behaviour – not one. I accept that the onus was on pack hunting but never the less, perhaps we can take this that there has been a slow acceptance that tyrannosaurs (and other theropods) did gather together for an unspecified amount of time even if it was only briefly, to mate or perhaps to sort out territorial disputes.

Looking at the fossil evidence, there are now many examples of bone beds that contain the associated remains of multiple theropods. Multiple, it should be mentioned, may actually be only two animals but generally speaking when recovering predatory dinosaurs, two is indeed a bone bed. The most famous in recent years is the Albertosaurus bonebed in Alberta, which we now know contains the remains of at least 12 individuals although there are revised figures suggesting more than 20 individuals are represented . There are, however, other examples of tyrannosaurid bonebeds that include the taxa Tyrannosaurus, Tarbosaurus, and Daspletosaurus.

Other theropods found in bonebeds ranging throughout the Mesozoic include Coelophysis in the Triassic, Saurophaganax in the Jurassic and Mapusaurus in the Cretaceous (for an extensive list see Currie 2010). Other evidence for theropods perhaps living in groups includes what I consider to be some of the most compelling evidence and that is the fossilised trackways that are found worldwide. Some of these display tracks of multiple individuals moving together in a uniform direction and which, significantly, do not overlap thus indicating the likelihood that the animals were walking or running together. You also have to bear in mind that other related dinosaurs such as hadrosaurs and ceratopsians have also been found in mass bonebeds containing hundreds, even thousands of individuals. So there is significant fossil evidence that is suggestive that tyrannosaurs did cohabit for an unspecified amount of time.

Moving on to phylogenetic inferance using the extant phylogenetic bracket. Dinosaurs fall between crocodiles and birds and, by inferance alone, can suggest something about the behaviour in theropods, indeed dinosaurs as a whole.

Crocodiles often live together in large numbers but this is not strictly a communal group and is more often than not just an area where they happen to be together usually due to environmental conditions. But at certain times of the year they do gather together in vast numbers to intercept migrating herds of wildebeest and zebra. However they do not pack hunt and prey animals are taken by individuals but the dismembering is very much a joint effort. The seething mass of animals that bite, hold and twist the carcass apart looks as primitive as it gets and yet it is a very efficient way for a number of animals to share the spoils around a large number of animals.

Crocodiles also display amazing courtship, parental care and even a deftness of touch that can be almost regarded as genteel. Courtship is surprisingly complex and includes bubble blowing, slapping the water and vocalising before coupling takes place. The nest of eggs, once laid, is protected by the female and when the hatchlings appear the young are actually carried to nursery pools in the jaws of the female and they benefit from the protection of the mother for a further period of time.

Crocodiles are often imagined to be slow moving, dim witted, cold blooded animals that are throwbacks to the time of the dinosaurs. Well, they outlived the dinosaurs and continue to thrive, often in extreme conditions and are actually a very successful and complex animal. This brings us to the birds.

Birds (which are, of course, surviving avian theropods) also live and breed together in sometimes enormous numbers. In fact the birds often play the numbers game with great success since the more of your fellow birds you breed with, live with or fly with the greater your chances of survival for you and your young are. Birds also display high degrees of courtship and parental care and include some of the most amazing displays of ritual, nest building and care on the planet.

Birds are also known to hunt in groups and, again, complex behaviour is often displayed. Harris hawks hunt in small groups of two to six birds to maximise their chances of a successful hunt in desert terrain. Boobies and gannets also display both visual and oral communication combined with superb diving techniques in often large numbers, again to maximise their efficiency in catching fish. Vultures are very adept in spotting carcasses on the ground and also use their excellent eyesight to spot when one of their number has found such a carcass and join in on the feast almost immediately.

So what about dinosaurs other than theropods? I’ve already highlighted that many species of dinosaur have been found together in large numbers in vast bonebeds. Although these too are studied intensively, there is more acceptance that animals such as ceratopsians and hadrosaurs moved around in large numbers and herds. The numbers of animals in some sites defies belief and that in itself is a huge pointer to gregarious animals moving together.

Of course just why they were moving together cannot be wholly explained because extinct animals and their behaviour cannot be observed as you would observe in extant animals today. It’s easy to imagine migration, breeding and safety in numbers as possibilities for these dinosaurs moving together but it has to remain a point of conjecture that remains impossible to prove.

Parental care in dinosaurs has long been established – to a certain degree. Large nesting sites are known all over the world and in such numbers that almost certainly points to large numbers of animals nesting communally. The Maiasaurs of Egg Mountain are amongst the most famous and fossils here suggest complex parental care. Additionally, and more relevant in this case, are the egg brooding oviraptorids found in the Jiangxi Province of China , which are not that distantly related from tyrannosaurs.


So using the available evidence in combination with phylogenetic inference, it appears to me that the chances of tyrannosaurs living gregariously are very high, indeed maybe should even be expected. For how long a period of time they may of have been together is a matter of conjecture and is impossible to say without direct observation and, until a time machine is invented, that is how it will remain. Quite possibly it was only for short periods such as a mating and breeding season but, on the other hand, there may have been permanent groups of animals living together throughout the year – there is just no way of knowing.

Personally, I do see some tyrannosaurs living in groups for an indeterminate amount of time – but not all. I would also expect a degree of parental care, maybe not as advanced as some birds but nest protection seems likely and maybe feeding and protecting the young as well to some degree.

But what about pack hunting? Impossible to prove and it would appear to be a level of behaviour and coordination above what could be expected of dinosaurs. As things are right now, I see the possibility of communal hunting and feeding which is quite different – more akin to the crocodiles of today. Maybe one tyrannosaur would attack a prey animal and others would join in or, if the prey was injured or cornered, then more tyrannosaurs may have joined the attack and help despatch the unfortunate beast. And again, just like crocodiles, multiple tyrannosaurs ripping in to a carcass would make short work of it and a lot of meat and bone would get shared out real quick. Perhaps the face biting pathologies found in tyrannosaur skulls are actually indicative of this (Tanke 200), as intraspecific squabbling broke out during feeding.

So for me, it’s time to accept that tyrannosaurs and other theropods probably lived in groups for at least part of the time and all the available evidence, albeit circumstantial, suggests there may have been a degree of group hunting but I find it hard to accept that they could hunt in a coordinated, complex manner similar to a pride of lions although, of course, even that cannot be ruled out. Perhaps its time to turn the argument on its head and ask what evidence is there that tyrannosaurs were solitary hunters?

References

Currie, P.J. & David A. Eberth. On gregarious behaviour in Albertosaurus. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 2010, 47:1277-1289, 10.1139/E10-072


Tanke, D.H. & Philip J. Currie. Head-biting behaviour in theropod dinosaurs: paleopathological evidence. Gaia 15: 167-184

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Is it time for a Palaeontological Resources Preservation Act in the UK?

When the global recession hit the UK back in 2008 there was to be a dreadful side effect that has had significant implications for vertebrate palaeontology throughout the country. Many working quarry localities have been closed and with them any more chance of vertebrate material being recovered from these exposures has now gone forever.


And because of these closures, the search for fossils has increased the focus on the already heavily pressured coastal venues. The Jurassic Coast, the Isle of Wight, the cliffs around Whitby and other similar sites have been under the most intense scrutiny in recent years and the pressure is unabating now as more and more collectors descend on the unprotected cliffs and beds.

It is a fact that during the winter, and especially during storms and scouring tides, the competition is at its fiercest and most intense. Indeed, the Isle of Wight has been described to me as “unbelievable” during stormy conditions as an army of lamps and torches turn the cliffs into something akin to a Christmas tree covered by fairy lights – and at 2 o’clock in the morning as well!

How much material of scientific importance has been lost forever? Of course, there are many ethical collectors out there, both professional and amateur and they have made significant contributions to our science. They are not the problem – it is those without any moral obligations that are plundering the sites, collecting for themselves or, as is more and more common these days, collecting to order for clients who are willing to pay a small fortune for a complete ichthyosaur or a partial iguanodontid.

So what is to be done? Can anything actually be done? Well perhaps we can learn a lesson from the United States and use their experience and ideas over here. Early in 2009, the Palaeontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA) was passed by the House of Representatives and signed by Barack Obama to become law. The PRPA actually consolidated existing practices within the USA by simply making them legally binding, thus enabling the courts to prosecute and sentence those who broke these laws.

It is worth describing the main features of the PRPA before we look at the possibility of utilising some or all of it here in the UK. The main features are:

1) That fossils are a unique and non-renewable resource that provides clues to the Earth’s history and ultimately its future. Very important point this – “non-renewable” – so many people forget this. When they are gone, they are gone forever.

2) Fossils can still be collected from public land but these can only be invertebrate and plant fossils. A reasonable quantity can be taken but they cannot be traded, bartered or sold to anyone else.

3) However, it is forbidden for ANY vertebrate fossils to be removed from public land regardless of whether they are for personal use or to be sold. A permit must be obtained before vertebrate fossils can be collected and these are nearly always issued to professional palaeontologists and they, in turn, must deposit their finds into a professional repository such as a museum or university.

There are other things on the bill but those items listed are the fundamental principles. Interestingly, fossils collected from private lands are not affected, provided you have permission from the landowner – so the commercials and some private traders appear unaffected. And, it must be repeated, that the public can still collect some fossils from public land, provided that it is done sensibly and does not involve the physical alteration of the surrounding rocks to remove the fossils. Surface collecting is the norm.

There have been objections to the bill but these appear to be unjustified and now that the PRPA has settled down, it appears to be working well (I am happy to be corrected here if you know different). The USA has vast palaeontological reserves and these include some of the richest dinosaur hunting grounds in the world and it makes sense to protect them. The UK, on the other hand, is a very small country by comparison and has extremely limited exposures available for research and the collection of vertebrate fossils.

So can the UK implement its own PRPA? Firstly, there are already some initiatives in place but these have only met with limited success. Without the force of the law behind them, people ignore these initiatives and collect. Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) offer some protection and have some legal powers but these appear to be seldom enforced and despite the fact that UNESCO declared the Jurassic Coast a world heritage site, it remains constantly scoured for its treasures.

The south west side of the Isle of Wight - still free to plunder.
Should an almost identical PRPA be adopted in the UK then? Personally, I don’t think it is that necessary whereby all vertebrate fossils are declared “off limits” to the public. I would not want to see the day where a child may pick up that first water rolled ichthyosaur vertebra and be told that they must leave it where it is. Odd elements, teeth, fish spines and scales – I see no problem with these individual fossils being picked up by anybody. It goes without saying that invertebrate and plant fossils could be taken as well.

No, the protection is needed for the more exceptional specimens such as partial and complete skeletons, complete skulls, other associated elements, track ways and other similar fossils. For me it needs to be illegal to remove these specimens without a permit and the proper permission but perhaps, unlike the American system it could be allowed that some non-professional collectors could be licensed because some of them have made fantastic contributions to science over the years. However I would quantify this by agreeing with the PRPA and would insist that all specimens must be deposited into a professional repository.

There will always be the problem of how would we would know when a significant specimen had been removed? Well apart from the physical clues one would hope the public would notify the authorities if they saw something suspicious. And the local collectors aren’t daft – they would know when something is amiss. Someone will always tell someone what they found and excavated – they always do and this will get back to others in the paleoworld. That is why we know that there are so many important specimens in private hands, not just here but all over the world.

I appreciate that a law of this nature can affect a lot of decent avocational palaeontologists out there, people who do have extensive collections and will actually leave their collections to museums, universities and the nation for the benefit of science. It is unfortunate that it could come to this and I would include myself in your number but what is the alternative?

The United States has considerable palaeontological resources – some relatively untouched. They are bigger and so much richer with the amounts of remains in some bone beds defying imagination. The Americans have done something about it and moved to protect them. The UK has little in comparison but is equally as important – and done nothing.

Footnote

Please accept this post for what it is - to promote healthy discussion. It is not intended to offend any well meaning amateur collector or palaeontologist. I simply believe that perhaps it is time for some form of legislation to protect out dwindling fossil resources – before it’s too late.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Remembering Richard Owen

Richard Owen is a man that needs no introduction in the world of vertebrate palaeontology. Indeed it was Owen who, in 1842, coined the name Dinosauria to represent the order of extinct reptiles that were represented at that time by Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus.

However, Owen is mostly seen as a man who was ruthless, who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted and had no qualms about using close friends and allies to achieve his ultimate goals. Those who dared to take him on were often cast aside and left ruined by a man who knew no limits, took no prisoners. Yes, Owen is often portrayed as the bad guy, the man we love to hate.

Despite this image, we must never forget what a truly amazing man he was and must never underestimate his achievements. Not only did he name the dinosaurs but his work in anatomy, zoology, palaeontology and evolutionary biology is remarkable. Owen introduced us to homology which, in biological terms, means that structures that have the same origin may be used for different purposes or may be morphologically different due to evolution, although Owen, of course, did not recognise evolution as the agent of change. One of the most common examples is that of a bat’s wing and the arm of a man and these are described as homologous structures.

Owen also produced gargantuan efforts as a taxonomist, naming and describing an astonishing amount of taxa through the years. Although he was very lucky in so much of his patronage, Owen also made his own luck as well and because he was made prosector of London Zoo, he was able to expand his knowledge of extant animals simply by being able to access every dead animal that died in the confines of the zoo. Being able to dissect these unfortunate beasts gave him unparalleled knowledge in comparative anatomy and was instrumental in his ability to identify so many new taxa.

To many, his biggest legacy is the Natural History Museum in London, a project that Owen vociferously campaigned for from 1856, through its construction from 1873 to its grand opening in 1881. Although it was initially a wing of the British Museum, the NHM finally achieved independent status in 1963 and is truly a magnificent building, worthy of housing the national collections.

My favourite stories regarding Owen stem back to his youth and the display, even then, of his single mindedness and compulsion to learn more. As a sixteen year old, Owen became apprentice to a surgeon who was charged to treat prisoners in the local jail as part of his rounds. It was here that he had his first encounter with the anatomy of the dead, as those prisoners who had died in captivity were subject to post mortem examination.

Owen was deeply affected by the experience and doubted whether mortal man had the right to defile the dead. He found himself “over-awed by the power of the human corpse” and actually wondered if a career in anatomy was for him. As if to compound his misgivings and fear, Owen, that same evening, experienced yet more terror as he revisited that same jail to treat prisoners with the fever.

Owen found himself in the same building where the earlier post mortems had been carried out – only this time it was dark and his lamp he was carrying had been blown out by the wind. As he fumbled about in the dark, Owen suffered visions that only ones imagination can bring forth and despite coming to realise the reality of his situation, he determined never to desecrate the bodies of the dead again.

Fortunately, this only lasted for about six weeks before his urge to learn more about the human body took control yet again – his burning desire pushing him on. This next story is almost hard to believe except for the fact that it is a perfect example of what Richard Owen was all about.

Owen attended the post mortem of a black patient in the jail hospital and was fascinated. His recent reading of an article describing variety in the human species compelled him to return to the jail on a cold snowy night to remove the head for dissection. He carefully placed the head in a brown paper bag and casually walked out of the jail, passed the guards and out into the night with the bag hidden beneath his cloak!

But as he quickly moved away down the hill, he lost his footing and the head tumbled from the bag and rolled down the hill! The head crashed in to the door of a small cottage and actually pushed the door open. As Owen arrived, the air was filled with the screaming of the lady of the house and, as she ran out, Owen quickly picked up the severed head and ran off.

News of a demonic phantom spread throughout the neighbourhood the following day. Ghost of a pirate captain’s cabin boy was one rumour – the Devil himself others thought. Only Owen knew the truth and he kept the secret to himself for many a year. These early escapades were the blue print for a man who was destined for great things.

In 2009, on the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species, the statue of Richard Owen was removed from its prominent position overlooking the Great Hall in the NHM, and replaced with that of Charles Darwin. I was extremely pleased about this – the proponent of the theory of evolution usurping the man who had done so much to deny it.

And yet I for one do not forget the amazing contribution to science of this most amazing of men and contend that Richard Owen should not be castigated for who he was but rather should be celebrated for what he achieved.