Category Archives: Science is awesome

Wait…you do what?

Author: Kelsey

Over the winter break I took three weeks to visit my family and friends in Portland, OR. I think I saw pretty much EVERYONE I usually promise to see on such holiday visits. Usually I have a 50% attrition rate, but by staying for a prolonged period of time I met all my people, rest, and work goals.

However, meeting so many people made me realize how few people knew what I was doing and, more importantly, WHY I was doing it. They were usually not asking about the larger philosophical reasons why I am in Paleontology or a Masters program in Texas (let’s save that for a later post), but why, as a paleontologist, I am studying the skulls of modern lizards. Good question. Let’s get into it.

I am studying Australian agamid lizards (heretofore referred to as ‘AA lizards’), specifically the osteology (skeleton, bones) of these lizards. These lizards are highly variable and some are crazy enough to appear on popular nature shows. If you’ve ever seen a frilled lizard running upright (i.e. Chlamydosaurus kingii) or a spiky lizard that slowly walks and gorges itself on ants (Moloch horridus), you’ve seen one of my study organisms.

File:Dilophosaurus (Jurassic Park).jpg

Fun fact: Jurassic Park’s Dilophosaurus has more in common with the frill-necked lizard (C. kingii) than the actual reconstruction of the dinosaur. Represent!

Agamids are part of Squamata, the largest living order of reptiles (a group of animals long thought to be the domain of naturalists and 8 year old boys, which is, in fact, a myth). The ancestors of modern agamids differentiated pretty early from the rest of Squamata. Agamids, iguanids, and chameleons form the Order Iguana (appropriately named). Iguanids and chameleons are probably more closely related to each other than to agamids. After that… the picture gets rather hazy.

Like most of the current dominant orders, squamates are thought to diversify during the Jurassic. After this the agamids die off in the Americas when Pangea splits, but they slowly invade Africa, Asia, and, eventually, Australia. Recent genetic analyses1 have shown AA lizards have been in Australia for much longer than their slow invasion would have allowed. Remember that.

Behold, Pangea! If ever there was time for a road trip… 

The fossil record? Sparse and mostly jaws, which is actually pretty cool. Agamids and chameleons have teeth that literally fuse to their jaw bones (acrodont dentiton)2
. They literally can’t lose their teeth. Instead, they are worn down gradually and eventually the jaw is used as a cutting surface if no tooth is left. For chameleons, all teeth are irreplaceable, whereas for agamids only the side teeth are irreplaceable and the front teeth are replaced with wear (pleurodont dentition). So, their teeth are pretty cool, but that means most of what is known about the osteology of agamids centers around the jaw (or the ribs, if you are Draco volans, but I digress).

So what is the problem? Currently, most of the work on modern agamids is genetic, which is awesome, but it means there is no way to directly compare what we know about modern agamids with their fossil ancestors (which lack genetic data). Fossil DNA has been sequenced, but only for fossils that were well preserved and only thousands of years old. In other words, the babies of the fossil record. Babies. DNA duplicates and changes easily, which is how evolution can occur, but that means it also easily degrades once death occurs. What paleontologists are mostly left with is bones.

BonesFox

Genetics can overestimate the divergence times of different groups of animals, and accuracy decreases the farther back in time you go. Often, fossils are used to calibrate or check phylogenies, but if no one knows what a fossil agamid would look like… And that’s where I come in!

 

What I have done so far: collected all osteological characters used to describe agamids, rewritten characters, coded characters on my lovely AA lizard skeletal collection*, and recorded all the weird stuff I’ve noticed along the way.

*skeletal collection not actually mine, but we’ve bonded a bit

Currently: I am running tree analyses, taking pictures through a microscope to definitively record these characters (you’re welcome, five interested people), and writing.

In a few months I will be able to tell you what makes the skeletons of different species of AA lizards unique, what these characters can contribute to a phylogeny, and one of the many critical gaps between the past and the present will be a little smaller. I am adding information not only to the past, but the current state of these lizards, which is becoming more and more critical in our extinction-centric world.

What more do agamids have to offer? That, my friend, will have to wait for a later post…

 

References

1. Smirina, Ella M., and Natalia B. Ananjeva. “Growth layers in bones and acrodont teeth of the agamid lizard Laudakia stoliczkana (Blanford, 1875)(Agamidae, Sauria).” Amphibia-Reptilia 28.2 (2007): 193-204.

2.Hugall, Andrew F., and Michael SY Lee. “Molecular claims of Gondwanan age for Australian agamid lizards are untenable.” Molecular biology and evolution21.11 (2004): 2102-2110.

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Google Glass and paleontology collections: keeping a level head

Author: Kelsey

Today we continue on our Google Glass adventure! Check in here and here to see what we’re doing and why.

Confession time: At this point in time I know only a rudimentary amount of programming. This only becomes a problem when I get a brilliant idea (my Morse Code App will exist… one day) or Google Glass doesn’t do something I want it to do. Well, short of taking a crash course in shoddy programming, I decided to create a “physical app” to address my predicament.

The quandary: To take a picture with Glass, you say “Ok, Glass, take a picture”. The computer then beeps happily to you as it takes a ‘screen grab’ of your life. Now, our version of glass did not get the update to aim Glass’ camera before a picture is taken (this is a common complaint among those wandering Google Explorers). So, every time I took a picture, I found I that I tilt my head about 30 degrees to the right.

DrawerLean

Either that or we have a serious problem with our drawers

I’m not sure if this is because all the weight of Glass is on the right, or I naturally incline my head about 30 degrees, but I needed a way to keep my head level as I took pictures. When I was a kid, I used to play with my dad’s level, assessing the stability of my Barbie house and bunk bed (yep, I had a bunk bed/fort/space ship… on reflection I’ve significantly downgraded since then). So I decided to create a device to hold a small level in front of my left eye.

After a quick trip to JoAnne’s, I acquired a teeny level my kid-self would be jealous of. I raided the NPL supply closet and came away with tongue depressors, B-52 (an adhesive), and twisty ties. One hour later, it lived!

PatentedDesign1

Behold! Our product shot

Notice how far out the level is compared to the glass. That’s because Glass uses refraction to make the image appear farther away than it actually is. The level uses good old-fashioned corneal focusing. That day I achieved two goals: I provided the entertainment for the day by strutting around and I also managed to take level pictures.

20140815_113107_357

This represents a beautiful moment in my life

In the end, the device is more of a training tool than a permanent addition. Once I had the feel for what “level” was, I was able to remove the device and still take even shots with Glass. Then again, why would I want to take off such a classy addition?

 Level2

NPL: they tolerate me so well

Special thanks to Angie and Cissy for the photoshoot.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

Google Glass and paleontology collections: what we learned, Part II

Author: Kelsey

Recap: One of my projects this summer was testing Google Glass for the Nonvertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (NPL) here at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences. We are interested in testing curation potential. After many rather artistic drawer shots and some casual photograph comparisons, I decided to suit up and get systematic. If you’re just joining us, check out Part I here!

Goals: My primary interest is in data preservation, so I’ll be focusing on the object and text resolution, including degree of pixelation, lighting conditions, and glare. I decided to compare Glass against another small, mobile device: the iPhone5.

IMG_2194

Setting: The set of drawers I decided to photograph houses a set of preserved insects (sadly, no DNA here). The external dimensions of the bottom cabinet are 59.5 x 71.2 x 121 cm (w x l x h). The average drawer width and length is 54 x 66 cm. The only light sources are overhead fluorescent bulbs. The temperature was around 85 degrees F (29.5 C) with a humidity around 60%.

GlassComp_iPhone_05

Not shown: cabinet of extra undergrads

 

Parameters: I am testing the “hands off” potential for Glass, so I only used voice commands and the touchpad when I had to. None of the pictures needed to be “shared,” just saved on the device, so no wi-fi or Bluetooth connection was necessary. I wore the glasses lanyard to prevent slippage (discussed in Part I). For comparison, I used the NPL’s iPhone5. Both tests weretimed and any label I removed from a bag to photograph for one trial, I would have to for the others as well. Both the outside (“Out”) and inside (“In”) were photographed.

Scoring System: The recording device with the the greatest object resolution and text resolution would be tallied for each drawer image. If there was no appreciable difference or both could work just as well, both were tallied for that picture.

TestComparison

 

Results:

Time: Glass 15 minutes 32 seconds, iPhone5 21 minutes 15 seconds

Table

Discussion

There you have it! Both the iPhone and Google Glass have good resolution to record object data (i.e. the fossils are recognizable). The iPhone outperforms Google Glass in text resolution, but Glass only takes about 75% of the time. This is only a pilot study with one trial (I know, but n = 1 sounds like a better and better plan as the temperature rises in the cages!), but it is very important in determining our next step. Mainly, we need a higher-resolution camera in Glass. At this point more information is lost to resolution, lighting, and glare than is made up for by the hands-free Glass experience…for now, anyway.

The pace of not only technology innovation, but technology adoption, is increasing. We could fear change and criticize the hiccups, or we can work to understand these emerging technologies and use them in novel ways no one ever thought possible. Personally, I love a bit of constructive criticism (it’s the only way I stopped being the “know-it-all” kid in high school), but too much negativity only highlights technology’s Orwellian uses. We expect Glass and similar devices will catch up with smartphones in no time. At that point we (NPL) plan to acquire a second Glass.

Our future projects include training volunteers, testing the screen projection capabilities, tagging images, linking images, app programming, and virtual field trips. Living on the bleeding edge definitely has its drawbacks, but this summer has been a fascinating experience and I can’t wait to see what is next.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series: how to deal with the dang drawer tilt.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

Google Glass and paleontology collections: what we learned, Part I

PFL16A_Glass

Author: Kelsey

Part I in the Google Glass series. Other posts: Part II.

The Lowdown: Google Glass has remarkable potential as a curation and documentation tool, but what it gains in efficiency it loses in picture resolution and lack of updates. Before we acquire our next one, we will wait for a newer version with a better camera, but we are stoked by this new piece of technology.

Background: This summer the Nonvertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (NPL) acquired Google Glass, version 2 of the explorer edition. NPL is part of the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences, where I go to grad school and study Australian agamid lizards in all their cranial kinetic glory. Full disclosure: I was working at NPL and had suggested to Ann (Curator and Collections Manager) earlier in the year that we try out this new technology. The idea of augmented reality or forehead cameras is not a new one—sci-fi writers have been heralding their coming for over half-a-century—but here was a chance to test a tangible piece of the future.

We had one “simple” goal at the beginning of our adventure: test the camera and video for curation potential. Ten to twenty thousand fossils are added to NPL every year. Only 1/8th of these are digitally recorded in our database. Inventory is a careful balance of speed and detail. Whole drawer contents and individual specimens are often recorded. Our fleet of staff and volunteers have begun using cameras, ipads, smart phones, and now Google Glass. In science (and, I suspect, academic institutions in general) simple goals often turn into reticulating fractals of fascinating sub-tests, sub-questions, and side studies. Fortunately, that’s why I got into this business.

Requirements: We are interested in devices that reliably and repeatedly capture images with a high enough resolution that all text in the field of view is readable and the fossils are individually recognizable. These photos would then be saved in our database for future research and inventory reviews

Stats: The Google Glass Explorer Edition comes with a 5MP fixed-focus CMOS camera capable of taking 2560 x 1888 resolution images. The fixed focus means the glass is set to capture as great a depth of field as possible and will not adjust, automatically or otherwise. Glass will tune the ISO (shutter and aperture controls) from as low as 60 to a high of at least 960. Videos are shot in 720p only. The aperture size of about f/2.5 with a focal length of 2.7 mm.

Start: I found taking pictures with glass is like switching from a go-cart to a normal car, you have to get used no longer aiming for the middle of the road. When you are wearing glass, the screen is above your right eye (NOT in front of it), and the camera lens is to the right of that, so you will have to aim your head at left side of the drawer while taking the picture. The camera app for our edition does not have an aiming feature, so getting the correct angle and resolution takes practice, patience, and intuition.

Observations: Hands-free is great! When I used the iphone to take pictures (more about that in a part II), I had to constantly put down the phone to move drawers or reposition specimen labels. It was incredibly handy to have both my hands free. Additionally, glass really is comfortable to wear.

OkGlassOk Glass, point the laser at…

However, I found I was never truly hands free. For every single picture you have to backtrack (the “swipe down” action) to the glass home screen (above) and ask it to take a picture. Glass saves all pictures, but immediately prompts you to share an image immediately after you capture it. This could be solved with a simple picture app that bypasses the social media features. Once I get my mad programming skills up to snuff, this is one of the first projects I’d like to tackle.

Pictures: I found the large depth of field meant I often underestimated how much of the drawer was in view, or I’d overcompensate and get WAY too close and personal with the fossils, which just resulted in close up shots of fuzzy fossils. Most of these can be solved with practice and the addition of aiming software.

AimingTroubles

Aiming Troubles

The camera is very sensitive to light levels and has no internal regulatory mechanism. Even a slight adjustment in head angle can make the difference between a dim or overexposed picture. Wearing a baseball hat or wide-brimmed hat does not help, only squishes the glass down to uncomfortable angles.

 TooBrightTooDim

This analysis? Just right.

I also had a problem tilting my head to the right. I suspect most people to not hold their heads perfectly upright, which results in a tilt to the picture. More on how I dealt with this problem in an upcoming blog post, “Keeping Level-Headed.”

Looking down to photographs low drawers caused the glass to slip, so I added a lanyard in the back. This was easy for one side, but the battery on the right necessitated a duct tape solution. The addition does not compromise comfort too much and helps really secure the glass to my head. Fashion may also be compromised to a certain degree.

GlassLanyard2

Google Glass: Nerd Edition

Overheating was also an issue. Our collections spaces (“the cages”) are, for the most part, not climate controlled and summertime Texas heat and humidity are high even early in the morning. However, even in the climate controlled areas, continuous use causes glass to flash a warning message after about 15 to 20 minutes. This is an oft-cited problem in the glass community, and comes as a consequence of clashing optimal operating temperatures.

Is the text readable? Sometimes. The smaller the text and the worse the lighting conditions, the more likely it is to lose data. Also, it’s impossible to check the pictures until they are loaded onto a larger screen. On the other hand, when I had to leave a project half-way through and wanted to pick up where I left off, I could simply review the most recent pictures or videos and quickly start where I left off.

 DocumentComparison

 If I never see this label again…

So, is NPL a victim of the Gartner Cycle  or are we pushing the boundaries of museum science? Once I had a handle on the initial pros and cons (hands free, trouble aiming, trouble with light balance, overheating, and resolution) we decided to conduct a more formal study comparing the iPhone 5 to Google Glass. See “What we learned: Part II” for results and my preliminary conclusions!

Questions? Comments? Leave your reflections below.

Why I love paleontology field work

Author: Brianna

Lately I’ve been thinking about summer paleontology field work. (Field work? Fieldwork? I never know which to use.) The endless Boston winter has called up this nostalgia, because I am tired of the cold and slush. I want to be back out in Oregon’s high desert in the summer, taking painstaking field notes in little yellow Rite in the Rain notebooks, shivering in the cold morning while staring at the pot of water on the camp stove willing it to boil faster dammit I need my tea, hiking through sagebrush or climbing dry riverbeds up the valley, scrambling up crumbly slopes to measure section, holding in my hand an actual fossil that I just found….these are thoughts to get a person through.

I love paleontology field work because it connects me to my research in the most basic way: I am crawling around in the dirt, sometimes with my nose inches off the ground, and finding fossils that no one has ever found before. And they’re fossils that contribute directly to research. The first paleontology project I finished was completely digital: we did some stats on some data that came from other papers and a database. We found some neat things, and I got hooked on how awesome it is to find out something that nobody else knows. But it was pretty far removed from any physical specimens, for me. So the first time I went out in the field, when I got to find real fossils and take notes on them and bring them back with us to go in the museum…that drove home the connection. It brought a very nice sense of continuity to my grasp of paleontology.

I love paleontology field work because I get to go camp and hike with fellow scientists for a week or two, many of whom are my close friends. Better yet we’re in the desert, where my hatred of thermoregulating in the cold is offset by my complete and utter happiness in unreasonable heat. It never fails to amuse me that the hot, dry air sucks the sweat from your skin before you even realize you’re sweating, until you take off your backpack or knee pads and everywhere underneath is soaked. I like feeling badass when, at the end of a long day of work, I hike back to the truck carrying a big sandbag full of matrix from a microfossil site. I like sleeping in a tent. I like cooking dinner on a camp stove and eating for lunch whatever bizarre combination of fruit, nuts, salami, cheese, and tuna-in-a-packet I happen to have packed that day.

I do not love spiders in the pit toilets. I do love my rock hammer.

I love paleontology field work because, I’ll admit it: I really like long car rides. I know that’s a bit weird. But some of my favorite activities are napping, thinking about stuff, reading, and having long conversations with people…all valid choices for long, dusty car rides between field sites, which for us are spread out across much of Oregon.

I love paleontology field work because it’s a major change from the usual computer-centric work I do. Sometimes it’s hard to feel satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment when you’ve been hammering away at the keyboard all day, you know? But there’s no denying that you’ve done a good day’s work when you hike out there and find a bunch of new specimens or track down an old locality, flip a plaster jacket from yesterday’s work, or maybe measure a bunch of stratigraphy and bring back samples from each layer. Bonus points if you’re taking field camp for credit and stay up til 1am lovingly finishing your strat column, cough. Oh, the howls of despair when you mess up one of the lines with your Micron pen…

If summer scheduling allows, I’ll be out doing all these things (except making strat columns in the wee hours!) this July. For now, I suppose there’s nothing to do but glare at the snow-fluff coming down outside my office window and get back to work.

Thursday Links: Fourier transforms, paleontology blogs, evolutionary tempo, adorable kittens

Author: Brianna

AKA, “Stuff I’ve read lately that is cool and/or still in an open browser tab.” Some are new, some are (very) old.

The math trick behind MP3s, JPEGs, and Homer Simpson’s Face, from Nautilus Magazine.
An article about how Fourier transforms are totally awesome. As a side note, I feel like Nautilus should replace IFLS on everyone’s Facebook feed. Plenty of “OMG science is AMAZING!” to go around, but without the factual mistakes and lack of attribution.

Why “unqualified personnel” is not a reasonable excuse for limited research at a PUI, from The Liberal Arts Ecologists.
About recruiting, expectations, results, and philosophies behind working with undergrads in a research context. As I noted on twitter, if it weren’t for my advisors being willing to invest in undergraduates as serious researchers – at an R1 university, not just a primarily undergrad institution – I wouldn’t be where I am today.

In defence of basic research, from Stuart Auld.
An interesting (first!) blog post about answering “What do you research?” when the answer is about basic science. I like this approach. When friends, family, and new acquaintances ask me what I work on, I’m not shy about relating my work to potential human benefits. But almost invariably I also flat-out state that some of my work is basic research. I then explain why basic research is important on several levels. Usually they don’t get too glazed-eyed about this, if I’m succinct.

K.Jones the Bones, a new blog about paleobiology!
And she has a recent post about morphometrics. Be still my heart! Don’t miss the descriptions of collections research in her first post. I too have some very fond memories of time spent in various collections, both paleontological and modern – mostly the Condon Fossil Collections at the University of Oregon, the Museums of Vertebrate Zoology and Paleontology at Berkeley, and most recently the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. All kinds of smells, good and bad; the shadowy mounted heads of horned ruminants staring you down as you walk down the aisles before the motion-sensor lights turn on; the slight delirium that sets in after about 8 hours straight of measuring bones…

Don’t be a Nattering Nabob, from State Factors.
In other words, take the time to focus on what’s cool about the science before hunting for ways to rip it to shreds (and in general, don’t be a jerk). As a firm believer in the “constructive” part of constructive criticism, I really enjoyed this post. You don’t have to drop rigor to drop negative approaches.

In praise of exploratory statistics, from Dynamic Ecology.
Some nice love for mucking around in the data. Just don’t pretend you’re hypothesis testing. Brian McGill’s proposed solution: educate people better about exploratory stats, stop treating that approach “like the crazy uncle nobody wants to talk about and everybody is embarrassed to admit being related to,” and help people realize that a paper written without a hypothetico-deductive approach is okay.
Don’t forget to check out the comments section. I always love the comments on Dynamic Ecology.

I want one of these Form1 3D printers. I could have so much fun (and maybe do some Science!) with it. Anyone have a spare ~$4k they feel like spending on me?

Some pages from a beautiful comic book illustration, by Julian Peters, of the (also beautiful) T.S. Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Graham Slater’s excellent talk from SVP is up on SlideShare: “Tempo or Mode in Evolution? The Case of Mammalian Body Size Evolution.” Comes complete with a discussion of adaptive zones a la Simpson that I particularly appreciated, having read that paper in depth earlier this year. Also illustrations that I think make the narrative mostly clear even without, well, narration.

A brief, useful post on momentum and side projects: “Picking Up Where You Left Off.”
I have been bitten before by letting research projects sit too long. In response, I started taking much better research notes that end with a list of next steps. Also, I began writing down the name, contents, and purpose of any new file. (That came about after spending a couple hours untangling “measurements.xlsx” from “camelmeasures.csv” and “updated-measures.csv” and…)

And finally, these kittens just about made me explode with cute overload. Sorry, curmudgeons of the internet. I can’t help it.

Conference Wrapup: SVP 2013, Los Angeles

Authors: Brianna and Kelsey

We’ve just returned from our third time at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting, and our first as graduate students. What a wonderful, exhausting, exciting experience! SVP is always a great meeting, and it gets more fun every year. The first year or two were much more stressful because we didn’t know many people (more thoughts on conference-going as an undergrad in a future post), so it was nice to relax a little more. This was also the first time we really looked forward to reconnecting with our undergrad friends and mentors, the UO Paleontology crew. It was a bit like an early, very scientific Thanksgiving.

Instead of trying to sum up the whole conference, we’re planning to share a few highlights: our favorite talks and posters, how our presentations went, things we really enjoyed about this year’s venue, and a few bits we think could be improved in the future.

Favorite talks
Brianna: It’s tough to choose. One that really impressed me was Paul Koch’s investigation of network structure in Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions. He argued that extinctions have two main components- external factors, which trigger extinction, and internal factors, which are system properties that allow the effects of those triggers to operate. This second component is often overlooked, so he (and coauthors Pires and Guimaraes) set about investigating whether Pleistocene assemblages were in some intrinsic way more likely to collapse. They compared megafaunas from modern Africa and Pleistocene North and South America, looking at networks of relationships between animals. They modeled the probability of two animals interacting as a function of predator-prey body mass ratios. Essentially, the model specified that every time a large predator runs into a prey animal, it’s going to be bad for the prey; every time an animal runs into a conspecific, it’s going to be bad (because intraspecific competition); every time a smaller predator runs into a prey animal larger than itself, nothing happens, and so on.

They then examined the stability of these community matrices and found that modern Africa is no less susceptible to perturbation than the fossil assemblages. However, they did find that the probability of stability decreased with predator richness and increased with the average body mass of the prey. Koch suggested that large predators have a wide diet breadth, increasing connectivity in the web, whereas large prey are more controlled by bottom-up effects (temperature, food availability, etc) and thus decrease connectivity. In a tightly connected web with strong interactions, effects propagate faster, like motion that comes from hitting a tightly stretched sheet of fabric as opposed to a loosely draped one. Pleistocene North America had many large predators (sabertooth cats, cave lions, dire wolves, regular wolves, bears of several sorts…), so perhaps this contributed to the demise of our megafauna. A complex talk with much more nuance in methods and conclusions than I’ve described here, but very cool.

Other talks I really enjoyed: Tseng on skull morphology convergence both within and between bone-crackers and bamboo-eaters, Miller’s investigation of how well a death assemblage captures community ecology of the living assemblage, and Holroyd’s eye-opening talk on identification bias in collections, where she pointed out that specimens can only get studied and published if they are identified. She also quantified the probability of “losing” a specimen via lack of identification.

Kelsey: There were too many mind-expanding talks to cover here, but some of the ones that bent my world a bit (in a good way) were the ones that looked at the historical and identification biases of data sets. Pat Holroyd’s talk was nicely complimented by Matt Mihlbachler’s look at Cope’s rule as a product of historical collection bias. Specifically, brontotheres initially appeared to consistently increase in size throughout the Cenozoic. Matt pointed out that this conclusion was reasonable during Cope’s era, because this is what the available data were saying. However, greater sampling has shown there are multiple lineages that dwarf or just never increase in size over time. Compound this with the multiple migration events between the Americas and Eurasia and you’re looking at a much more complicated, nuanced relationship between the evolution of body size in lineages and time.

This is the vibe I got from many of the phylogenetic and systematic talks as well. It’s as if we are realizing that many of the “ground rules” of paleontology are not as solid as we thought. Now we are looking through the cracks and finding some very interesting mysteries. Perhaps it has always been this way and it’s my own assumptions that are beginning to crack.

Favorite posters
Brianna: I think my favorite was Poster #1 on the very first day, by Sadleir and colleagues. It was a reconstruction of body mass and related characteristics in an ornithischian dinosaur where the analysis drew on information from a gastrolith that stayed with the fossil through preservation. From a new CT-scanning algorithm originally designed for distinguishing metal-metal surfaces (led to much clearer imaging of the rock-rock bits, as fossils are!) to an interesting argument for massive tail muscles in this particular dino (perhaps needed to counterbalance gastrolith position, and supported by tail vertebral morphology). Had a great discussion with the author and am really interested to see where that project goes.

I also had a great time getting the poster-talks from current undergrad students in the UO Paleontology group. They were just revving their research engines as Kelsey and I left, and it reminds me of the fun and anxious times we had at our first conference. Plus, they are doing really cool work and I enjoyed hearing detail about their projects for the first time. Warm fuzzies all around.

Kelsey: I’m a sucker for bone histology, so I found myself discussing bone growth and function a great deal. This is a nice connection for me to the dinosaur world. There is an unfortunate schism between the “Mammal People” and “Dino People” (with neoaves falling somewhere in the middle and fish people partying on the side), and it’s easy to stay with your own crew. Hopefully I can find more connections in the future.

I also enjoyed the less-finished project posters, where I could really talk to the presenters about the structure of their future projects and why the label on the y-axis of their graph was missing. We’ve all been there…

Our presentations
Brianna: I gave a talk titled, “Identifying isolated postcrania using discriminant analysis.” In plainer language, that’s: “How to use some pretty simple data analysis to figure out what kind of horse/camel/whatever those ankle/toe/hand/foot bones belong to.” You know, the ones that are sitting all unloved in drawers in your museum. This was my first big conference talk, so while I usually do well with public speaking, I was a bit of an adrenaline-rushed mess for the two hours before I spoke. Happily, my nerves settled as soon as I started presenting and the whole thing went very well. My time slot was in the morning session on the first day of the conference and it was great to get the stress out of the way. I got some excellent feedback and ideas after the talk, including some fun new collaborations.

I’m really fond of this work. One bit of it will come out soon as a paper in Palaeo Electronica with my former advisor Edward Davis; I’m currently writing the second paper, which deals more specifically with the stuff I talked about at SVP. Both will get the blog post treatment when finished, but if you’re interested, shoot me an email (bmchorse at fas dot harvard dot edu) and I will happily explain how you, too, can get IDs on your postcranial fossils.

Kelsey: This was year #2 for presenting a poster on osteopathology in Rhinocerotidae, and never have I been more grateful to present an updated study. I’ve been looking at population-level osteopathology in rhinos from 50 mya to the present, a project that has motivated me to learn the intricacies of pathology, bone growth, large mammal evolution, and systematics. Being able to display my constellation of data and questions led to at least six firework moments (what some would call eureka moments) during my two hour poster session. This year I also kept a notepad and pen nearby so I could write every suggestion down. Paper, here I come!

Good things about the meeting!
The welcome reception at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County was really, really lovely. Everyone got to wander around the exhibits before eating some impressively tasty food. The dueling T. rex and Triceratops in the main atrium are beautiful, the brand new Dinosaur Hall is spectacular, and Brianna particularly enjoyed some very skeptical looking mammals:

Skeptical zebra and tiger at the NHM Los Angeles
Skeptical striped mammals are not impressed.

What else did the Society do well this year?

They added a family room for the first time, which is an important step in making the meeting more friendly to those of its members traveling with children.

The awards ceremony was quite enjoyable as well, particularly because it came complete with a tour through several films portraying paleontologists (including The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, The Lost World, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Bringing Up Baby, Lost Horizon, Lake Placid, and, of course, Jurassic Park ).  The food was also wonderful, though the vegetarian option ordered by our labmate was literally just white rice with steamed vegetables. That needs some definite work, though props for the gluten-free option, which Kelsey reports was delicious.

The costume contest at the student round table was also amazing (did you all get to see the two-man Quetzalcoatlus costume?) and we almost wish it could happen every year.

Finally, the coffee quality and tea selection in the mornings leveled-up from last year. These are important details for scientists with varying severity of jet lag and sleep deprivation.

Things the meeting could improve…
Speaking of all those things the meeting did nicely, we have suggestions for even more improvement on a few of them. We’ll do this in a nice numbered list.

  1. Offer childcare. Yes, it’s probably a pain to deal with; yes, liability and stuff; we get it. But not having available childcare (it doesn’t even have to be free!) can be a problem for many would-be participants. This is not something we have personal experience with, because neither of us has reproduced, but you can read more about it in many other places. Plenty of other conferences do it (e.g., Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, American Political Science Association , American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology…), and SVP should too.
  2. Free wifi for conference attendees. People have been begging SVP for this for years, and still nothing! Heard much unhappiness about this, verbally and online, during the conference this year.  We’re pretty sure that offering free wifi would drastically increase the number of people live-blogging and live-tweeting the conference, thus increasing visibility for the Society itself. 3G was only an option for a few people who are from the US, have smartphones, and weren’t worried about a data cap; it’s not good enough. This post has many curated links about live-tweeting and conferences, if you’re interested.
  3. Can you keep the coffee out all morning, please? Remember what we said earlier about sleepy scientists? You already bring it out at 7:30am and again at 10am – just leave it out til lunchtime. Or better yet, leave it out until the poster session starts at 4:15. It’s one of those keep everyone happy, keep everyone awake things. We are such sad pandas when we straggle down at 8:30 and the coffee/tea has been whisked away.

    Might as well have two cups, it's disappearing soon...from flickr user chichacha

  4. Give some serious consideration to venue with respect to pricing. We acknowledge there are probably many, many interests to balance when selecting a conference hotel, but please add this one. SVP 2013 was in the middle of the financial district in Los Angeles, meaning a very expensive hotel and limited (+ expensive) dining nearby. This is hard on students! And postdocs! And anyone without a lot of extra cash!
    Consider, for example, booking two smaller hotels together next time (maybe even with some cheaper hotels available nearby – the Raleigh meeting last year had lots of nearby, inexpensive choices). This would let you put it in a friendlier place, with affordable options for everyone. You can still have all the sessions in one hotel; it’s not like walking across the street is that much different than trying to navigate the Halo-level-like maze of the Westin Bonaventure in LA.
  5. On the expensive note: you know you’ll make more money at the bar in poster sessions and whatnot if we don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for the alcohol, right? We don’t know if the pricing was SVP or the hotel, but man, it was bad enough we didn’t even want to bully our coauthors into buying us a drink.

Criticisms aside (which we hope are constructive – and yes, we’ll be sending an email to relevant committees, as soon as we figure out who they are), this was a well-run conference that we enjoyed. As we said, SVP is an excellent time every year and it’s well worth going.

We really enjoyed live-tweeting some talks and posters this year, thanks to our phones. There weren’t many people doing so – again, see wifi situation – so we got to feel useful! Getting to experience little bites via tweet of talks we weren’t attending was really nice, so we hope we were able to provide a similar function to others for the sessions we attended. It’s a bit difficult sometimes because in the really interesting and complex ones, you want to take notes, but you can’t take notes if you’re tweeting. We tried to strike a balance. Meeting a bunch of people at the tweetup was great, too.

In all it was a most excellent conference (not least because the two halves of fossilosophy were reunited for five days!), and we are looking forward to the next one. We’ll both be at SICB in January, Kelsey will be at NAPC in Febuary, and we are definitely looking forward to SVP 2014 in Berlin, Germany!

It’s Complicated, And That’s OK

Author: Kelsey

As an undergraduate, I usually only go to museum or department talks if someone I know is talking or another undergrad coerces me into going with them. Mostly it’s a time issue. I’d honestly rather catch up on homework or research than be trapped in a lecture hall for another hour when I already have a full course load.

That being said, I am beginning to think I should go to more talks. Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but the last two talks I’ve gone to have been important for me in learning not about specific projects, but about the scientific ideas and processes that shaped them.

The first talk I went to emphasized finding the simplest equation to predict the movement of blood through the cardiovascular system. The researcher’s goal was to take a complicated set of variables and get the most straightforward equation possible with an acceptable amount of error. Using this technique, variables could be dropped if they did not contribute significantly to the simulated cardiovascular system. This is a reductionist or “good enough” approach as far as I can tell that favors functional answers over the possibility of overly complicated or unknown factors.

The second talk I went to favored a holistic approach, where one method or answer didn’t necessarily have to be appropriate for the entire system. This was a paleoclimatology talk that examined comparisons between modern climate and species change and the way climate and species had changed in the Cenozoic. This four-dimensional system (the three dimensions of space, plus time) was divided into two parts, one part where humans were directly observing the system (shallow time) and the second part where humans could not (deep time). I may go into all the gory, glorious details in a subsequent post, but the talk concluded with the statement that “the present is only sometimes the key to the past.”

What? At first this viewpoint seems like a major letdown, kind of like waiting to see what Frankenstein’s Monster looks like, only to realize when he steps into the light that he’s just a guy in green makeup (or worse, just mediocre CGI). If we can’t tell what the past is from the present, I used to wonder, what good is it to compare the past to the present and are we even making appropriate comparisons? If past and present systems are only analogous some of the time, then what was happening the rest of the time?

Whenever I get into this frame of mind I am prone to fall into the black pit of philosophical debate that will get me to question my career and life choices. After about an hour or so one can then find me under a table in the lab, where I will have to be coaxed out with promises of coffee. (My own research projects, like my study of taphonomy, have done this to me more than once.)

It was one such time under the computer table that I realized I was looking at this supposed “problem of holism” the wrong way. These questions of past and present time that kept running through my head were not paleontology’s undoing, but its future. Take, for example, that second talk. The analysis of species change over the Cenozoic revealed trends that could not be explained by recent time because humanity (much less rational thought) had not existed long enough and in all places at once. Evolution was working at a pace beyond what could be directly observed by the human race in any meaningful manner. If deep time was not considered, evolution as it is understood would not exist.

I don’t go under the table much anymore. My mind is still swimming with questions, but these questions bring possibilities. With possibilities comes the promise that in the future we may understand a bit more here and there. To simplify this system would be to turn a blind eye on the beautiful and incredible complexity of paleoecology and evolutionary biology. Deep time in general would probably be rather boring if viewed only through reductionism, but we can’t look at all the components of the system at once… at least not yet.

So I will go to more talks, fill up my notebook, and, most importantly, think. As a scientist it drives me crazy and excites me to know there are ideas and viewpoints being shared out there right now that could help me with my research and rock my world.

Welcome!

Hi there, and welcome to Fossilosophy, the brainchild of two University of Oregon undergraduates named Kelsey and Brianna.

As time goes on (and we finish our honors theses, secure housing in our respective graduate school cities, and the like) you’ll learn more about who we are and what we’re doing. For now, here’s a brief introduction:

Kelsey is a geology major in the paleontology track who has some rather biological leanings; Brianna is a biology major whose research has a decidedly paleontological flavor. We work together in the Hopkins Lab, a place full of vertebrate paleontology and sarcasm, where each of us was dragged gradually into “that whole science thing.” Next year we’re heading to graduate school – Kelsey to UT Austin and Brianna to Harvard – to keep right on doing the science thing.

We’re big fans of working hard and playing hard. You’re just as likely to find us kicking around science ideas well into the evening as you are to find us running around campus waving nerf guns at “zombies.” We really, really enjoy a bunch of things that fall under the general “outreach” heading, AKA sharing the sheer awesomeness of science with as many people as possible. We also have an awful lot of ideas, which is where this blog has come in; our plan is to share our thoughts and ideas, join the great conversation of science and academic blogging, and learn some things along the way.

If science gets invaded by interstellar forces, you know who to call.