Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Tired in Qingdao

Forgive possibly the shortest ever post to my blog, but 30+ hours of travelling and three flights later...missing a grad student, I arrived in Qingdao (China) at 10:30pm local time.

Brandon, a graduate student of Peter Dodson's (who I also help torture on the ins and outs of palaeontology) missed his flight...somewhere on the east coast of the USA. I await his arrival in the morning...he will be pretty tired by then!

Then we head west to Zhucheng....now, I head to bed!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

A taste of the un-dead?

Thanksgiving was splendid. Spending the auspicious occasion at Peter Dodson's house was possibly the best way to experience my first 'complete' Thanksgiving. Last year, I spent the said Holiday in Dulles Airport in Washington, a function of a very foggy day....not very festive. The avian theropod was suitably vast and the accompanying cuisine wonderfully filling. By now you must be asking, why the title to this particular blog? Well, it has nothing to do with Dodson family hospitality and more to do with the past few days. I have picked up a virus from someone...having just been on a transatlantic flight, this is possibly the most logical source.

I feel like this.......

What is curious about my virus, is that it reminds me of a rather big question, how did life start on Earth? Defining life can be tricky sometimes, as some ‘life’ forms are a tad fussy on being dead or alive, for example, my 'lovely' virus. A virus is happy as Larry when causing mayhem and replicating at will in their host, a virulent common cold is a perfect example, but outside the host is another story. A virus is composed of a smatterings of genetic material enclosed in a protein capsule, when outside a host, they are for all intense purposes, non-living. So defining life is not so clear-cut. If your kids are into stories of zombies and the 'un-dead'...an accurate and just as chilling bedtime story is one of the humble, but potent virus...from such a microscopic fellon, we too can get a feeling of being living dead...albeit until our immune systems regains control.

It was thanks to my own virulent virus that I did not make it to the Academy of Natural Sciences to give my talk on Friday....a heinous crime on my part, as I hate letting folks down. However, spreading my virus to a public audience would earn me few friends. For those who turned-up, all was far from lost, as Jason 'Chewie' Poole gave a stunning talk (which has been reported back to me by many folks)...so a large public thank you to Jason!

Now...it is time for me to sleep again, as I have to be well for Monday...when I fly to China!
Shandong Province, south of Beijing. Qingdao and Zhucheng is where I'll be on Monday

Thursday, 25 November 2010


Tomorrow, in much of North America, we dine on avian theropod...that's bird to most folks. The feathery descendants of the dinosaurs, birds, provide us with much insight to their toothy ancestors. Many use birds to provide information on the biology, physiology and even behaviour of dinosaurs...often bracketing the said dinosaurs between crocodiles and birds...in an extant (living) bracket to help further constrain the possible characters of the extinct dinosaurs.
In the UK, we tend to eat our turkey on Christmas Day, hence why I used to give a lecture at the Manchester Museum each December, called 'Stuffing the dinosaur at Christmas'...this was a fun take on dissecting (and often eating) a roast turkey, but showing the audience the vast number of features (characters) that birds still possess that place them so close to dinosaurs in evolutionary terms (in my mind, they are still dinosaurs). The old saying that something is, 'As rare as hens teeth', is testament to how close birds are to dinosaurs; as occasionally an ancestral gene is inadvertently 'switched-on' yielding a toothy-hen. We too possess 'fossil' or recessive genes in our DNA that surface in our own species, if the right genetic switch is flicked.

The use of living species to help infer or constrain specific characters in an extinct species is not a new thing, but Professor Larry Witmer gave this a name in 1995...the Extant Phylogenetic Bracket or EPB for short. Larry gave a name to something we already used, and in doing so penned a paper that will continue to receive citations (references within other published works) that will help it rocket into inter-steller levels of fame. Its hard to pick up a book or read a paper on dinosaurs without seeing EPB (Witmer, 1995) being quoted...even Larry agrees this is a rather useful paper in his career.

Basic family tree of the dinosaurs and birds....often subject to change!

In many cases we find additional evidence, such as the scars of muscle attachment on fossil dinosaur bones, that show that the EPB data appear to be appropriate (or not as the case may be). Combining such evidence and EPB with a liberal application of comparative anatomy (back to my dissection fun at Penn!), we can build a theoretical understanding of the complete prehistoric animal, as it was with its soft tissues intact. While evidence supports certain aspects of such extrapolation, in other respects this work is necessarily speculative...something palaeontology is often accused of with wagging fingers (and quite rightly so sometimes). About many points concerning soft tissues, we are completely in the dark. The best known dinosaur enigma is their colour, which is a particularly ephemeral aspect of an animal due to the nature of biological pigmentation and the tendency for such pigments to be lost in the fossilization process...but the Manchester team is hot on the trail of this particular conundrum (more on this later I hope!).

Amber can often trap beasties, providing excellent preservation
environments...sadly not big enough for dinosaurs!
Fossilization is a rare phenomenon that occurs to only a tiny fraction of a community’s population of any given place and period, and to none at all in many cases....we are dealing with disjointed sentences of once vast volumes. Nonetheless, if we consider the fossilization of skeletal elements as the standard, then the fossilization of soft-tissue structures is much rarer still. When these unique discoveries are made, this type of fossilization literally “fleshes out” our understanding of the fossil record in many crucial ways. Even a single example of soft-tissue preservation can be of tremendous value in the interpretation of fossil animal types. In each case, special circumstances prevented the ordinary loss of soft tissues. The explanations for certain of these situations have been reconstructed with a high degree of confidence, while the reasons for other localities’ exceptional preservation remain a mystery.

Dissection of crocs and birds can often tell us much 
about their relatives, the dinosaurs.

If your into the preservation of soft tissue, you might want to track down a paper that the Manchester team published last year (Manning et al 2009) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series B. This is the direction of much of our research today...so watch-out for future papers chasing bio-molecules in the fossil record...with a smattering of EPB!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Dinosaur embryo's on acid?

The flight to the UK was thankfully uneventful. The food was predictably scary and the atmosphere thick by the time we arrived in Manchester. I think two hours sleep is as much can be expected on a trans-Atlantic in bucket class. I forced myself to sleep, as I knew I would soon have to be functioning on UK-time...a nasty prospect when flying West to East.

Arriving to an overcast and cold morning in Manchester, I was soon through customs, acquired luggage and headed for the train to Manchester. At 10am I was stood in my office, slightly phased...and then the day could begin, albeit cheated of a good nights sleep.

My first port of call in Manchester was Dr Roy Wogelius, an inorganic geochemist in the School of Earth, Atmospheric & Environmental Sciences. He has been leading on several papers within the palaeontology research group, on the preservation of soft tissue in the fossil record. Roy is a good colleague and a great friend who has provided a paradigm shift in my understanding of what happens when you bury a lump of animal in the ground. This might sound a simple thing to answer, but the pathways of elements around and within this system is not fully understood and are critical to our understanding of what happens when you bury anything in the ground. In our world of waste and pollutants, this question of what happens when you bury something is vital. This is the world of the science of taphonomy (literally meaning 'burial laws').

The hadrosaur dinosaur 'Dakota' the 65 Million year old mummy!

Roy and many others in the palaeontology research group have been working on everything from 65 million year old dinosaur skin, 120 million year old feathers, 50 million year old lizard skin to 80 million year old dinosaur egg shell (with bits of embryonic skin with bone preserved inside!). We are keen to quantify which elements in the fossils have remained relatively stable (and in place) since the tissue (bone, skin, etc) were originally formed and which components came from the processes associated with the fossilisation of the said tissues. What appeared a simple question of mapping and identifying the composition of the fossils, has become a major research program for the Manchester group over the past 5 years.

This work all started when I was having lunch with colleagues and we started talking about the 'mummified' dinosaur that had been discovered in North Dakota. Roy was sat at the table and joined in the conversation, as we munched our way through our curries. It was clear that he would make a major contribution to the research program...and that has to be the biggest understatement I have ever made! He has dragged me into the world of geochemistry and its a journey that I am thoroughly enjoying, albeit it quite hard get my head around sometimes (nothing that a good read cannot put right). The early work we undertook on the dinosaur mummy was published last year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B (Manning et al 2009) and signified the start of my submersion into geochemistry.

Left to right, Nat Geo cameraman, Dr Pete Morris, Dr Roy Wogelius and Tyler Lyson.

We now have a large team from faculty and graduate students developing new methods and techniques to untangle this tale of tricky taphonomy, with every member playing their part. From synchrotrons to CT units and FTIR to MALDI-TOF....we coax molecules into revealing their secrets. This is some of the most interesting work I have ever been involved with and I always look forward to my meetings with Roy, Bart van Dongen, Mike Buckley, Paul Mummery, Bill Sellers, Holly Barden, Nick Edwards and many others who contribute to the work. Given that the research group is getting larger by the year, it is rare we all get to meet in the same place and time, that was one of my goals for this trip...one that was thankfully met. Being able to just sit and talk about science with colleagues is so productive and often hard to do with the hectic lives that we all leave...it was midnight on Wednesday before I headed to bed. Many meetings, samples and data reviewed, and progress made.

The remainder of the week was much the same. I had bird and crocodile shell samples to get to Dr Mike Buckley for analysis, sediment samples to Paul Mummery for x-ray micro-tomography and folks to chase (and be chased by) on finances, fossils and research papers. The key samples I needed to collect were those of the embryonic dinosaur material, as we are close to getting the various aspects of this research ready for publication...this is my next job. I'm travelling today with my clutch of dinosaur egg fragments, so that tomorrow I can start to physically and chemically pull them apart before handing over the suitably clean-room prepped samples for the team to work upon. Nothing that dental picks and a drop of acid can't put right.

Once again, I find myself sat in an airport, waiting for my flight to Philadelphia. I arrive in Philly at 2pm...and hope to get to a 3:30 research seminar on palaeobiogeography at Drexel University my 3:30pm...its going to be another long day, but one that I would not trade for anything.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

UK-bound to tweak some dinosaur samples!

I find myself sat at Philadelphia International Airport once again…I think I will adopt a bench here in the future…given I seem to spend too much time here. I have to admit that I am a bad flyer. This is nothing to do with my lack of adaptations in the forelimb and feather department, but more to do with the psychology of leaving terra firma. Over the past few years I have clocked-up far to many air miles, usually with a film crew or field crew in hot pursuit. In this time I have had the dubious honour of being dropped into air pockets at 30,000 feet, lightening strikes, turbulence that would not go amiss in a cocktail shaker, engine loss (on a twin engine crossing the Atlantic…we turned back!) and then there is the food.
Where do I start with airline food? Its tough to get to grips with how food can be so distanced in taste from the original proteinacious materials from which it was originally composed. Maybe something happens with airline food between its preparation and the plane? The melding of taste, textures and even colour…as your potatoes takes on the orange of adjoining carrots and green of broccoli…makes this particular cuisine, food at best. The meat is usually covered in gravy, ugly gravy, that congealed long ago into a jelly-like state…so appetising. This grey, wobbling mass of protein is passed-out on TV-dinner trays with impossibly sealed plastic cutely that is about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. It’s worth noting that the food on internal flights in the US has almost evaporated into dry boxes of nuts and pretzels…if your lucky. On one flight to San Francisco, from Philadelphia, I choose to treat myself to a chicken sandwich…harmful enough I here you all think. Less than 12 hours after landing and for the following 36 hours I was calling Huey on the porcelain phone…in-between filming sequences for National Geographic. The said event was the filming of the Archaeopteryx beam run at Stanford two years ago…I have never touched a sandwich on a flight since! But back to my international flight food experience, there is one thing that we will never forgot…that smell…
The timing of this culinary delight is also quite splendid. The flight attendants serve food at the precise moment you start to sleep in that impossible upright aircraft seat-induced position. Sometimes the homogenized-food-generated smog slowly wafts down between the seats, ahead of the flight attendants pushing their marvellously designed knee-capping devices…otherwise known as a food carts. Beware if you are lucky enough to get an isle seat, don’t doze off too soon, else your patella might be in for shock awakening of a trolly kind.  This is why I now covet the window seats so much…alas, I was too late to get one for the flight that I am about to get to Manchester…I am considering stuffing socks up my trousers…not to enhance anything more than the chance that my right knee will make it through the flight.
As Billy Connelly so aptly noted many moons ago, one of the worst jobs in the world has to be the person who opens the aircraft door at the arrival gate, after a transatlantic flight…courtesy of many hours of recycled and concentrated smells. However, from my perspective, breathing fresh-air as we step over the body of the said door-opener, is sheer bliss. It must be said though, it takes a vast amount of nose and throat clearing to rid yourself from the ‘taste’ of the flight.
As my flight touches down in Manchester at 9am tomorrow, I will head straight to the University to meet with Roy Wogelius, Bart van Dongen and Bill Sellers…as we have a pile of dinosaur skin to work on! More on this later…time for me to run for my flight and practice holding my breath!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Chinese dinosaurs ahoy!

Dinosaur fossils are the raw material that keeps the embers of my research gently glowing. if you want a roaring fire, you have to go to China. If there ever was a Klondike-size strike of dinosaur bones, it would be here. I was fortunate enough to visit China for the first time last year with Professor Peter Dodson...a veteran of chasing dinosaurs in this part of the world. While my gastrointestinal tract took a severe beating, I was totally gobsmacked by the shear beauty, number, diversity and quality of fossils.

Dr. Xu Xing (left), yours-truly (centre) Prof. Peter Dodson (right)

Peter and I were lucky to have spent time with Dr Xu Xing from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) based in Beijing. Xu is a legend in his own right, having named dozens of new species of dinosaur from the vertebrate-rich fossil record of China. He is also one of the most modest and humble scientists I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. At the end of this month I get to see Xu and colleagues again in one of the most amazing places I have ever been, Zhucheng. Here is where dinosaurs clearly came to die...in their hundreds (if not thousands!). The breath-taking Dinosaur National Monument in Utah (which I still think is amazing), pales when compared to the Zhucheng material.

Standing amongst bones on Dinosaur National Monument makes you happy!

The GIANT fossil horizon exposed in Zhucheng is hard to understand...there is simply no simple mechanism for emplacing such vast quantities of bone, without smashing-up the bones in the process...as these bones are beautiful! Its as if a prehistoric burcher has just thrown-out (over several thousand square feet) the butchered bones of the day. We are not talking small animals either, as these are sauropod-sized hadrosaurs! The deposits are mostly comprised of the disarticulated remains of  the hadrosaur Shantungosaurus giganteus, that were first discovered in the early 1960's, but not named until 1973. The site was locally called Longgujian, literally translating as "dragon bone gully"....a very apt name! At a mere 66 feet long (yes, thats 20 metres!) this is a very hefty dinosaur....and its a hadrosaur! This late Cretaceous aged beastie must have been the largest of its kind ever to walk on the planet.

How many museum displays need a car to get from one end to the other?

The deposits have been patiently quarried since the mid-1960's and the result is one of the dinosaur-wonders of the world. Such is the size and sheer gobsmacking nature of the site, the local Chinese authorities had the foresight to leave many of the bones in-situ, so palaeo-geeks such as myself can stand with tear-in-eye, viewing this unique place.

More bone than you can shake a stick at (and thats whats been exposed so far!)

The reason for my trip here at the end of this month is to celebrate the opening of a new Museum in Zhucheng. The new Museum will concentrate on the regions incredible prehistoric past...no surprise there. I also get to work on some of the fossils from the site, but not bones...as they have now found dinosaur tracks to go with all those bones. As many of you will no from my past research, tracks have much to tell us about dinosaurs and other extinct beasties.

Playing with dinosaur tracks in Argentina back in 2001

I have to be honest that on my last visit I missed seeing the building of the museum and its contents, a function of something I ate...in fact, I missed two days. My friend and colleague Prof. Peter Dodson did not suffer at all from anything eaten on the month-log tour. Rumour has it, his nickname in some quarters is, 'The Badger 5000 Waste-Disposal Unit'....a tad unfair, but I have to admit, I have never seen Peter refuse food...ever!

Too much bone to take-in, even a bit of skull...see if you can spot it?

I shall try and relay the talks that happen at the Zhucheng meeting and also more images of this fantastic site. If you find yourself in China with a couple of spare days...grab a flight south of Beijing to Qingdao (yes, where the beer comes from!) and head a couple hours west to Zhucheng. You will not be disappointed! On top of the stunning geology, lickable fossils and great hospitality...you get to see some of the most amazing sunsets you will ever see in your life.....honest!

Natural sunset....no photoshop needed here!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Limping, sprinting, hopping, climbing or walking with dinosaurs?

The Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences has kindly invited me to deliver a lecture on the 26th November this year. My chosen topic for the 1pm slot will be dinosaur locomotion. This is an area that I have been playing with for many years. Initially trying to divulge information from dinosaur tracks, but now working with the likes of Dr. Bill Sellers and Prof. Kent Stevens, we get to digitally make dinosaurs dance...so to speak.

Dinosaurs obviously include some of the largest vertebrates to have ever walked on the planet...but also some fairly small animals, as they all hatched from an egg and just got big! When we study variation between different species of dinosaurs, do we account for their extreme growth when it comes to understanding their locomotor ability? How fast could a young T. rex run in comparison to an adult?....should we even care? Did baby sauropods gallop to keep up with their strolling parents? Should we even bother about such things...

Well, I think yes, as matters such as maximum running speed is an important parameter for many living species, predators as well as prey, and is thus of interest to scientists hoping to reconstruct the behavioural ecology of extinct species.  Bill Sellers application of evolutionary robotics to dinosaurs locomotion certainly made my life more fun at Manchester, when he started working their with me 4 years ago. He and many other biologists have been intrigued by the locomotion of living animals for years, but it is the application of that knowledge to extinct species that is beginning to make headway with how dinosaurs might once have moved.

Evolutionary robotics race! Take a peek at Sellers and Manning paper in Proc. Roy. Soc. B in 2007.

I must not forget Professor Kent Stevens at Oregon. His lengthy work on sauropod necks, spiky look at ceratopsian posture and moving work on theropods...has much to be appreciated, as his work is not only very thoughtful, but looks sooooo good too!

Models of T. rex & Nanotyrannus by Prof. Kent Stevens

If any folks are in Philadelphia on November 26th, you will see my homage to these folks and others, that help provide so much insight to dinosaur locomotion.