Saturday, 22 January 2011

Jurassic CSI

Early last year I completed filming a new series for the National Geographic Channel. The fruits of that labour are starting to appear on TV screens around the globe. This series is not just about palaeontology…although dinosaurs are clearly an important theme. The series explores many new techniques in the earth,  physical and biological sciences, from proteomics to particles physics, and from locomotion to geochemistry. The series would not have been possible without the support and collaboration of many scientists at the University of Manchester, but especially Roy Wogelius (SEAES), David Hodgetts (SEAES), Bill Sellers (FLS), Paul Mummery (Materials), Chris Martin (Materials),  Phil Withers (Materials), Adam McMahon (Wolfson Molecular Imaging Centre), Terry Brown (MIB), Alan Crossman (FLS), Jon Codd (FLS), Mark Ferguson (FLS), Matthew Cobb (FLS), Lee Margetts (Research Computing Services) and the staff of the Manchester Museum.

The series will be transmitted in the UK from February 3rd (National Geographic Channel Wild), then in Canada, France, Russia, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Asia (distributed through Taiwan Nat Geo), Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and South America National Geographic.

If you want to learn more about the series, click on the links below, as this will take you to the National Geographic Channel web pages for the UK launch of the Jurassic CSI series.

 A large number of video clips have also been placed on the website:

My apologies for the lack of postings this past week, but research, teaching and writing have kept me more than busy. Tonight was a late night again, as Dr David B. Weishampel  from John Hopkins University,  came to Penn and gave a stunning talk on 'Transylvanian dwarf dinosaurs'...great title and even better lecture!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Tasmanian bouncers and egg-layers!

Our drive into the Tasman bush was almost as exciting on-road, as it was 'nearly off-road'...It seems that the accepted local driving technique on dirt-roads with many blind corners involves speed, lack of breaking, expletives, fist-waving and juggling of mobile phone...well, that's what many locals were trying to teach me via positive reinforcement. Each time a tell-tale plume of dust appeared ahead or behind us, I prepared myself for the spray of dirt, gravel and expletives.  Given I was nominated driver, I should have taken photos of the said driving, as I am sure photography could be added to the multitasking ability of Tasman road etiquette. One thing is for certain, the large number of road-kill at the side of every by-way was almost certainly a function of the Taman dirt-road driving code...or lack of one!

A Kangaroo watches us from a safe distance...away from the road!
As we headed north on the island to Mount William National Park, the roads became very narrow, this possibly gave the local wildlife a chance of getting across alive. This was not due to cars slowing due to the narrower, twisting roads, more to do with the animals having less ground to cover as they dash in front of oncoming vehicles...some, I noted on occasion, on the wrong side of the road (vehicles that is!). As we entered the Park we turned off the main dirt road towards the Eddystone Lighthouse, where a campsite was situated drawing many vehicles to this remote part of Tasmania. Off the 'main' dirt road, we slowed our pace to a the vain hope we might see local wildlife...alive! We had been saddened by the sheer body count on the road, but slightly heartened by the fact that Tasmanian Devils would get a free meal...albeit the ultimate in fast food, else they too might join their departed meal.

A dark shape at the foot of the tree moved...
Looking for beasties in the Tasman bush initially reminded me of hoping to spy a Kiwi in New know they are there, but you do not stand in a chance of seeing one. Frustrating. Tasmania is different. If you stand still and remain quiet for a few minutes, the bush soon delivers up a bouncing pouched wallaby or suchlike. However, hiding in the shadows near our road was something that none of us expected to see...a monotreme! There are only two groups of monotreme left in the world, found both in Australia and New Guinea. They include the bizzarre egg-laying mammals, the platypus and echidnas, that are essentially like us mammals, bar the egg thing. They have an interesting evolutionary history, in so far it is very poorly known, with a few fossils from Australia in the Cretaceous. These Cretaceous fossil monotremes indicate this group radiated at least 70-80 million years ago...but surely there has to be earlier fossils? Alas, none have been found to-date.

We stopped the car and slowly approached the base of the tree and were greeted by a site we really did not expect. A ball of fur, spines and the pointiest nose you could ever imagine, perched on such a round animal. It was as if a golf tee had stuck itself to a golfball...a spiky golfball. This was our first and possibly last siting of an echidna. Often called the 'spiny anteater' this small spiny ball also supplements its diet with worms, insects, termites and am sure anything the right size that crawls within range of its long sensing nose.

Molecular studies of both the platypus and echidna suggest they share a common water-living ancestor, some 30-50 million years ago. Leaving a watery habitat at this time would have been a brave leap for such a group, given marsupials ruled the Earth...well Australia. Many pouched beasties would have been looking for similar ecological niches to occupy and share with the early echidnas, but it seems they managed to eek-out an existence in the face of such bouncy competition. It has been suggested that the echidnas egg-laying adaptation provided them the edge over the marsupial reproductive strategy. 

After a few minutes of watching the echidna, we all returned to the car with broad grins. Knowing that we had all had a close-encounter of a spiky, monotreme kind. Simply stunning. The echidna waddled-off about his or her not sure how you might determine the sex an echidna?

As we drove further into the Park, the kangaroos and wallabys became less weary of our car...possibly because they did not recognise it as a car, given we were driving slowly, engine not screaming, and horn not blowing. As I spied a wallaby almost outside our car, I stopped. With a hint of guilt, we all snapped photographs of the shy herbivore, remembering the 'Wallaby Jerky' I had eaten in Sydney airport a few days earlier.

While many of us happily eat cow, chicken and pig...(ah, the memory of the CCP burger in South Dakota last year...yes, a CowChikenPig burger!), the thought of eating marsupial was initially odd. But I have also to admit, the night before we had all tried wallaby sausages and they were good! Gives a whole new twist to, 'One mans meat is another mans marsupial'....

For many years I have been fascinated by wallabys, this in part was due to a paper by McNeil Alexander on the elastic recoil he measured in the hind limbs of these hopping macropods (literally 'big-foot'). If it wasn't for the fact that they hopped, when seen at a distance...a long could be forgiven for thinking they have an almost dinosaurian body outline...until they move. However, as Bill Sellers, colleagues and I suggested in a paper last year...hopping might well have been in the locomotor repertoire of some bipedal dinosaurs! Even I, as a child, have been driven to hopping...usually in a school race! I'm not suggesting that dinosaurs hopped around the Mesozoic, just that they were capable of a hop, if the mood took them.

However, the limb and pelvic adaptations of macropods places them in a hopping league all of their own, with some of the larger kangaroos being able to reach speeds upwards of 40 miles per hour for the 200 pound red kangaroo (Macrpus rufus). This bounder can also leap up to 25 feet in a singe hop, but also clear a 10 foot fence...that's accomplished hopping!

By the end of our long day in the north west edge of Tasmania we headed back to Hobart and to the our hosts Andrea and James. Tomorrow, we had work to do...of a bunny variety. Alas, I cannot share this work with you, as its part of a research program of a colleague at Penn. However, I shall pick-up my Tasman tale with a brief look at some very, very, very old fossil wood!

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Wild Tasmania

The great thing about staying with James and Andrea, was that we all got to meet plenty of interesting species on our doorstep. They both have a passion for looking after beasties...not surprising given James is a vet. However, I have met few vets as dedicated as James (Karen of course!). He answered his cell phone and made house calls for owners with vomiting cats to dogs that were refusing to eat...on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, when few would even consider picking up a phone! Let us return though to the several acres that James and Andrea work is jam-packed with alpaca, Highland Cattle, etc. 

The day after we arrived in Tasmania, James decided to put us all to work. We were to move 20 or so alpaca from one enclosure to another, and then coax them into a shearing pen. A simple task. It was summer in the southern hemisphere and their coats were thick, so the shearers had been booked for the following day. James and Andrea organised our 'team alpaca' into an disorganised line of 'herders'. Phase 1 of the exercise went smoothly, possibly courtesy of the large number of fences corralling the alpaca from one enclosure to the next. Phase II, involving the shearing corral...was interesting...James possibly found it infuriating, frustrating, annoying, confusing, amongst other verbs, usually combined with loud expletives, that were liberally offered to the whole team. This far from focused us, having the main affect of making us break-down into fits of laughter...sorry James.

To say we were hopeless at herding alpaca would be very generous. James knew exactly where he wanted us each to stand and what each of us had to do, we were just not very organised in translating that wish into reality. After several attempts of gental arm-waving and coaxing we had only managed to persuade two sheep, who lived with the alpaca, to enter the shearing pen. This they mainly did by themselves....when we were not looking. The alpaca were successfully herding us, more than we were them.

The worse we became at herding, the more frustrated James became, but Andrea on the other hand just remained calm and smiled, "It took us years to figure these animals out"...we had only a few hours and were at that point...far from functional alpaca herders!  After much arm-waving, expletives, running, stumbling and coaxing, the alpaca finally gave up on their playful game of 'avoid the corral' and slowly entered their shearing pen...much to one and alls relief. We were all exhausted. I still think James is convinced we were deliberately being daft?

A couple of animals that were slightly easier to deal with were the Clydesdale/thoroughbred giant horses...and I mean giant, as both were over 17 hands! Jim is pictured below with one of the said giants...its worth pointing out that Jim is 7 feet tall....

Whenever James, Andrea or Jim called to the horses, they would skip over like two colossal puppies...the horses that is. Enough of the animals 'back at the ranch', it is time to show you some of the Tasmin wildlife that is so incredible. The first wildlife sortie we made, entailed getting up at a location near the northern tip of the Island.

Its rare that you see a sign with the words 'Beware penguins'...but come to the southern hemisphere and its not too uncommon. However, the species of penguin we were interested in here, was the smallest penguin known in the world, the Blue Penguin or Fairy Penguin (Eudyptula minor) and is far from common.

Sporting flashlights and cameras, we headed to the shore at 4am, to a locality that Karen had visited before, for the same reason. Being an avian vet, Karen is inordinately fond of birds, but lets face it, who is not fond of penguins?

Jim, Karen, Victoria, Hillary and I were the only ones to rear our heads at 4am...El decided to sleep it out. As we pulled-up to the beach in my 'soccer-mum' people carrier (a badge I wore for the whole trip!), we were instantly greeting by the calls of waking penguins and the smell of raw/processed fish. When I say processed, I mean via the gut of the said penguins...not a pretty smell. 

As soon as we stepped on to the rocks, we almost stumbled over the Blue Penguins...they were incredibly tolerant of us and our lights, as they hopped and waddled their way to the shore, to make for their feeding grounds.

Some spied us warily from beneath rocks and coves, but most waddled about their morning business.

As the sun began to rise over the shore, fewer and fewer penguins could be seen or heard. The sunrise was suitably tastastic...a great way to start any day.

As we packed up our cameras and headed back to the car, we decided that today would be a wildlife day...besides, it was Boxing what species would be a suitable species to look for on boxing day?

We soon found a sign that confirmed our potential boxing wildlife had undertaken the dangerous past-time of car-tipping...possibly a function of the said species miss-hearing in conversation the unpleasant practice of cow-tipping. Personally, I have no idea why one would want to give spare change to a cow?

Bounding marsupials and spiky monotremes to follow soon!

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Tasmania....Blighty in disguise!

This has been a slow blog to write, which is certainly no reflection of the time spent in Tasmania...more due to the tortuous flights from Sydney to LA and then Philadelphia. I recall being picked-up at Philadelphia airport, but little else. I seem to have slept for the past two days. I shall now try and observe blogger etiquette and add a day-by-day take on the trip in a few blogs..not one big one as I have in the past.

The team going to Tasmania all met in Sydney Airport. Dr Karen Rosenthal was leading our group, that included myself, Victoria, Jim (Karen's husband) and her two daughters (El and Hillary). We all felt flight fatigued already, but knew we still had a few hours to wait before our connecting flight left for Hobart (Tasmania). We caught a taxi (yes, its too far to walk and there was no other transit) from the international to the domestic terminal. We then sat drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, waiting for the flight. El and Hillary foraged for some local delicacies...Emu Jerky, Crocodile Jerky and Kangaroo Jerky!

The flight to Hobart was short, as most of the team slept. As our plane made its final approach to the Hobart airport, I could not understand why it was heading for such a small strip of road alongside an estuary...until I realised that this was the airport runway! More striking than the optimistic landing area was the likeness of the Tasmanian countryside to that of England. The rolling hills and patchwork of green fields were a complete surprise to me. How could a land so well-known for its biting, stinging, poisonous occupants look so familier.

To say Hobart Airport was small would be an understatement, but to suggest this was a bad thing, would be wrong. The single luggage belt delivered all our luggage and a stuffed seal (as in the marine mammal!), in double-quick time. Unlike Sydney and many other airports where you loose the will to function as your luggage does not arrive, Hobart was a refreshing change.

We soon despatched ourselves to the car hire, where I became nominated driver for the week. This had nothing to do with my skill as a driver, but more to do with the fact that Australians drive on the correct side of the road...i.e. not the right! The lefthand drive and rolling countryside were making me feel quite homesick, but at the same time at home...until I saw my first marsupial roadkill! Large quantities of roadkill became a recurrent theme on the trip...usually accompanied by the words, 'now what was that?'.

We drove through Hobart and then up towards Mount Wellington, a marker I would navigate to and from over the next few days. The winding road took us higher and higher and as we turned off the main highway it soon became a dirt road. After going down hill for only a few hundred yards we turned off onto the 'road' where James and Andrea lived, our hosts for the trip. We wound our way between trees along the track and soon a clearing ahead marked our destination. After being greeted and fed by our hosts, we all collapsed into our beds. I should say that being 'fed' is not doing justice to the wonderful cuisine that Andrea she would each successive night.

We all slept soundly that first night in Tasmania.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

The longest day?

Tomorrow at 12:35pm I set-off for Philadelphia, this being Sunday January 2nd 2011 in Australia...I arrive 20+ hours later in Philadelphia, again on Sunday January 2nd 2011 at 5:30pm in the afternoon. I love the international has provided me with the longest January 2nd I have ever had to endure...I say 'endure', as once again I will be flying. My favourite thing :-(

This past week has been stunning. The geology, palaeontology, wildlife and people of Australia have been wonderful. I have to say that Tasmania is a hidden gem, packed with beautiful landscapes, amazing climate and very friendly inhabitants. We all felt welcome and at home.

New Years Eve in!

Fireworks over the Opera House in Sydney Harbour

Forgive this short blog, as I shall do as I did with China and later provide a longer and more pictorial blog of the past week...but shall write this on my flight to Philadelphia, via Los Angeles. I shall once again disobey the rule of long apologies in advance!

Now I must sleep.