Tuesday, October 17, 2017

I'm Killing Antediluvian Salad But Even In Death There is Rebirth...

So I am laying antediluvian salad down to rest. It's been real. The idea really came to me where almost all of my ideas come from - out of the blue and when I was driving behind the wheel. It is due to no lack of creativity or passion on my part. I'm as excited about exploring deep time as I ever was. There is a consternating problem at hand but it is the sheer amount of ideas and thoughts that I have, exceeding the pace to which I can actively document them even in blogging format.  However this problem - if you can call it that - has so far only been exacerbated through the pace of discovery and I guess it is just my cross to bear.  Nor is my ending antediluvian salad due to lack of appreciation from the community. I've been getting lots of positive comments on my ideas, Plos One and the dinosaur mailing list often link to my articles. Even my most vociferous critics have either melted away or simply don't come around anymore. The blog is approaching one million unique page views. Nor do I want to leave the impression that ending this blog rather abruptly and at a time when I was getting consistent attention and laudable comments is due to some great malaise or depression.

I want to end it at an apogee, I want to end on a high note. I want to end it on my own terms.

I simply think I have throttled, shook, used and abused the medium of blogging for all its worth. I still believe and am excited by the medium. Watching the evolution of an idea unfold; the immediacy; the interaction are all very good and fun things. Unfortunately we live in a culture where blogging is not a recognized form of science communication. Even the most liberal of scientists seem to walk in lock step with this notion. Technologically we live in a world where even a simple observation or comment can be archived and, potentially, cited. I do believe in a day where what you say matters more than who is saying it or in what format they are saying it in. Culturally that day has not come and we are still split up between the workers and the amateurs, between blogging and scholarly journals. I was never one for such binary distinctions - I don't believe in high brow versus low brow art for instance. I'm always caught between the ghetto and the glamour in my life. Maybe that is why drawing such a distinction is so problematic for me…

So instead of letting antediluvian salad devolve into an increasingly frustrating morass of success and failure - where I am consistently lauded for my ideas but ignored because they are "not in the literature" I decided to nip it all in the bud. Every minute I spent researching, writing, illustrating, and fawning over some new idea to be put into (scientifically unrecognized) blog format I was letting some other equally important idea languish in the background, also condemned to some weird limbo level of purgatory in blogger hell. Intuitively plausible to any knowledgeable reader but in a strict "no touch" sub level of academic discourse. Again, I don't agree with this system. I think a truly liberal open science paradigm shift would account for people like me inclusively and could archive even blogs as part of the academic discourse. But I know we are not there yet. And we will probably need to take baby steps to get there.

That is why I will be dedicating the time I would have spent blogging and documenting my ideas (both new and old) at antediluvian salad but instead archiving them on the open science paleontology platform PaleorXiv, spearheaded by Jon Tennant of the blog Green Tea and Velociraptors. I was completely ignorant that an actual open science paleontology hub was already in place when I wrote that piece on open science recently. Well the future is already here it seems. Jon is very prescient in establishing such an open science platform especially geared towards paleontology. So I will be going over some of my most promising ideas I documented in blog form, cleaning them up a bit, putting a nice bow tie on them and uploading them there. I know, I'm such a sell out. However the future of science is open science and to what ends I can spread and inform people about the benefits to such a system I will move in that direction. I think some of my higher profile ideas can create substantial excitement and knowledge of open science if archived at PaleorXiv.

I look forward to tinkering in this new format and seeing what we can get out of it through a new interactive form of open critique, review, and collaboration. I do think that once it grows into more of a community and people see the obvious merits of it, the dam will be split wide open, as it already is starting to break in other sciences. It should be fun for those people who have been along for the ride on antediluvian salad for some time to see the evolution of an idea from a blog post, to a pre-print, to a more finalized copy - and to know that they were in fact part of the whole process. I will be on the lookout for collaborators who want to give my ideas a more refined, finalized copy. I need people good at math, stats, all that numbers stuff, which my mind reels at. More visual artists needed. Bringing in multiple strata of people into scientific idea making and testing hypothesizing has always been one of my personal mandates for the blog and to see an avenue open up right now that meets those ends is a fortuitous synchronicity.

I have learned, through my introduction of new ideas and "outside the box thinking" ( I loathe that term btw) that people, for the most part, need to be coddled along into considering and accepting new ideas. I predict that this will be the path for open science as well. Small little baby steps are needed. The good news is that such baby steps will not be needed for the youth. If you are a young person reading antediluvian salad you might already have an intuitive understudying of open science and won't need your hand held like many adults. You grew up in an era of social media and the immediacy of communication. You will hit the ground running. You are the future.

On My "Process"

There is a rational, evidence based approach to science that most subscribe to and advocate. Science by incrementalism where step 1 leads to step 2, step 3, and so forth… never skipping a step, never deviating and never jumping too far ahead of the prescribed format. As you may guess this is not the format of science I adherently subscribe to or utilize in mine own thinking. Some may say this means I am not a scientist… so be it. Instead of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…. I go 1, 2, 3, 4….7 - you can see I skip a whole bunch of steps. But by going straight to step 7 and skipping 5 & 6 I usually go to an answer that explains a whole bunch of stuff that  step 1, 2 & 3 did not explain or simply ignored. And then later on steps 5 & 6 get filled in with new data and evidence and then step 7 - the step I skipped to - starts to make a whole lot of sense. Instead of step 7 being the weird, outlier it starts to look like the more pragmatic, utilitarian answer. Such a methodology comes naturally to me but I recognize that it may cause a lot of consternation to others of a more rational mindset… that is because it is not strictly rational per se but encourages a sort of intuitive, artistry of truth seeking.

And now after some time many of my ideas are beginning to bear fruit and a palpable shift in perspective is being witnessed. Plesiosauromorphs are undergoing a bit of renaissance; it is now generally regarded that they were substantially plumper than depicted in the past; notions of complicated social groupings and mesopredator inclinations are gaining traction. Dinosaur integument is still very wide open; neither feather nazis or scale loyalists stand on firm ground, I like this chaos and uncertainty. More and more data is coming to light discrediting the notion of cursorial T. rex; opening up the playing field for night-stalker rex. Various skin derived display features are now common place in dinosaur art; even vulturine dromaeosaurs is becoming a meme at this point. Talk of omnivorous ankylosaurs is now common place; some would say even tentatively accepted. Spinosaurus… well people need to be coddled along with that one for just a bit more, but more and more people are coming around to what I have suggested. People at least have the breathing room to talk about unorthodox facial tissue on saber-toothed predators without being laughed out of the room (which is what my point was all along). While I can't lay full claim to all of these ideas you can trace back a lot of the discussion stimulated and thought provided from this blog. And for those reasons I consider the blog and the thoughts and ideas pushed forth from it a resounding success.

But let it be known that the genesis for my ideas is not strictly "rational" although rationality is the ultimate dividing line between those ideas I scrap and those that I continue to develop...

The Four Table Legs of Truth Seeking

Truth seeking is like a table with four legs that are needed to stand up - cut off one leg and the table topples.

One leg is intuition - that insight, that emotional plea that causes interest and an unyielding curiosity to dive into a particular avenue of discourse, even when it offers no immediate reward. You don't know why you are interested in this particular subset of a field and that it gobbles up all of your free time. When you start to neglect social obligations, work, eating. Listen to that intuition, it is there for a reason!! The greatest horror of modern science culture is that it has so negated intuition in favor of rationality that whole personality subtypes are being eschewed from the process. Intuition is perhaps the greatest leg needed for advancement but is perhaps the most discredited and neglected. That intuition is often credited as a feminine trait and that both intuition and females are neglected in modern scientific culture I don't consider a coincidence. I know intuition is important in science because every single one of my insights and ideas occurred in a flash - through a subconscious reaction where knowledge met insight. Not strictly rational.

Another leg is creativity. This is the anarchic throw everything at the wall approach to truth seeking that is so difficult for many that have shifted too far over into the rationalistic approach to reconcile within the confines of modern science. Truth seekers need this freedom and more than anything they need permission to make mistakes. Everyone needs a little bit more permission to make mistakes and to be able to acknowledge that mistakes were made. The problem is not mistakes being made, it is doubling down on mistakes after they occur - because of the ego - that is the problem.

Spirit is a leg needed for truth seeking. I prefer to speak of spirituality in the most nebulous terms capable: the subtle acknowledgment that the universe within is in a two way communication with the outside universe. When inward looking truth is compromised by outside ego-mediated mandates (i.e. organized religion) then spirituality gets a bad name. Right now scientific culture is beholden to the ego. Scientists need to disavow the ego in its most extreme permutations in order to advance science. This is a spiritual struggle in science. A little ego is good for the fight, good for passion. But too much can hold new ideas and thoughts at hostage - where simply the power of ones name is enough to hold sway over better dissenting opinions and thoughts. It should not go unnoticed that open science offers a path to remedy this malady that modern scientific culture is thrall to. When you are walking the path with your spirit in lockstep towards truth seeking things will start to happen, synchronicities will occur. Don't bother trying to convince others or even argue about it. Just take the subtle acknowledgement that the  universe  within is - and always has been - in communication with the outside universe. And that the outside universe is giving you a gentle nudge and an "atta boy" in walking your path...

The fourth leg in truth seeking is rationality. Many consider this leg the only leg that matters or is of importance in science. This is a table with only one leg, it is inherently unstable. Even with a broad base, lean on that table too much in any one direction and it wilt topple. Inversely a truth seeking paradigm based wholly on intuition is also unstable, liable to topple and easily poisoned by the ego. Rationality is the filter, it is the final step in filtering out the noise of information that intuition, creativity, and spirit foster us with. But a culture of science that advocates rationality - and only rationality - is doomed for failure. I will say it already is failing us and one need look at the outside world to see proof of this.

When a table sits with all four legs flush and equal in length and strength - it will stand strong. When scientific culture begins to accept and laud the values of intuition, creativity, spirit, and rationality - not placing one before the other, lauding some but disavowing others - then science and scientific culture (because the two are separate and don't always walk in lockstep) can walk the path towards truth seeking and become truly unstoppable. The future is not wholly Dr. Spock nor is it wholly Captain Kirk - but a blending of the two. Rationality and logic acting as a filter to intuitive creative anarchy, all moving with a cadence of emotionally charged synchronicity.

Many fear that we are moving into a new sort of dark ages… you know of what I speak of... even towards end times - an extinction event that we should not be too confident that we will get through. This is entirely possible. That these collapsing systems of institutionalized power of the press, government, science are presenting us with a vacuum to be filled with all of the wickedest things. Which is entirely possible. What is discouraging to me is not that the center is not holding; not that systems are collapsing; not that the worst of things are often times creeping into newly opened spaces; what is discouraging to me is that often times our first instinct is to assume that the worst of things will and should be assuming power and precedence in these newly opened vistas. That our de facto response should be that not only is the fox in the hen house but that it belongs there. Pessimism and lack of faith in humanity have replaced any sort of courage or audacity in the vacuum created by change.

It is also entirely possible that the darkest hour is before the dawn: that the dissolution of traditional institutions offers a vacuum to be filled with all of the best things. That we are in fact on the edge of an old cycle poised to start a new cycle. Know that at each step in the advancement of human consciousness there were nay sayers stipulating you can't change the way things are because; "that is just the way things are"; "that is how the real world is"; "know your place son"; "don't rock the boat if you are in it". There has always been that voice in humanity saying "don't play with fire you will get burnt"; "don't question the king"; "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down"; "don't challenge the slave master"; and "act like a good little boy/girl should ". That these voices are and have always been around and that they (your parents, relatives, teachers, friends) purport to act in your best (short term) interests is self evident. You will in fact have a safer, more secure and probably happier life by following and not questioning the system. Until you wake up one day and realize that the system you are living in is really a nightmare. That the people who have loved and coddled you your whole life have been working in your best short term interests - go to school, get a good job, get married, procreate - are in fact unwittingly codifying a system that is killing us and killing the planet.

Modern scientific culture serves too many masters - academia, business, ego - and it has lost track of the original intention of science, an unfettered and free quest for knowledge. For these reasons science will continue to lose its battle for the human soul and scientific culture has nothing to blame for this except its lack of self correction. It seems science can correct all of the world's problems except its own - a self imposed slavery towards ego, academic culture, and business - all at the expense of expanding a scientific citizenry and a truly open and free scientific discourse.

Ok last rant on antediluvian salad, so I had to give it a little extra oomph…

To end on a slightly less dystopian nod…

Some of the things I am most proud about from antediluvian salad:

I always wrote with the mindset "what would 13 year old Duane have wanted to read about?" and tried to convey my ideas in a language easily grasped by a relatively knowledgeable young enthusiast, unencumbered by overly technical language.  I wanted to at least impart the sort of enthralling, immersive experience I got when I was a young grommet and I got hold of books like Robert Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies or Gregory S. Paul's Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. I don't know how well I succeeded in this? Some have told me as such, that they looked forward to my posts and got a certain evocative thrill from them. I think in part paleontology and even dinosaur paleontology has lost some of this evocative story telling as it has strived to become a more respected science. The problem that occurs when paleontologists stop telling speculative, amazing stories is that franchises like Jurassic World write the stories, they get to own the narrative… and we know how that panned out.

I always maintained an artistic integrity and wrote from the heart about what I was interested in at the time. This means that I never took requests for articles because I did not want things to come off as too contrived.  Even if I wrote about highly exposed items (i.e. T. rex or Spinosaurus) I always think I added something new and captivating to the subject. I also never put those ugly blogger ads on my site. I did not market myself as a commercial venture. These ethics might not be important to the average reader but they are important to me.

I laid myself bare. I never pretended to be without strengths and weaknesses, implicit biases of mine own. As much as I could I tried to come to terms with how mine own intrinsic likes and tastes color mine own interpretations and depictions of things. I know that this "wallowing" in mine own biases probably put off some, I say that they were put off by my honesty and courage of expression. That I lay bare an uncomfortable truth that other paleoartists might be averse to coming to terms with for fear of appearing less scientifically "legit":  how their own intrinsic likes and dislikes colors their own creations. There always is some of the artist in their art. Personally I don't think this is something to run away from in both the artist, scientist, and creator.

I broke the top down flow of information in paleontology. There are only so many paleontologists out there and in any one speciality they all tend to know one another. It is a social group and they do exchange ideas, photos, manuscripts, and specimens all the time. Stuff that the general public is not privy to. When a new "revelatory" paper is unleashed I truly doubt it as all that "new" to a great many career academics. They have heard about it, maybe even reviewed it. They feign surprise on social media but a great many probably knew its coming down the pike. Embargoes due to fear of pilfering of information and ideas is usually cited. l consider these practices all part of the old skool academic mentality thrall to egos, "first authorship", and priority. Such notions are discontinuous with an open science paradigm shift and will become transparently ludicrous with some cultural shifting. If I introduced a new idea or hypothesis on my blog you can rest assured that the 13 year old enthusiast is getting it just as soon and as transparently as the career academic. Open science would allow us all to see the genesis of an idea or hypothesis from start to finish, a much more inclusive and exciting process.

I maintained academic honesty. I never once fabricated or misled people on primary data. Despite covering very controversial and unsettled subject matter and often taking stances contrary to or opposed to prevailing sentiment or consensus I have never once been found in corruption of telling the truth as goes source material. A bit sloppy on always writing full zoological names or spellings or compiling neat and tidy reference lists - yes. But never once have I willfully misled or misstated others data or stances on issues and ideas. I have tried as best I could to make a distinction between what I think is going on and where and when the settled science starts and my speculation begins - if others can't make that distinction I'm sorry but I can't let that fear sway me from mine own thought process. As best as I could I tried to include ideas and arguments counter to mine own and unflinchingly consider them. I have and will continue to evolve my thinking and have changed my stance on a number of issues, including scrapping some of my own ideas. I consider this a trait that sets me apart from many of the "fringe" players in paleontology who continue to double down on outdated ideas/methodologies. Even some career academics are guilty of beating the dead horse of a bad idea for far too long. For this legacy I am proud of having achieved this during the several years and hundreds of posts I wrote at antediluvian salad. I think this is no small feet.

I laid eggs in people's brains, some of the eggs are hatching. For me my crowning achievement and what makes me most proud of antediluvian salad is not when a reader replies with praise or reverence, or that there is unanimous agreement on some idea or notion I bring up (that kinda annoys me tbh), but when they simply say "that really made me think". Thinking and causing others to think and question things is, and I'm only just beginning to realize this at age 38, no simple feat and not to be taking lightly. Maybe I take the notion for granted because I am always thinking and poring things over in my own head.  Maybe my brain is just wired a little differently? Sometimes it is like an open faucet that I need to shut it off. But I wonder just how much active thinking, questioning, and analysis goes on in others heads. When I look back at a lot of my ideas I documented here at antediluvian salad they are due to not some intricate morphometric analysis or computational algorithm but simply flipping the paradigm of how we think about things. Inverting the equation. When I did that , what happened more often than not is that "flipping" or "inverting" an idea caused a whole bunch of other problems and issues to simply melt away.

Sometimes I look at science communication or simply information exchange as one brain opening up and barfing its contents into another persons brain with no filter. An exchange of information yes, but are we teaching how to discriminate the good from the bad? In any exchange of information - a blog post, science editorial, or peer reviewed paper - there is invariably going to be some good stuff and some bad stuff to varying degrees. How to tease apart the relevant and the useful from the not so relevant and not so useful is a skill that I feel needs sharpening.

There are some recurring themes that should have become quite apparent to regular readers. These are sins of paleontology that, upon analysis, show themselves more and more.

If a researcher posits an animal as a "failed evolutionary experiment" run to the hills. Failure to explain a feature or trait of an extinct animal reflects more on the failure of the researcher than the animal itself. Failed evolutionary experiments are a myth. If they were so prevalent in the past, then where are all the failed evolutionary experiments of the present?

When an extinct animal is consistently failing the test regarding believability maybe it is time to look at it with fresh eyes. When you start to look at potential problems as potential positives and then other issues start to melt away and vanish, you are on the right track.

All things being equal if you have to choose between a trait being adaptive, negative, or neutral always side with adaptive. Part of the legacy of Gould's Spandrels of San Marco is that adaptive explanations have become frowned upon. Gould was less than precise in actually giving many good examples of modern Spandrels of San Marco in biology but the damage has already been done. It somehow become wittier and more precise to say a feature has no value or negative value than simply putting forth a cognizant and logical argument that a feature does indeed have positive adaptive value. Not all adaptationist arguments are good: some are rubbish but simply to dismiss everything as non-adaptive and under the control of genetic controls of the bauplan is not good and needlessly dismissive.

Popular culture and modern ecosystems does influence paleontological thinking, even amongst researchers.

Future Works

As I mentioned earlier I will be dedicating more time to cleaning up some of the more promising ideas I advanced on antediluvian salad to be archived on PaleorXiv. This includes some of my more high profile pieces and it is my hope that uploading them there will create a system to reference and site them as well as spreading awareness about what open science actually is. Of course there is a downside to this in that I have to put on hold many ideas I have not even put forth on my blog. Again, the stopping of antediluvian salad has nothing to do with my own mental state, or frustration with critics, or lack of inspiration on my own part - I'm caught amongst the cogs of a scientific machinery that has no home for my ideas as I currently put them forth. This is the crux of the problem in that on one hand I'm getting lots of page views, supportive comments, and generally feedback that a lot of my ideas are valid and need more attention but I'm caught against a system that does not recognize blogging as a valid form of scientific communication and documentation. PaleorXiv is at least ethically consistent with what I'm aiming for.

Unfortunately for my readers that means that I will not put forth bloggery type pieces on my ideas yet disclosed on ankylosaur mastication; ornithischian cheeks or lack-there-of; dinosaur sexual politicks; komodo dragon envenomation; plesiosaur buoyancy control; new plesiosaur necks and feeding hypothesis; theropod omnivory and beak evolution; why sauropods survived but prosauropods did not; amongst others. Hopefully I will document these ideas on PaleorXiv after cleaning out the closet of my older promising ideas. I do hope that those who have been along for the ride on antediluvian salad come over to PaleorXiv and encourage other researchers to submit there and grow an open science community. If I do choose to breath life into antediluvian salad in the future it will be of a more typical blogger/researcher format, basically to augment or supplant my research on PaleorXiv. You will not see the mega-posts I have been doing. They simply take so long; take a lot out of me for energy and spare time; and people will not reference them anyways… There is a price to pay for change and growth, some things must be dispensed with.

A book(s)? I have been asked several times if I'm planning a book or told that I should write a book. I have entertained the notion and I think I have at least one potentially important book in me. I would aim for a no holds barred Dinosaur Heresies for the new millennium type book, something that communicates to a popular lay audience my ideas on dinosaur ecology, behavior, eating biomechanics, plant-herbivore interaction. It will, like Dinosaur Heresies actually was, be unapologetically speculative in some areas but touching upon more rigor and testability in others. I think it could be quite profound. The point of the book would not to be "right" about everything as the Dinosaur Heresies is most certainly not right about everything as well. The purpose is brain stimulation and intellectual fodder.

I then have an idea for a comprehensive book on plesiosaurs - that is much needed actually. Probably compile skeletals and illustrations on all species/specimens and give some review on necks/locomotion/feeding/and the whole intricate history of research into this group. I want to make it good and comprehensive. Such a volume has never been attempted before for this group to my knowledge. I will be seeking out collaborators for this project.

There probably is a book on theropod predators. It would draw an ecological distinction between predators and omnivovores/herbivores so I would forego most maniraptorans except for dromaeosaurids but include phorusrhacids, teratornids, and vultures/birds of prey/skuas/petrels. Go across all of the ideas I have advanced and maybe even a timeline comparing theropod predators to synapsids.

I probably have a book on herbivorous dinosaurs/plant interactions/ and Mesozoic ecosystems terra forming in there too somewhere.

I also have the skeletal outline for a paleofiction novella taking place in Hell Creek. Let me tell you this: it is brutal. I'm comparing it to a cross between Game of Thrones and Pulp Fiction. There are no good guys, no heroes - you will have no one to root for. It will make Raptor Red look like Blues's Clues. You will come away slightly disturbed and icky feeling.

So I hope that by seeing the ambitious list of projects I want to complete that it now becomes evident why I have to discontinue blogging. It was simply gobbling up too much of my time, energy, and resources, especially when you consider I usually work 6-7 days a week often 9+ hour shifts. So instead of mounting frustration and disillusionment I'm going in for the clean kill of antediluvian salad - it must die. I have a lot more to say but I feel in my heart that this piece of me has run its course. But blogging is like a toy for me that I can't be trusted with… I do have so much fun with it and the immediacy and lack of filter is compelling but I fear I will never get off of it if I don't kill it now.

Even writing this now and this part of the journey palpably coming to an end I feel a bit misty eyed. I know that I have a small but dedicated group of followers and I hope that you understand why I had to end it, that I had to end it on a high note, and that by ending it like I did on my own terms I will have the time and energy for much more permanent and audacious projects.

Of course life is unpredictable and my mind wanders so I can't hold myself to any one of these projects as of yet because I always follow my muse. That is just part of the deal. I can't promise when I will be back but for now I just have to decompress from constant blogging fatigue.


Duane Nash

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Entering the Nth Dimension of Terra-Forming, Macro-Plant Scavenging, Hive-Minded Hadrosaurs

Do you have a drink handy? Down it. Or any inebriating substance, might be time to imbibe. I can assure you that I wrote this stone cold sober but I realize that a good portion of my audience, rationally minded, might be better served with a little bit of chemical disequilibrium to help foster nth dimensional Mesozoic astral projecting. 

Buckle up kiddos, hold on to your butts...

The following, although couched in as much science as I can drape it in, is not necessarily strictly science per se. I make a lot of assumptions that prove necessary to accept in order to come up with my grander ideas here. It requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief... so be it.  I will at times wear a scientific hat, at others a more deductive, intuitive, detective methodology will supersede the limits of the available science.  It does therefore harken back to a largely eschewed paleontological tradition of detective work, coming up with the best possible scenario with the best possible evidence.  As such it is an adventure in story telling, but I think the story is a good one - quite possibly the best one - and worth sharing. I will gladly change my take on the subject with new or better data available. Until then I think the following ideas as I outline here best answers the question of how large nesting colonies of mega-herbivorous hadrosaurs operated ecologically and, as far as I have seen, sits comfortably in the available data. 

But be forewarned: things will get weird.

To bring you up to speed it might prove useful to go review these old posts I put forth on the subject way back in the day.

Following the Poop Trail: Can Dinosaurs Be Blamed For Termites?

Some of the finer points may have changed but here I argued for unusual and novel food chains in Mesozoic ecosystems and possibly a conserved gut flora from sauropods to termites!! This idea is certainly due for a revisit.

Dinosaur Alternative Food Stuffs

Lichen munching dinosaurs? Sauropods browsing foliose lichens in high latitude polar beech forests? How did these cool, temperate high latitude forests operate?

Rot N' Roll in the Mesozoic Muck

It is in this post, from way back from May 21, 2013, that I first ventured forth an idea that I was very smitten with at the time and which has stayed with me since.

In short format: that the consumption of decayed sequoia coniferous wood by large ornithischians documented via coprololite remains from the Two Medicine Formation and often attributed to Maisaura peeblesorum (Chin, 2007) document a novel ecological relationship. Namely Maisaura was consuming rotten wood and fungi in order to deposit and provision hatchling Maisaura with a ready supply of beneficial gut flora via coprophagy (consumption of dung) but also grow tremendous fungal gardens that further nourished and provishioned young hatchlings with a readily digestible and nutritious bumper crop of mushrooms. Like a giant version of a banana slug spores would pass through the parent's digestive system and find a nice dinosaur dung patty to set up shop in. Because fungi have a more complete and easily digestible protein profile than raw plants they serve as a nice energy and growth boost for the hatchling hadrosaurs. Basically the best analogy being to the large underground fungal gardens leaf cutter ants create. A very simple, diffuse, and elegant energy transfer from detrital food chains to parent hadrosaur to offspring. Because the environmental conditions could not be controlled as in the underground gardens of leaf cutter ants, some years would be better than others in terms of fungi production. Furthermore it is not an obligate food source, the dung and whatever foodstuffs come with it - insects, mollusks, crustaceans, fungi - merely augment the growing hatchlings needs. If there is no fungal bloom of sporocarps, the hatchlings feed on other stuff.

At the time I wrote it I didn't have much readership, nor was there any more compelling evidence at hand to argue such a hypothesis past the point of imaginative fantasy so I kinda let the idea sit fallow for a couple of years. Until I woke up the other day to check out my news feed to unexpectedly discover more evidence of rotten wood munching giant ornithischians has been unveiled via Karen Chin!! Only this time the coprololites hail from the Kaiparowits formation of Utah across multiple horizons and not only contained rotten conifer wood but sizable bits from crustaceans and mollusks!! Like mana from heaven these heavenly piles of shit keep dropping on my doorstep like flaming bags of shit!! But they are bags of poop I certainly don't want to stamp out!!

While the shellfish eating aspect of this study is getting the most attention, it really is the confirmation of rotten wood munching ornithischians - probably hadrosaurs - that has the most far reaching implications. This revelation confirms that dinosaurs tapping into detrital food chains was not some aberrant activity, or the result of some ecological catastrophe but really was just a pretty regular menu option. Let me restate the obvious - multiple instances of rotten wood riddled dung from multiple horizons confirming that this ingestion was not accidental or aberrant and that it was spread across at least two species of hadrosaurs!!

From Chin et. al., 2017:

"The sizes of the exposed deposits are variable, ranging from sub-decimeter sized fragments to masses that cover several square meters and appear to represent multiple defecation events. More than 15 discrete coprolite deposits were discovered within at least three stratigraphic levels in the lower half of the middle unit of the Kaiparowits formation (Eric Roberts personal communication) at sites up to 20 kim apart."

After reading Chin's latest study and especially after reading this piece I hope we are done with the hadrosaurs as the "cows of the Cretaceous" comparison. I mean, how can you be like a cow without giving milk and eating grass anyways? Aren't those two fundamentally cow like attributes that hadrosaurs lacked? When I'm done with you I hope you start seeing hadrosaurs as more analogous to giant kaiju hive forming colonial terra forming insects as opposed to dumb ol' cows.

Indeed a main thrust of the Chin paper is that modern large mammalian herbivores in general don't compare favorably to the large ornithischians that harvested rotten wood, fungi, mollusks, and crustaceans - because quite literally large mega-herbivorous mammals don't really go after these resources to any appreciable extent. This is not to suggest that the paucity of large mega-herbivorous mammals around today shows the full extent of dietary flexibility of the recently extinct gompotheres, ground sloths, notoungulates, and others. And sure everyone loves to point out the occasional deer eating field mice or eggs or whatever BUT no one is suggesting that natural wild populations of modern mammalian herbivores are stuffing their guts full of rotten wood and crabs, they simply don't go after detrital and invertebrate resources as a way of life… they are a lot more conservative dietarily compared at least to a subset of late Cretaceous ornithischians, most parsimoniously hadrosaurs according to Chin.

I think it is also important to make an important distinction that was perhaps not hammered in hard enough in the popular discussions of the most recent Chin paper. The Kaiparowits formation records a much wetter, lacustrine subtropical environment compared to the drier, more temperate Two Medicine. It therefore stands to reason that the exploitation of rotten wood was not due to severe environmental stress as has been stipulated for the Two Medicine coprolites - that there was some sort of drought or environmental degradation that forced these animals into an unusual food resource. In short the repeated documentation of rotten wood foraging across at least two species, from multiple occurrences across multiple horizons forces us to conclude that this is not an aberrant or unusual adaptation - that we should not feel compelled to "explain it away" - but that it was a systematic and deliberate exploitation of a food source not usually associated with mega-herbivores. But why?

The recent Chin paper is on the right track. They link wood rotten wood consumption to reproductive activities both in terms of sequestering necessary proteins and elements needed for egg laying and possible latrine behavior:

"There is no definitive evidence linking the Kaiparowits coprolites with reproductive activities. However the large, multi-deposit coprolite masses may provide some indirect support for correlation of reproductive activities with the woody coprolites because latrine behavior (repeated defecation in a confined area) can be indicative of animals that are spatially constrained. Nesting activities would have necessarily curtailed nomadic movements by breeding dinosaurs."

I think Chin et. al. is correct here to link wood consumption with reproductive actives, especially colonial nesting. Unfortunately due to the limiting nature of peer reviewed scientific product they can't or won't go far enough. They are not thinking BIG ENOUGH. The truth as I will lay out is entirely more interesting and answers some very pertinent questions regarding colonial nesting hadrosaurs. Not only is it time to stop thinking about hadrosaurs as "cows of the Cretaceous" we have to re-imagine what it means to be mega-colony forming mega-herbivore because such situations are not seen today except in artificial human feed lots of factory animal buffets. It is time to start opening up the speculative vistas wider and wider...

I believe the key line of inquiry lies in elucidating the unique nature and ecology of dinosaurian reproductive biology, long incubation periods, nesting ecology, and the flow of nutrients in Cretaceous Laramidia.

Before I do that I want to stipulate two assumptions that will color my interpretations and which I shall disclose now. Keep in mind that these assumptions are not settled science, there is still disagreement. However for simplicities sake they are assumptions I will be working from.  1) Nesting colonies of hadrosaurs were in fact, real, and they were large. The parent(s) did stick around to at least guard the nest from predators until hatching. Given the long incubation time (Erickson et. al. 2017) for Hypacrosaurus (6 months) such nest guarding activities were substantial investments in time and energy. 2) Hatchlings were at least semi-precocial (Geist & Jones, 1996). They could and did upon hatching forage and move around on their own. This does not preclude some amount of direct provisioning by parents, but it is no required. The young continued to use the nest for creche style groups, sleeping and protection especially huddling for warmth,  for some time after hatching (nidicolous i.e. nest bound vs nidifugous i.e. nest leaving). Parental provisioning may or may not have been negligible or non-existent, food stuffs gathered in the immediate vicinity of the nest by the hatchlings on foraging expeditions of the abundant invertebrates, fresh greens and fungi all of which were fostered by the parent hadrosaurs woody dung.

The Elephant(s) in the Room - Long Incubation Periods & Mega-herbivore Nesting Colony Environmental Dilemma

There is an elephant in the room that no one is talking about with regards to nesting colonies of hadrosaurs. For some reason(s) these issues never seem to crop up in discussions of hadrosaur nesting colonies. In fact there are two elephants in the room that need to be coupled and dealt with.

Elephant in the room #1: Large herbivores don't stay tethered to one spot very long, they will quickly strip it of vegetation. 

Elephant in the room #2: Dinosaurs are showing strong signs of long incubation periods.  

Notice that elephant #2 collides with elephant #1 and exponentially increases the dilemma of large colonially nesting hadrosaurs. If you have 6 months of incubation, that gives you a minimum of six months of nest guarding duties. Those six months will create an increasingly large radius of environmental devastation around the nesting colony. The hatchlings inherit a wasteland - not good!!

Although John  Horner does not mention the dilemma of feeding stationary colonies of nesting hadrosaurs in his influential book Digging Dinosaurs he does at least acknowledge the destructive powers in the 10, 000 strong mega-herds of Maisaura he claims are represented at site Camposaur (pg. 138) :

" I wonder a bit about how these kinds of herds affected the environment. Certainly the herds had to keep on the move. They must have stripped one area and then moved on to the next."

Probably the best treatment of the environmental carnage nesting hadrosaurs colonies would impose is taken from Dale Russel's epic tome An Odyssey in Time: The Dinosaurs of North America page 151:

"… Nearby sources of food would soon be depleted, and the parents would had to range ever more widely each day… The rains came, the brushlands greened, and the nests burgeoned with stumbling, chirping hatchlings. Lines of parents streamed along muddy, dung-filled paths to and from the colony. The air was rent by sounds of breaking branches, as trees and shrubs were stripped of their foliage in an ever-widening circle of environmental devastation… Carcasses of dead hadrosaurs began to dot the stripped shrublands, and the area began to acquire something of the appearance of a battlefield."

At least in the case of Maisaura, suggestions that not just one, but maybe several hundred or even thousand multi-ton herbivorous dinosaurs hunkered down for maybe half a year in a rather concentrated locale is mind boggling. There would be an ever increasing radius of devastation surrounding such colonies, making it increasingly hard for nesting hadrosaurs to guard their nest and giving hatchling hadrosaurs a veritable wasteland to inherit.

Overall, the prospect of hadrosaur nesting colonies does not paint a pretty picture but just wait, it gets even bleaker...

The pesky little problem that Dale Russel did not foresee is the long incubation period of non-avian dinosaurs, especially pronounced in hadrosaurs. While the recent Chin paper is correct in pointing its nose in the direction of reproduction (but not for ecological reasons for replenishing calcium and other nutrients) it does not go far enough in making the link between long incubation times, colonial nesting, and the unusual situation of many tons of mega-herbivores remaining in a relatively small area.

The recent work on dinosaur incubation times (Erickson et. al. 2017) is potentially every bit the game changer on the behavioral front as ornithoscelidia is on the phylogenetic front - I don't know why people have been sort of, "whatever" about it? Or just glossed right over it. Maybe they can't see the forest from the trees on this one, but, well, I'm not waiting for them… Hypacrosaurus was one of the dinosaurs in the Erickson study and analysis reveals it to have an incubation period of… wait for it… six months!! Which implies that other hadrosaurs - such as the ones that putatively laid those rotten wood coprolites in the Kaiparowits and Two Medicine formations respectively - had similarly long incubation periods. Not to mention that there is abundant evidence for large Hypacrosaurus nesting colonies (Horner & Currie, 1994). This chain of thought should get us thinking: how did such nesting colonies not become ecological wastelands, given the long incubation periods?

From Dinosaurs' Long Egg Hatching Times Might Have Led to Their Demise paleontologist David Varricchio said:

"These long incubation times likely restricted dinosaurs… If they had parental care, for example, parents would be bound to a specific spot for months (up to six months) of a given year. This would limit migration. Perhaps it would also hinder dinosaurs' response to environmental change."

No wonder so many people are dismissive of the long incubation periods of dinosaurs, it creates a scenario too weird and unstable to justify ecologically. That is until we stop thinking so narrowly about what it means to be a dinosaurian "herbivore" and how long incubation periods are not the "negatives" so many people ascribe them to be but absolute positives.

There is a way to flip this predicament of large mega-herbivorous mega-colonies, long incubation, and environmental degradation on its head. We can actually inverse this equation to come up with a spectacularly novel, productive, and intuitive outcome that better explains the success of these colonies and is not disharmonious with the evidence at hand.

Long incubation periods and nest guarding - potentially via bonded mates - set the stage not for evolutionary failure but forced hadrosaurs into a unique kaiju hive mind of ecological terra-forming. It was the long incubation periods that let hadrosaurs exquisitely render and shape their own environment. They were not victims of long incubation times as often posited from the Erickson study but beneficiaries of them.

The key to imagining long incubation periods as absolute positives is the woody coprolites - the rotten wood consumption that Karen Chin has been documenting for some time now. Hadrosaurs learned how to crack the code of exploiting old growth coniferous forests in a manner that no mammal has done. This allowed hadrosaurs to graft themselves into ecosystems that are today not notable for large abundant mega-herbivores but which dinosaurs, especially hadrosaurids, thrived in: large old growth coniferous forests. Even today large old growth coniferous forests are powerhouses of life, just not necessarily powerhouses of large vertebrate life like they were in the Mesozoic.

Imagining Hadrosaurs as Analogous to Sea Birds - "Hunting Down" Patches of Rotten Wood

Big Sur redwoods Duane Nash

Ever wander through the redwood cathedral forests of Northern California or the old growth coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest? These temperate rain forests certainly inspire the mind, and if you are inclined towards Mesozoic musings, they certainly bend the mind towards thoughts of how dinosaurs slotted into these settings as forests very similar harken back to those days. An interesting dilemma occurs though in such mind questing: such forests today are not known for a particularly diverse or large mega-herbivorous bestiary. Sure you have your bears, deer, elk and what not. However during the Pleistocene there is not much suggestion that things were much different with the large megafauna preferring open grasslands, savanna, and hardwood forests. Dinosaurs were doing something very different from mammals. Sauropods answer the question in part by being large enough to push over the great conifers or simply reach up and bite their foliage. Hadrosaurs were doing something completely different from even sauropods. Hadrosaurs cracked the code, that mammals have so far failed at cracking, by consuming the entire tree itself after it died. They outsourced the initial digestion - the delignification - to fungal partners and then, in an exquisite transfer of nutrients, they shuffle the organic wealth of the old growth forest to their nesting colonies - in more open conditions - which benefits hatchling recruitment. They also eventually die, quite possibly in a forest, where they return the nutrients they stole. They thus speed up the "slow" transfer of nutrients in modern old growth coniferous forests.

Hypacrosaurus foraging on rotten wood resources by Duane Nash

The reason detrital wood resources are important is that they let us think about hadrosaur nesting colonies less like giant conglomerates of typical mega-herbivores and more like nesting colonies of seabirds. Seabirds provide a model for how large groups of active, high energy homeotherms can nest together for several months at one location. They venture to sea to forage for high quality, dependable food stuffs. They can follow other birds and marine life (like cetaceans) to predictably rich foraging grounds. Hadrosaurs actively nesting, I will venture, switched from a foraging strategy of mainly green, live growth towards detrital rotten wood resources not immediately prior to egg laying but subsequent to egg laying and during the nest guarding phase. Like seabirds that depart breeding colonies to locate highly discrete but dependable food sources parental nesting hadrosaurs departed the nesting colony to locate highly discrete but dependable rotten wood resources, completely or largely eschewing live plant resources en route. This ensured several critical aspects that ameliorated conditions for the hatchlings;

1) Vegetal resources were not demolished in the immediate vicinity of the nesting colony which ensured adequate forage and hiding for the hatchlings at a critical juncture;

2) Parent hadrosaurs could follow known paths to localized patches of dead and rotten wood falls. A type of hadrosaur "hive mind" comes into play here that as soon as some hadrosaurs know where to find the rotten trees, they all just follow along (like seabirds);

3) Because these dead trees might be several kilometers away from the nesting colony the net movement of rich partially degraded dung brings a net influx of nutrients into the immediate vicinity of the nesting colony;

4) This flips the notion of nesting grounds becoming "ecological wastelands" on its head, hadrosaurs were terraforming the area around nesting colonies to favor their own hatchlings - indeed the highest concentration of dung would be adjacent to the nesting areas;

5) Hatchling dinosaurs could forage on dung itself via coprophagy, invertebrates attracted to dung, fungi within the dung, spores and seeds sprouting from the dung. In short, imagining detrital wood foraging in this manner solves every problem that long incubating, high metabolism, nesting "mega-herbivorous" hadrosaurs presents. Nesting grounds don't become run down ecological wastelands but booming dinosaur baby powerhouses, the actions of the parents directly terra-forming the immediate vicinity of the nesting colony for the hatchlings benefit. The richest foraging grounds are actually those in the immediate vicinity of the colony!!

Karen Chin has been documenting a particularly nuanced and diverse invertebrate interactions with dinosaur dung, especially from the Two Medicine formation. No less than seven taxa of terrestrial and aquatic snail were found within coprolites from that formation by Chin (2009). Throw in the abundant evidence of back filled burrows of dung beetles and one has a good buffet for young, growing hadrosaurs. For me, this diet of dung based resources is a much more plausible, nutritious, and easily obtainable diet than predigested gruel or some sort of crop milk. One has to imagine that such rough, fibrous plant stuffs as adult hadrosaurs were consuming is not going to produce the richest, most protein laden gruel or crop milk for young and quickly growing hadrosaurs. However if young hadrosaurs can tap into the riches provided by six months or more of woody dung accumulating adjacent to their nest their you have a much more nutritious buffet of insects, gastropods, small invertebrates, fungi, young seedlings, fern fiddleheads, and coprophagous delights. Much more simpler and direct in my estimation.

Maisaura kindergarten by Duane Nash

A Transfer of Nutrients: Dinosaur Terraforming

Duane Nash w/fallen coastal redwood. Jedidiah Smith Park CA

As we start to flip off the switch in our brains of giant "Cretaceous cow "and on to giant Cretaceous macro-plant scavenging, detrital hunting seabird-banana slug,  the ecological scenario starts to switch. Large coniferous dead fall trees are predictable in old growth coniferous forests and they stick around for hundreds of years. A massive fallen old growth redwood Sequoia would provide adequate forage for possibly hundreds of Maisaura!! Indeed massive dead trees are the largest biological caloric windfalls of all, more than dead sauropods or whales. These are truly massive stockpiles of carbon, nitrogen, fungi, and invertebrates. Hadrosaurs would tap into the most productive and important trophic category in old growth forests - the detrital food chain - a niche largely unexploited by modern mega-herbivorous mammals. Once located or "hunted down" - hadrosaurs may have had to march several kilometers to find them - hadrosaurs would make periodic trips from the nesting colony, perhaps even switching egg guarding duties between mates, to the dead falls. We start to imagine these hadrosaurs less like typical herbivores but more like giant macro plant scavengers that let fungi do the hard work of digestion while they reap the rewards. All the while a transfer of nutrients is occurring as dino dung patties are being deposited away from the old growth forests and adjacent to the nesting colony. This energy transfer creates a very different sort of ecosystem from the old growth coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest of North America. Here decaying trees take centuries to break down and the nutrients stay in the forest. In hadrosaur mediated old growth forests the transfer of nutrients may have been much more rapid and multifaceted. Nutrients being cycled out of the forest to the nesting colonies and possibly back into the forest as hadrosaurs died in secluded forest haunts or dragged into deep redwood groves by tyrannosaurids.

When the hatchling hadrosaurs emerge, precocial and ready to fend for themselves, hopefully coincident with rains they are met with a riot of new - dino dung fertilized - growth. The carbon and nitrogen rich chewed up rotten wood dino patties built up over six months of nest guarding and potentially several hundred years worth of colony fidelity is literally dinosaur terra-forming. They have ameliorated conditions for their progeny on a grand scale. Far from being an ecological wasteland the areas around hadrosaur colonies may have been almost preternaturally abundant with life!!

Today redwoods can thrive in small microclimates in borderline semi-arid conditions, as I documented in Redwood Grove Along the Big Sur Coast: Southern Limits where I explored some of the southernmost occurrences of redwoods along the California coast.

southern Redwood Big Sur coast credit Duane Nash

As the picture above attests you can actually see redwood groves growing on the fog enshrined cooler north facing slopes and ravines right adjacent to the traditional xeric chaparral of California. Similar micro habits may have allowed patches of large conifers and sequoia to thrive in semi-arid habits, like in Two Medicine, where colonies of hadrosaurs may have been in striking distance of such stands and their bounty of decaying wood.

A Diffuse Hive Mind Emerges: What is Good for the Colony is Good For the Individual

When we start to look at hadrosaur nesting colonies not as individuals in a collective but more as a meta-organism a "hive" if you will we can start to better make sense of how these giant amalgamations of bio-mass operated in a manner that did not ravage their environment but actually enhanced it. They were terraforming it. Remember that these were nesting operations that - at a minimum - may have required parental supervision of the nest for over half a year. When every rule of modern mega-herbivorous mammals is broken by remaining stationary in a locale for such an extended time it is time to invent new rules. It is actually not hard to imagine a certain evolutionary feedback loop coming into play.

Rule #1: Clutch-mates are the social basis. Your clutch mates are family. You share a genetic heritage. Whatever you do to augment their chance of survival also enhances your genetic legacy via shared genes.

Rule #2: The nesting colony is sacrosanct. Just as clutch mates form the basis for social groupings in dinosaur life, it is indeed clutch mates that establish and form the nucleus for new breeding colonies. Over time these breeding colonies grow in size and scope but their is still a shared genetic legacy.  This is part of the reason, I will venture, Laramidia was so diverse in giant herbivorous dinosaurs. Colonial nest site fidelity and shared genetic heritage decreed a more insular evolutionary swap stakes.

Rule #3: Large colony size is inevitable. Playing the numbers game against predators would push colonies towards the largest possible size. As colonies grew in size and scope they would reach an ecological imbalance. Food resources would become so impoverished and ravaged that the travel time to good patches of vegetation for adults would become untenably long. They could no longer make the treks to food and return to guard eggs in a timely and efficient manner. Likewise in such a scenario hatchlings would emerge to a world of utter devastation - all available vegetation was scoured to the ground in the vicinity of the colony ( I am going with the notion that hadrosaurs were fairly precocial, but may have still sheltered in the nest). In such scenarios we would see colony collapse. The increasingly long treks for vegetal resources by adults coupled with the increasing radius of environmental degradation would spell disaster for adults - increasingly exposed to predators, fatigue, disease, and stress - and hatchlings inheriting an impoverished ecosystem. Colonies would have to change their current ecological course OR FACE OBLITERATION. Unless such large colonies could find a way to skirt the issue of environmental devastation then small grouping or solitary egg laying would be more beneficial than colonies.

Corollary 1: Solution - for adults during nesting periods they eschew greenery and tap into detrital food chains. This solves the problem of environmental collapse within the vicinity of the colony. Such a diet, bolstered with fungi and animal protein, is evinced by the coprolite remains. Hadrosaurs now go on long distance foraging ventures to secure rotten wood, largely foregoing the greenery around the colony. It allows us to compare hadrosaur colonies to sea bird colonies: which instead of "hunting down" discrete patches of rich oceanic life, hadrosaurs "hunted down" discrete patches of dependable detrital resources. Large dead coniferous trees are, then as now, the largest organisms that have ever lived. The haul of carbon, nitrogen, fungal, and animal resources is immense. In processing these giants hadrosaurs circumnavigated the "stationary megaherbivore dilemma", avoided competition with their offspring, and actually transferred nutrients via dung to the immediate vicinity of the colony. They thus terraformed their environment for the benefit of their offspring and enhanced their genetic legacy. It was a WIN-WIN situation for the hadrosaurs.

Corollary 2: The colony becomes a semi-permanent home. Once the detrital-dung-fertilizer feedback loop is set in motion, the bigger the colony gets the more successful the colony becomes. Quite simply the more animals are spreading dung around the vicinity of the colony, the better quality forage is produced for the young i.e. fresh growth, invertebrates, fungi, the more juvenile recruitment succeeds. The colony becomes a sort of metropolis where the richness provided actually allows hadrosaurs to remain there well past the hatchling stage - a phenomena evinced by the multiple growth stages present at Maisaura nesting colonies and mass death assemblages. In fact I will venture a speculative guess that many or most hadrosaur mass death assemblages do not represent migrating herds but more of a time averaged death assemblage pulled from hadrosaurine colonial metropolises.

Corollary 3: The glass ceiling, a potential limit to colony growth at which stage colonies may shrink or experience collapse. It is not necessarily the availability of green growth but the availability of dead growth. Once colonies have cleared all of the old, dead, rotten logs out of the area adjacent to their colony it may in fact be time to move the colony. The hive relocates. It secures a territory with untapped detrital resources and sets in motion the terraforming process anew.

Migrating Mega-Herds or Hadrosaur Metropolises?

credit Metropolis © Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Foundation fair use

And here is where I want to really go for it - really blow your mind... that all of this was a warm up, I mean, why stop now? A fascinating topic in paleontological musings is the holes in the fossil record and how, slipping between the cracks, could be lost and vanished "higher" beings perhaps not unlike ourselves in some scope of magnitude, some ability to shape and manipulate their environment. Let me offer that such beings might not be entirely reminiscent of us in shape or appearance - but still are like us in some quintessential way set apart from other animals in the magnitude of their effect. And let me offer such beings have been staring at us in the face all along that colony forming terraforming hadrosaurs were modifying and shifting environments on a grand scale far beyond that of even typical mega-herbivores. That hadrosaurs were not only ameliorating conditions for their hatchlings but for all growth stages "ontogimorphs" of their  individual species as well. That their terraforming via dung actually created, over generations, prolific hadrosaur citadels or metropolises. Thriving with multiple generations and growth stages of hadrosaur as well as a panoply of commensal, symbiotic, predatory, and commensal species. That these metropolises, somewhat like our own, had their own cadence of birth, growth, decay, and renewal. That these hadrosaur modified environments - metropolises based on an economic driver of conifer dung - not only existed but that we might have tantalizing proof of them.

Although not as well known as the saga of Egg Mountain and the miraculous nesting colonies of Maisaura and Hypacrosaurs that Jack Horner is famed for it is his sight called Camposaur where, "conservatively", 10,000 animal strong Maisaura herd death assemblages are located. No one really knows how these death assemblages formed, if they were just one single event or multiple events. The story usually goes something like this: volcanic out gassings killed a migrating herd of at least 10,000 Maisaura. Volcanic soils partially preserved the bones as fossils, later redeposited in floods.

But let me paint another picture that this "herd" actually represents a primarily residential assemblage of Maisaura killed over time in one locale. An astonishingly productive Maisaura metropolis fertilized not just by conifer dung but by periodic volcanic ash falls. They were double dipping. But there was a price to be paid for this Maisaura heaven. Periodic out gassings of the volcano would kill off vast droves of Maisaura. Bones would be partially fossilized in the volcanic soils, seldom disturbed by scavengers due to the sheer volume of animal mass and volcanic killing fields and periodically swept away via floods for later deposition and preservation.

Altogether this scenario of multiple killing events of a primarily residential Maisaura metropolis is not at all incompatible with the data as we know it. As opposed to one giant migrating herd dying en masse in a single volcanic killing event, multiple killing episodes of perhaps a more modest residential colony might actually be a more parsimonious explanation for Camposaur.

All of this is very typical of our species in-born bias that we would not recognize such complex biological ecological systems from the past because we are looking for something that resembles our own tool mediated civilizations. Instead we should expect such systems more to resemble the most dominant, successful and ubiquitous colonial living arrangements known - social insect hives. That dinosaurs would evolve such systems that parallel insect societies should really not be that surprising in hind sight, they had more than enough time to evolve such complexity - even if it was not tool mediated or under the auspices of some great intellect.

Brigitte Helm Metropolis

There is perhaps a moral in all of this. Perhaps colonial hadrosaurs that tapped into detrital ecosystems, cracked the code of conifer forests, and broke all the rules of what it means to be a mega-herbivore… perhaps they offer a model of right living in hot house worlds. That using dung to form metropolises and outsourcing digestion to fungi - maybe these are tricks we can learn something from?

Anyways, something to chew on...




Chin, K., Feldmann, R.M., and Tashman, J.N. 2017. Consumption of crustaceans by megaherbivorous dinosaurs: dietary flexibility and dinosaur life history strategies. Scientific Reports 7, article number 111163. online

Chin, K., Hartman, J.H., and Roth, B. 2009. Opportunistic exploitation of dinosaur dung: fossil snails in coprolites from the Upper CretaceousTwo Medicine Formation of Montana. Lethaia 42: 185-198.

Chin, K. 2007. The paleobiological implications of herbivorous dinosaur coprolites from the Upper Cretaceous Two Medicine Formation of Montana: why eat wood? Palaios 22: 554-566.

Erickson, G.M., Zelenitsky, D.K., Kay, D.I., and Norell, M.A. 2017. Dinosaur incubation periods directly determined from growth line counts in embryonic teeth show reptilian-grade development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. vol 114, no. 3. online

Geist, N.R., Jones, T.D. 1996 Juvenile Skeletal Structure and the Reproductive Habits of Dinosaurs. American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. online

Horner, J., and Gorman, J. 1990. Digging Dinosaurs

Russel, D.A. 1992. An Odyssey in Time: The Dinosaurs of North America

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Cartorynchus Proposed as Analogous to Epaulette Sharks: An Exposed Reef Hunting Tidal Pool Specialist

This post will be rather short and straightforward, as the analogous ecology of the basal ichthyosauriforme Cartorynchus lenticarpus to epaulette sharks (Hemiscyllium ocellatum) I propose is rather short and straightforward. The hypothetical analogy I postulate here is really not hard to come to or realize the merits of  - that it did not require a PhD level of higher education - but still deserves  consideration and reference despite whatever contemporary cultural inscriptions denotes what constitutes true and real science communication.

What I hope will be elucidated is how an open science framework (here, take your time it's a doozy) could more quickly and efficiently produce results similar to the open discussion of peer reviewed papers, blogging, and informed speculation at all levels that is already happening.  What a truly liberal and inclusive open science paradigm shift would enact would be a citable reference for all research, thoughts, and critiques at all levels. The format we are currently beholden to, the published peer reviewed word of law, is a cultural inscription - it is not a law of nature, it was created by man. No researcher who performs "peer review" can actually describe a set rubric for what constitutes "peer review". There appears to be as many definitions of peer review as there are reviewers. In fact the history of "peer review" is as nebulous and shifting as the exact practice of it. It has changed. Culture changes but good ideas are still good ideas, no matter what format they come in.

Cartorynhcus and epaulette sharks: let's go down the checklist of what these two animals share. 

Large, flexible fins that allow movement analogous to "walking" across substrate, even when exposed. Check!!

Similar size, small enough that they both can move and scramble over tough coral outcrops and will not become "beached" when exposed due to heavy body mass. Ability to travel between exposed pools of water? Check!!

The tail of Cartorynchus is unknown but proximity to related species suggests a mobile, eel like or "anguiliform" tail also similar to epaulette sharks. Check!!

Convergent feeding strategy of suction feeding. Short oral region with an expandable buccal cavity allow small prey to be slurped up. Especially useful for getting hidden prey under substrate or in coral crevasses. Ability to exploit hidden, small prey? Check!!

Epaulette sharks are notorious for surviving for long periods of time exposed, Cartorynchus as an air breather already has that problem nixed. Ability to survive exposed out of water? Check!!

Similar habitats near shore, reef dominated - abundant limestone and invertebrate remains documented from Cartorynchus locale. Congruence in habitat? Check!!

credit Ryosku Motani. University of CA, Davis

Additionally heavy ribs and thick skeleton helped Cartorynchus maintain a low position in the water column in near shore, sometimes turbulent, habits.

This proposed analogous ecology between Cartorynchus and epaulette sharks is, as I mentioned at the start, pretty straightforward and common sense. A specialized patroller of isolated pools and crevasses exposed at low tide, able to handily move between these pools and exploit trapped isolated animals  - a niche that is restricted from other, larger marine predators.

What I think is more illuminating and which should be pretty straightforward to most knowledgeable readers is the dissemination of ideas, academia, questions, blogging, the media and how all of these avenues play into one another for sometimes fruitful but sometimes disadvantageous results. This interplay - a history of ideas in various formats - is especially easily observed and documented in the narrative of Cartorynchus because these events are fairly recent and easily seen in retrospect. What an open science format would enable is  an active curtailing of several of the two most stifling aspects of these scientific narratives; (1) the press - always problematic in science, but especially apt to hype certain aspects of a study - would be largely cut loose; and (2) the other problematic aspect incumbent upon modern science communication - the peer review system of academic press and all that it entails - impact factors, pay to play, citation indexes, non-specific rubric for peer review, pay-walls - that would be gutted. Instead researchers would upload their work in whatever stage of completion they deem appropriate and seek review and critique in real time, transparent to all. This allows an especially exciting and illuminating viewership of science in real time to emerge. It is my opinion that such a format would work to diminish the ego-based approach in modern academia; accelerate research exponentially increasing both the prospects for expansive review and collaboration; and enact a stronger and more inclusive citizenry of science at all levels.

Let's review some of the main points in the timeline of the Cartorynchus narrative:

Nature Magazine publishes A basal ichthyosauriform with a short snout from the middle Triassic of China. Unfortunately Nature is not open access. But it is a high impact journal. Good for the author's careers but not good for open access and certainly not good for open science. If you read the abstract you can see that it is pretty conservative, as should be expected for a scientific academic publication. Certainly the potential for an "amphibious" or even "transitional" species is given. But just from reading the abstract, that does not seem to be the primary thrust of the paper.

Enter the media. As should be expected and from what you should recall if you followed this saga - the media went right for the "missing link" aspect or question that the paper and authors raise in conservative terms: that Cartorynchus does indeed in size, anatomy, and temporal respects represent a transition from terrestrial to aquatic ichthyosaursiformes. That was the media slant and, even if the authors only tentatively and conservatively raised this possibility in the paper, it is not like Motani shot down such notions when commenting with the media.

From Sci-News

The fossil, named Cartorynchus lenticarpus, represents a missing stage in the evolution of ichthyosaurs. Until now there were no fossils marking their transition from land to sea.

"But now we have this fossil showing the transition. There's nothing that prevents it from coming onto land," said professor Motani, who is the first author in a paper published in the journal Nature.

From National Geographic:

With a short snout, heavy build, and unusually large flippers, the newfound Cartorynchus lenticarpus was built for both land and sea researchers report in the journal Nature.

"An amphibious animal was somehow missing from the ichthyosaur record, and this animal fits that picture very nicely," said study leader Ryosku Motani of the University of California, Davis, an expert on prehistoric marine reptiles.


Remember that was the take home message from the media flux surrounding this animal - a transitional species was needed for ichthyosaurs, the "proverbial missing link", and Cartorynchus fills this need. As I mentioned earlier, the paper seems to take a cautious approach but the media spin and Dr. Motani himself put a lot of emphasis on the "missing link" aspect of Cartorynchus.

Enter the ego. Discovering the transitional specimen is a vaunted holy grail in paleontology. The eternal quest for missing links in paleontology has a sort of dubious and I would say failing history. .One really can't fault Motani for maybe being a bit too happy on spreading the narrative of Cartorynchus as a "missing link" this pattern in paleontology is the exception not the rule. What career academic would resist such a claim?  We've seen this movie before. Archaeopteryx is looking more and more like just another Mesozoic birb at this point. Of course the quest into our own origins among paleoanthropology is rife with abuses of science and ego. Any clear cut "missing link" in our own pedigree is becoming more and more murkier and lost among the bushiness of our family. For me I would forgo treatment of "missing links" entirely in evolutionary science and cast much suspicions on claims explicitly documenting such transitions. Scientists should drop the term "missing link" in my opinion. I think it does more harm than good in discussions with the general public in terms of expressing evolutionary thought. I move we inform more about the bushiness of evolutionary families and the mess of it all. Biology is meant to be a little bit messy after all, creeping all over the place, like a Ctulhu monster.

Instead of looking at Cartorycnhus as a species on its way to something else I would say that it has already arrived at something. It already is a competent occupier of a niche that modern day epaulette sharks occupy. It's not half way on the transition to something more complete or whole or more useful. It has already arrived.

The tetrapod zoology article by Darren Naish, though it does not deal with the media spin on Cartorychus, does illuminate the possibility that ichthyosauriformes actually arose from a highly aquatic ancestral group - something close to thallatosaurs. I'm not going to try and speak with any knowledge on this but it does, according to Darren, raises the possibility that we might never find that "walking" ichthyosaur like we have for whales because they evolved from animals that were already aquatic!!

Mark Witton, in his piece on Cartorynchus, doubles down on this line of thinking and suggests that:

"…This surrounds Cartorynchus with lineages that had taken to water in a significant way and we should conclude that any amphibious adaptations of Cartorynchus do not represent an ichthyosaurian invasion of the sea , but ichthyosaurs returning to the land."

Notice that in this scenario - of primarily aquatic ichthyosaurs returning to the land - the picture I outline slots in nicely. Cartorynchus still forages in the water via suction feeding like epaulette sharks and the small size and large flexible fore-flippers advantageious to scramble from isolated tidal pool to pool on exposed reefs.

So hopefully in this delineation of intellectual transitions from Motani et. al.'s initial paper in Nature to the initial media hoopla, to both Darren's and Mark's pieces adding necessary context, nuance, and questions to the amphibious ichthyosaur hypothesis to mine own take on likely ecology of Cartorychus one can see how a transparent and inclusive open science paradigm would likely create the same results but in much more streamlined and citable format. Motani et. al. would upload his work onto an open science hub geared towards vertebrate paleontology. There peer review would be in the open and non-anonymous, transparently visible to all. The "blog posts" of Mark and Darren might more succinctly be linked to a general review of Motani's initial work made during this process. My idea, not even necessarily created by me because it is fundamentally a rather simple one that others could have come up with, could also get spliced into this general paper-blog-review-discussion hybrid viewable to all in open science. The two parties that get elbowed out in this format is the peer reviewed journal Nature and the media, ughhhhh who is gonna miss them anyways? Instead of the media butting in and hyping everything, interested parties can view and report and learn from the actual process of science - without the loooooong wait times of modern peer reviewed journal process - in an open science hub. With the curtains pulled back the process of science is viewable to all. The mess of it. The discussion and disagreement. What has taken several years to transpire in real time, remember Motani came out in 2014, from the initial paper to the various blog postings to my analogy of Cartorynchus comparable ecologically with epaulette sharks might be condensed into months or even weeks!! Open science not only encourages a citizenry of science, it is a research accelerator. It is a bazaar versus a cathedral…

Such a format might seem dizzyingly complex and worrisome at first, until we realize that spread across multiple formats, personalities, and time spans - that is how science is already playing out!! This would put the whole bazaar under one umbrella at least. It will be a more nebulous, shifting, and organic process. The concept of authorship or lead author will become more nebulous in long threads of research, review, critique, and expanding questions and connections. But one with fundamental benefits that even the most hardened career academic would find hard to dismiss.

credit What is open science?


"A Long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom". Thomas Paine

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