Were you able to figure out what last Monday’s fossil was? It is on display at Mid-America Museum in Hot Springs, AR. Ordinarily this would have been posted last Friday, but real life intervened. Apologies for that. Part of what happened was that when I posted the original picture last Monday, I thought I understood the background behind the fossil. It turns out that new research was published in 2013 that changed a lot of the more detailed interpretations. It didn’t change anything of importance to anyone not obsessed with details, but it sent me on a three day search for answers.
What we are looking at here is a foot print of a sauropod. Sauropods were herbivorous, long-necked dinosaurs and were the biggest animals to ever walk the earth, some of them possibly massing 50-80 tons and stretching well over 30 m (100 feet). We can’t say exactly which one made this particular footprint, but we can take a pretty good guess. If you guessed Sauroposeidon, or Astrodon, or Pleurocoelus, or Paluxysaurus, or Astrophocaudia, or Cedarosaurus, you are at least partially correct. These are all titanosaurs, a subgroup of sauropods. But which one we call it is more problematic. It is usually almost impossible to tell exactly which species made a particular track and in this case, it gets even harder because there isn’t a lot of agreement over which names are even valid.
Before we get into that morass, what is a titanosaur anyway? Titanosaurs have been in the news recently with the discovery of Dreadnoughtus. Most people are familiar with Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus, the two iconic sauropods. These two dinosaurs are the best known representatives of the two main groups of sauropods, with many species in each group. Diplodocus had shorter front legs than back legs and was relatively thin with a long, whip-like tail. It’s head was small and elongate, with simple, peg-like teeth in the front of the jaws. Brachiosaurus had longer legs in front than in back and was stockier, with a shorter, stubbier tail. It’s head was larger, with spoon-shaped teeth. Titanosaurs had front legs that were roughly the same length as the back legs, with a relatively whip-like tail like Diplodocus, although not thought to be as long. The heads looked like Brachiosaurus, but more elongate. Some had teeth like Diplodocus, some like Brachiosaurus. Basically, if you try to envision an intermediate form between Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus, you would wind up with something that looked like a titanosaur, which is rather interesting because all the studies trying to figure out their relationships place titanosaurs as much more closely related to brachiosaurs than to diplodocids. In fact, titanosaurs likely evolved from early brachiosaurids, which means that all the characteristics that make them look sort of like diplodocids are examples of convergent evolution, if the hypotheses about their relationships are correct.
What’s in a name?
Now that we know basically what we are looking at, what do we call the one which may have made this track? That is an excellent question. Two different trackways have been found in Arkansas, both in a commercial quarry in Howard County. They were fantastic finds, with thousands of tracks (5-10,000 tracks in the first trackway alone), placing them among the biggest dinosaur trackways ever found. Unfortunately, other than a few tracks that were spared, they no longer exist as they were destroyed by the quarry operations. That is a sad loss for paleontology, but in defense of the quarry owners, the tracks were found on private land and the owners had no legal requirement to tell anyone about them at all, they are running a business after all. They allowed scientists to study the trackways and in the case of the second trackway, they approached scientists at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville about the tracks on their own initiative, giving them the opportunity to study the tracks before they were destroyed. As a result, careful maps were drawn, some tracks were removed and others were saved as casts. So the trackways themselves may be gone, but the knowledge of them is still with us and in the public domain.
The tracks were initially described as being from either Astrodon or Pleurocoelus, based on the fact that fossils from these dinosaurs have been identified in Oklahoma in rock units called the Antlers Formation, which is correlated with the Trinity Formation in southwest Arkansas. However, some researchers have concluded that the material upon which these names are based can not be reliably distinguished from any other titanosaur, so the names are what is called nomen dubium, literally dubious names. Pleuocoelus became what is commonly referred to as a junk taxon, which are used as a waste basket for material not identifiable as something else. In this case, when people found bits of a titanosaur in the southern United States they couldn’t identify, they said, it’s um…uh…Pleurocoelus? Pleurocoelus! Yeah! That’s the ticket! In 2013, Michael D’Emic published his research in which he found that part of the material identified as Pleurocoelus are really from two different sauropods called Cedarosaurus and Astrocaudia, and other parts are from a Texan sauropod called Paluxysaurus, leaving other bits unidentifiable as anything other than indeterminant titanosaur. Additionally, he found that Paluxysaurus was simply a juvenile form of Sauroposeidon, a giant sauropod known from four huge cervical (neck) vertebrae found in Oklahoma. So in conclusion, what can we say about the tracks? They were made by a titanosaurid sauropod.
Life’s a Beach
The first trackway was found by Jeff Pittman in 1983 while he was working in the quarry for his master’s degree at Southern Methodist University (SMU). The second set was found in 2011 by quarry workers, who brought it to the attention of Stephen Boss, a geologist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The tracks in the first trackway were 12-24″ across and were interpreted as being from from adult sauropods. The other trackway was more diverse, with tridactyl (three-toed) footprints attributed to the giant carnivorous dinosaur Acrocanthosaurus, as well as tetradactyl (four-toed) tracks which may have been made by a crocodilian of some sort. The pictures below are of the first trackway, taken by David Gillette, and can be found at his site discussing Seismosaurus.
The rocks in which both of the trackways were found is in what is called the DeQueen Limestone, a subunit of the Trinity Formation. These rocks were laid down in the Early Cretaceous about 115 to 120 million years ago. At the time, the shore of the Gulf Coast went through Arkansas, so much of southwest Arkansas was underwater. The DeQueen Limestome has thin layers of sandy limestone, many of which are quite fossiliferous, with oyster shells in abundance. There are also layers of limy clay and gypsum, indicating the air was fairly hot and dry. Stephen Boss likens the environment at the time to be similar to the Persian Gulf of today. So what we have is the coast of a very warm shallow sea. The dinosaurs appear to have been using the area as part of a migratory pathway. So while no bones of these dinosaurs have been found in Arkansas yet, we know they were here, so keep an eye out when you are fossil-hunting in southwest Arkansas. Who knows, you might find something bigger than you imagine.
It is commonplace to hear people say they do not accept evolution because they don’t see how some of the changes could have taken place. It’s just too complicated they say. What use is half a wing, they ask. As it turns out, the usefulness of half a wing, even a featherless baby wing, has been demonstrated, so that argument is out. Another transition people have difficulty with is the transition from water to land. Regardless of the fact that we have a good bit of fossil evidence demonstrating the transition, many people think that fins and feet are so radically different that they don’t see how it could have happened. Recent research has demonstrated in several ways that this transition is not nearly as hard as people might think, which may explain why it has happened multiple times in the history of life. For a truly bizarre history, one can look at the evolution of the elephants. Before they were elephants, they went from water to land back to the water, then back to the land.
So what tells us it really isn’t that hard? Let me introduce you to the robot salamander. This robot and its predecessors were designed to test different models of neural circuits involved in locomotion. What they found is that the same movements of the limb and torso allowed both swimming and walking. The only difference was the amount of resistance placed on the feet. Obviously, the ground supplied much more resistance to the limb motion than did the water. This caused a change in the neural signal, causing it to slow down and become stronger to account for the change in muscle power needed and the reduced speed of the movement. It was the same signal from the brain, it activated the same motor pathways. In other words, fish already had the neural pathways to be good salamanders.
Still, there are all the changes needed in the musculature and bones that surely had to be problematic. Research that has only recently been published indicates this isn’t hard either. Bichirs are a type of fish that regularly flops about on land and has true lungs. Emily Standen wanted to see what would happen if a bichir was raised on land and not free-swimming in the water. What they found was that the bichir changed how they crawled about, adopting a pattern that was more efficient. They held their heads higher off the ground and brought their fins closer to the body. More than simple behavioral changes, their skeletons changed as well. The supporting their pectoral fins changed subtly in ways that bore similarities with fossil of the earliest “fishapods”. It should also be noted that these experiments were on juvenile bichirs who were less than 70 days old and only lasted for eight months. This is not a lot of time to see differences.
I want to be clear that the bichir experiments do not show evolution of the fish. Evolution does not occur within a single individual. What we see here are epigenetic changes, not involving changes in the DNA. Epigenetic changes demonstrate developmental plasticity, the range over which a species can adapt to new environments without needing genetic alterations. But we now know that epigenetic changes can be passed on to the next generation in processes that are still only dimly understood. Unless these changes become incorporated into the DNA, they will fade if taken out of the environment that is producing the selection for that change. But eventually, these sorts of epigenetic changes can lead to real DNA changes that will lock in the change for all further descendants. In other words, what these experiments demonstrate is that fish already had the necessary developmental plasticity to evolve adaptations to land.
As I stated, these sorts of changes have to be incorporated into the DNA, but surely that requires a lot of changes? There have to be a lot of genes that have to be changed radically, right? Turns out, no. The switch is rather simple and it doesn’t even involve changes to protein-producing genes. All it takes is a change in the regulation of those genes. Change the developmental timing, change the amount of a protein here or there, and you turn a fin into a limb. Fish and terrestrial animals use exactly the same genes to make fins and limbs. They just change how they use them. This is why you occasionally get people born with webbed hands and feet. It can even cause polydactyly, having more than the normal number of fingers or toes.
A study published in 2012 looked at the regulation of hox genes, the genes involved in controlling the shape of our bodies, how our limbs are made, how many fingers we have, that sort of thing. All animals have them, they just vary in how many and how they are used. Renata Freitas and her associates took the control sequence for Hoxd13 from a mouse and put it into a zebrafish. The only thing this did was cause the Hoxd13 gene to be overexpressed. This caused the fish to have reduced fin tissue and the growth of cartilage forming what can best be described as a rudimentary limb. Just for emphasis, let’s say that again, simply changing the amount of protein created from this one gene turned a fin into a rudimentary limb. In other words, fish already had all the genes needed to make limbs for terrestrial locomotion.
So, we’ve seen that we have a lot of fossils documenting the shift from water to land. We’ve seen that fish already had the needed neural wiring to walk, the developmental plasticity to get started, and all the genes necessary. You can even see the transition showing up in the nerves that supply the human arm called the brachial plexus, the bane of medical students everywhere, which seems bizarre and nonsensical, until one looks at it from an evolutionary perspective. Then it all makes sense. But that is a topic for another day. All the transition really took was a prolonged stimulus that provided a selective advantage for walking around and limbs developed naturally from what was already pre-existing and working fine in the environment in which they evolved. Amazing how much change can be accomplished simply by a change in venue and a little push in the right direction.
No one guessed what the fossil for this week was. Take a look at the image below and see if you can figure out who this vertebra belongs to before continuing on after the image. As you may have deduced from the title of the post, it is an aquatic animal.
This fossil is a really nice dorsal vertebra of a giant marine reptile. Most of the ones usually found in Arkansas are mosasaurs, but this one is different. It lived at the same time as the mosasaurs, placing it in the Late Cretaceous Period. As with all other Late Cretaceous fossils in Arkansas, it was found in the southwest corner. Specifically, it was found near Saratoga, Arkansas in Howard County by local resident Matt Smith. Interestingly, the very same spot has also turned up several nice mosasaur fossils, so it was a popular place in the Cretaceous seas. It shouldn’t be too surprising though, as it was a nearshore environment in a tropical climate much like the Bahamas today, so there would have been lots of good eating for hungry marine predators.
Ok, enough of the teasing. The vertebra we have here is that of a plesiosaur known as Elasmosaurus. These are classic marine reptiles that most people are familiar with to some degree. They have sometimes been described as looking like a snake that swallowed a sea turtle because of the relatively wide bodies with oar-like flippers and a very long neck. They are thought to have spent much of their time slowly cruising the seaways, using their long necks to catch fish unawares. some people have even suggestd that they floated at the surface of the water with their head out of the water, so that fish could not see it, allowing them to plunge their head down into the water and catch fish from above. That is pure speculation though. Right now there is no way to really test such hypotheses, so feeding methods remain in the realm of speculation until such time as someone figures out a way to test it adequately. At the moment, biomechanical tests indicate that either method would have been possible.
So if you find a vertebra like this, how do you tell whether it is a mosasaur or plesiosaur vertebra? They can both be large, although the one pictured here is the largest one I have ever seen found in Arkansas. The best way to tell is to look at the ends of the centrum, otherwise known as the body of the vertebra. Most of the time, that is all that is preserved, as all the processes that stick out have been broken off, like we see in this one. Plesiosaur vertebra have flat, possibly even slightly concave, or indented ends. Mosasaurs, on the other hand, have what is known as procoelous vertebrae, which have one end convex, a bit more rounded off. These differences make mosasaur vertebrae look more like over-sized lizard or croc vertebrae, whereas plesiosaur vertebebrae look more like the disc-like vertebrae seen in fish. This may mean that plesiosaurs were more adapted for aquatic life than mosasaurs. Both were clearly fully aquatic, what with neithr one of them having legs of any sort, but plesiosaurs appear to have been aquatic for longer, giving their spine to more fully adapt.
Indeed, when we look at the age of the rocks their fossils have been found, mosasaurs are restricted to the late Cretaceous, whereas the plesiosaurs first appeared all the way back in the Triassic (another successful prediction based on evolutionary theory). This means plesiosaurs had well over 100 million years advance on the mosasaurs. It didn’t really help them in the end though. About the time mosasaurs appeared, plesiosaurs were declining. Mosasaurs evolved and spread quickly, becoming the dominant marine predator of the Latest Cretaceous. Does this mean that mosasaurs outcompeted the plesiosaurs? Not necessarily. It has not yet been sufficiently determined whether or not mosasaurs simply filled a niche left open by the plesiosaur decline or competitively excluded them. there is also the argument to be made that they would not have competed at all. The body shapes of mosasaurs and plesiosaurs are quite different, indicating they filled different niches in the marine realm, so they weren’t going after the same food sources. Therefore, there is no particular reason we know of that they could not have existed alongside each other without adversely affecting each other.
Most people are familiar with them due to the much discussed “Loch Ness Monster”, which has often been said to be a supposed plesiosaur that has somehow survived for 70 million years. Of course, that idea doesn’t make a lot of sense for several reasons. It is highly unlikely that plesiosaurs could have lived for so long without leaving any trace of a fossil record. It does happen occasionally though. The coelacanth is a famous example of that, for a long time having a good 65 million year gap in their fossil record. They were thought to have gone extinct along with the dinosaurs until living specimens were caught. We know more about them now and their fossil record is no longer quite as limited as it once was, but it still has wide gaps in the fossil record. But more serious problems for Nessie arise from the fact that plesiosaurs were large, air-breathing marine reptiles. Coelacanths went unnoticed because they moved to the bottom of the sea, an option not available to plesiosaurs, which were limited to surface waters, and relatively shallow waters at that. That means they lived in exactly the sort of marine environments most visited by humans. That makes it hard for them to hide from people today and puts their bones in prime spots in the past to fossilize. Then of course, there is the problem that Loch Ness is a freshwater lake and plesiosaurs were adapted for saltwater. Not to say a species couldn’t have adapted for freshwater, but it does make it less likely. Finally, there would have to be enough plesiosaurs big enough to support a breeding population and there is simply no way they could all hide within the confines of a lake, especially since they have to live at the surface much of the time.
But what about the supposed bodies that have been found of plesiosaurs? They have all been identified as decomposing backing sharks. Basking sharks are one of the largest sharks known today. they are pretty harmless though, as they are filter feeders, much like the whale shark. When their bodies decompose, the jaws typically fall off pretty quickly. So what has been identified as the head of a “plesiosaur” was actually just the remaining portions of the cartilaginous skull without the large jaws. If you look at the picture of the asking shark here, there isn’t much left after you remove the jaws.
Next week is Labor Day on Monday, so I will likely not post a new fossil next week. I will post something next week, just not a mystery fossil. But there will definitely be one the following week, so please come back to see the next fossil and see if you can guess what it is before Friday. In the meantime, enjoy your vacation.
Welcome back! the new school year has started for most, if not all, people by now. Everyone is busily trying to figure out new schedules, new curricula, new people, sometimes even new schools. Changes are everywhere this time of year. Paleoaerie is no exception. We didn’t get quite as much done over the summer as we would have liked (does anyone?), but it was an interesting summer, filled with good and bad. To start with the bad, the UALR web design course that was initially going to work on revamping the website is no more due to unexpected shakeups at the school. Nevertheless, a different course will take a look at the site and see what they can do, although they sadly won’t have as much time to deal with it.
But there was a lot of good that happened. Big news for Paleoaerie is that we are now partnered with the Arkansas STEM Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group for STEM education within Arkansas. This is really important for us because this means Paleoaerie now operates as an official nonprofit organization. What does this mean for us and you? It means that any donation to the site is tax-deductible. It also means that many grants that we could not apply for before are now within possible reach. Fundraising should be a bit easier from now on, which means we may be able to do much more in the upcoming future. One of the things we will be doing in the near future is a Kickstarter campaign to buy a 3D laser scanner so that we can start adding 3D images of Arkansas fossils onto the website, which will be available for anyone to use. One might ask why not use some of the cheap or even free photographic methods that are available. In a word: resolution. I’ve tried other methods. When one is attempting to make a 3D image of an intricate object only a few centimeters across, they don’t work well. If you want details to show up, you need a better system. Stay tuned for that.
Paleoaerie is also partnering with the Museum of Discovery and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for a National Fossil Day event on October 11. Make sure to mark your calendars and come out to the museum to see the spectacle and diversity that can be found in Arkansas. There is much more than you think. We are also working with the museum on a new dinosaur traveling exhibit. It is very cool, so watch for it later this fall.
The last big news that happened recently is today’s Mystery Monday fossil. Someone brought me a fossil to examine a couple of weeks ago. The first amazing part of it is that is was actually a fossil. the vast majority of what people show me are just interestingly shaped rocks. This was a bona fide fossil. Not only was it a fossil, but a really cool one. The image below is a vertebra from a little seen animal in Arkansas and not at all for a very long time. The fossil is roughly 100 million years old, putting it in the Cretaceous Period. At that time, Arkansas was on the shoreline of the late Cretaceous Interior Seaway. Take a look at the image below and see if you can figure out what it came from. I’ll let you know what it is Friday. Thanks to Matt Smith for bringing this wonderful fossil to my attention. Come out to the National Fossil Day event and see it for yourself.
Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of the Mythbusters do a great job of presenting commonly held myths and testing them in a variety of ways, trying and adjusting and retrying experiments. They even sometimes revisit myths with a new point of view and new questions. It is this that I think is the key to their success. They present science as a series of questions and experiments, revising and retesting, a dynamic process. Starting with what people believe and then presenting the evidence to show the real answer is an important part of the educational process. Derek Muller, who runs the Veritasium Youtube channel, did his PhD dissertation on just this topic, showing that simply providing the information did not increase learning. Unless the misconceptions the audience already held were first acknowledged and dealt with, people thought the material was clear and that they understood it, when in fact they had learned nothing at all.
All of this involves asking lots of questions. But what some teachers view as a downside to this approach (although it absolutely is not) is that invariably you will wind up with lots of questions you can’t answer. Your students will ask questions you have no idea what the answer might be. So what do you do in this case?
Hopefully, you already knew which of these options is the better choice. But where do you go to learn more? Some questions can be rather esoteric or have answers that can’t be easily looked up. Fortunately, hordes of scientists are at your beck and call to save the day. Here are four websites where you can ask real scientists any question you like. None of the scientists on these sites will do people’s homework for them, but are enthusiastic about answering questions.
Ask a Scientist has 30 scientists that will answer questions on biology, chemistry, physics, space, earth and environment, health, technology, and science careers. In addition, they have links to videos for some questions. You can look at answers to past questions and ask your own. Even though it is based in the United Kingdom, with all the scientists being from the U.K., they will answer questions from anyone.
This site is also based in the United Kingdom, but has scientists from all over the world. This site is limited to biology and paleontology, but it has over 100 scientists who can answer questions. Some are doctoral students, some are the tops in their field with decades of experience. All of them are experts in what they do and all of them are there to help. They have answered thousands of questions, all of which can be searched and read. If you don’t find what you are looking for, ask your own question. You might even find that you have started a lengthy discussion of your question between several experts, as has happened from time to time.
This Ask A Biologist is a National Science Foundation grantee and is hosted by Arizona State University. Again, it is limited to biology and is run by the biology faculty and graduate students of ASU. So on the one hand, you might think they might be more limited. But ASU has an extensive biology department and this site has much more ancillary material than most of the others. They have activities, stories,coloring pages, tons of images, videos, and links to other information. They have a teacher’s toolbox, providing easy searches for teachers to find exactly what they want, searchable by topic, activity, and grade level. In short, while they have several scientists available to answer questions, that is but one aspect of this educational site.
The Mad Sci Network has a huge amount of information. You can ask a question about anything. The site has experts from world class institutions available to answer questions. They have a searchable archive of over 36,000 questions already answered, so they may have already answered your question. In addition to the search features, they have several categories listed, in which you can pull up all the questions in those categories. They have a “Random Knowledge Generator” if you just want to have fun browsing at random. They also have a series of what they call “Mad Labs”, which are activities and experiments you can do at home or in the classroom. They have links to more information and resources elsewhere, including general science, educational methods and techniques, museums, science fairs, suppliers, and more.
So there you have it. When you are faced with questions you can’t answer, don’t try to bluff your way through. Who ya gonna call? Hundreds of scientists from around the world, that’s who.
Dinosaurs Life Size
By Darren Naish
Publication Date: 2010
Barrons Educational Series, Inc. ISBN: 978-0-7641-6378-4.
Author: Darren Naish is a well respected paleontologist publishing on all manner of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, pterosaurs, and other extinct animals. While he has published several notable scientific papers, he has also written extensively for the general public, ranging from children’s books to books for the educated layperson. In addition to this book, Naish published Dinosaur Record Breakers, another good book that kids will find interesting. He has also published on cryptozoology, the mostly pseudoscience study of “hidden” creatures, such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, debunking a variety of mythical creatures and discussing more plausible alternatives. You can also always find him at his highly regarded and widely read blog, Tetrapod Zoology, on the American Scientific blog network.
Dinosaurs Life Size came out a few years ago, but it is still a decent book for kids. I can’t say good for reasons discussed below, but it is better than many and has mostly good information. Don’t get it confused with the book of the same name by David Bergen, which came out in 2004. Naish’s book is much more up-to-date and scientifically accurate, having the advantage of having been written by an active researcher in the field who knows what he’s talking about. Not to criticize Bergen’s book as I haven’t read it, but if you were going to choose a book that was a decade old written by a non-expert or a book a few years old written by an expert who also happened to be a professional writer, which would you choose?
The book begins with a short introduction to dinosaurs and the book. A fold-out timeline follows, which puts all the animals discussed in the book in its appropriate place in time. The timeline includes a brief description of each period within the Mesozoic Era, commonly known as the Age of Dinosaurs. The meat of the book is a generally two page description of 26 different animals. Each animal gets a brief discussion of what it looked like, where it lived, and a few interesting factoids that have been pulled “from the bones” as a section for each animal is called.
Of course, the main draw of the book are the size comparisons. These are handled in two ways. Each animal is illustrated in full view alongside a young kid for scale. Almost all of them also have a drawing of a body part in real size, which really puts into glaring contrast just how big (and tiny) some of these animals were. Herrerosaurus has a hand, Lesothosaurus has its head for scale. At the extreme ends, Sauroposiedon has an eye and Argentinosaurus has a toe while Microraptor and Archaeopteryx are small enough to be drawn in their full glory. Most are covered in two facing pages, so that every turn of the page presents a new animal. A few are presented on fold-out pages, although I am unclear as to why because only one actually takes advantage of the extra space to present its animal. the other one just puts two animals instead of the standard one.
After the animal descriptions is a fold-out page with a dinosaur quiz to test the reader on what they learned. this is followed by a short discussion of what fossils are, how they are formed, how old they can be, how they are found, and a couple of famous fossil examples. The book ends with a glossary and index. All told, there is plenty of solid information for the young reader who will gaze in wonder at the dinosaurs and at least some will enjoy testing themselves on the quiz.
The book has good information. I particularly like the pictures of a globe marking where each one is found. The illustrations of the life size bits give a good indication of the actual size of the animal. I like the pictures of real fossils and the bits of information about what has been found through their study. The book is very visual and should appeal to kids. The book is listed as being most appropriate for kids in grades 2-6, which I think is a pretty fair assessment. Advanced readers in first and second grade will like it, but will be bored by it by the time they get out of elementary school, but most kids in the 3-5 grades will like the book.
I do, unfortunately have some serious complaints about the book. First and foremost, the book is called “Dinosaurs Life Size”. I would prefer books labeled as such stick with dinosaurs. Despite knowing better, Naish chose to include descriptions of Plesiosaurus, Stenopterygius, Liopleurodon, Pterodactylus, and Quetzalcoatlus; none of which happen to be dinosaurs. You may notice that this leaves only 21 actual dinosaurs. A better title would have been Mesozoic Reptiles Life Size, but I can understand that probably wouldn’t sell as well. Still, it is misleading. What I cannot forgive though, is that he does NOT clearly identify them as non-dinosaurs. This is such an unforgivable sin that I am tempted to tell people not to get this book. The only place he indicates they are not dinosaurs is ONE sentence in the introduction. Naish has published research on all of these animals, he certainly knows better, so this is unpardonable.
The next complaint I have is in the illustrations themselves. Some of the dinosaurs are noticeably absent of feathers. The Gallimimus is bare, except for a tuft at the top of its head. Part of this an be forgiven by the enormous advances that have been made due to new discoveries in the few short years since publication of the book. But even in 2010, we knew more dinosaurs were covered in feathers much more than is shown in this book. It is possible that feathers of some sort were an ancestral condition of ALL dinosaurs, so the bareness of some of these illustrations is wrong, even for the information he had at the time, so why the drawings were done this way is beyond me.
The last complaint I have is in the sizes. Each description is given a word description of how big each animal is. But the pictorial comparisons with the children are not the best. There is only a rough idea of how big the children are, which one is forced to base entirely on one’s experience with kids as there are no scale bars in any of the pictures. For a book about size, this is an inexcusable oversight. I have personally seen kids of a similar age who were between three feet and five feet. Now imagine extrapolating that difference to an animal that is thirty times that size and you can see the immense errors involved. Admittedly, there is a lot of uncertainty in the actual sizes of many of these animals (there are pretty much no complete sauropod tails, for instance, so determining length is problematic). But this book neither mentions anything about the uncertainties involved and then complicates the issue with further uncertainties in the illustrations while giving exact measurements in the written description.
So, in conclusion, I cannot fully support this book as there are too many serious problems. However, it is still better than many others on the market and does have solid information in the texts. The pictures give a rough idea of sizes, which for the age the book is geared towards is reasonable. But it is inconsistent with the sizes between the text and the illustrations; the illustrations themselves are not always accurate in terms of what we know about feather coverings, thus showing somewhat antiquated pictures of dinosaurs; and the book is really about Mesozoic reptiles, not dinosaurs anyway. Thus, the best I can do is give it maybe 3/5 stars, which pains me deeply because Darren Naish is a truly smart, well-read, and knowledgeable person who otherwise has written lots of great material.
All of the mistakes discussed so far are universal among humans to a greater or lesser degree. These last two are also universal and extremely common, leading to a world filled with pain and suffering, bigotry, and misunderstandings on a grand scale. I should warn you that this discussion will make many people uncomfortable because it cuts into the core of how people view themselves. People define themselves through the memories of their experiences and we tend to remember sound bites better than the complexities of reality, which makes for a dangerous combination.
5. We tend to oversimplify our thinking.
Of all of the mistakes, this one has most likely caused the most problems. When we were still living as hunter-gatherers in small bands, this was a benefit and can still be in some areas. When you live in an environment filled with potentially life-ending threats, you need to be able to recognize and react to them quickly. When that rustle in the bush may be a Smilodon about to attack, you can’t afford to think about all the different options because if you do, you are dead. But most of us no longer live in that sort of environment. We can take the time to think. We just have to fight our natural instincts that are hardwired into our brains. It’s tough, I realize that. It’s impossible to do all the time. But I hope you will see why it is so important that we try.
It is at the core of stereotypes and the “us vs. them” mentality that drives everyone to some extent. Any time you hear someone say, “Blacks are…,” or “Muslims are…,” or insert any group you want, that person is oversimplifying their thinking. It does not matter what you say after that first phrase, it will not accurately describe all members of that group. All “Blacks” are not actually black, nor do they share the same heritage, culture, language, or anything else. All those people that are thought of as Muslims by those using that stereotype are not in fact Muslim. I say this because almost invariably when non-Muslims refer to Muslims in a stereotypic fashion, they are confusing Arab (or anyone from the Middle East) and Muslim. Muslims and Arabs, like any large group, do not all share the same beliefs and culture.
In the first post in this series, I mentioned the anti-vaccine movement. It all started from ONE paper (since thoroughly discredited and debunked) that only referred to ONE specific vaccine. The whole point of the paper was to discredit that specific vaccine so the author could sell his own version. But no one in the anti-vaccine seems to remember that and they have simplified the topic to ALL vaccines.
In science, this sort of thinking causes people to read a single set of experiments (or even one experiment) on a specific target and then try to apply the result to everyone. This mistake is rampant in the medical field. A study will be published saying that a series of rats showed a result and instantly the media says that all humans will have the same result. Fortunately, scientists are well aware of the differences between rodents and humans. A result in rats and mice often does not carry over into humans. This is why all drugs have to go through human trials after they pass animal trials.
Even if a drug works in the small sample of humans, that sample is not truly representative of all humans. You may have heard that science has proven that vitamins are pointless and may even be harmful? The studies that indicated vitamins had no benefit were all done on healthy volunteers that mostly had good diets. So yes, if you are healthy and are getting everything you need from your diet, you don’t need vitamins and the excess can actually hurt you. Unfortunately, most people do not fall into this category, so for them, taking vitamins can indeed help. (This is just another example that eating right and having a healthy lifestyle will avoid many of the health problems most people have and will save you money in the long run. Exercise is almost always preferable to pills and is free.) Even healthy humans are incredibly variable and have different metabolisms. The same drug will not work the same on everyone.
All those internet memes you get with a picture of someone with a saying on it? Fabulous examples of oversimplification. The internet is full of examples of overly quick and thoughtless thinking. Here is a tip, if anyone can boil down the essence of a social problem with one pithy statement, it is almost guaranteed to be WRONG. I have heard more than one person say that because Muslims flew planes into the World Trade Centers, all Muslims were evil and should therefore all be killed, because “they all want to kill us anyway.” To any rational person, this statement is clearly, insanely, wrong. You may wonder why I have mentioned Muslims a few times. That is because right now, it is the most prevalent and dangerous stereotype I know and one which is very familiar to everyone. They either hold that view or know many who do.
I could go on and on about how people oversimplify for the rest of my life, but it gets seriously depressing rather quickly, so I will stop here. But I hope you get the point: Oversimplification, overgeneralizing, has led to the wrongful deaths of hundreds of millions of people and is the source of much of the hatred in the world. Be aware of just how common this mistake is and STOP DOING IT.
You how do you avoid this problem? Never take one study or one source as truth. It is ok to keep an open mind about something, but don’t put your faith into it unless you can verify it through other reliable sources. Wait for other studies that confirm the results because it may be that the first study was wrong. Avoid overgeneralizing. Just because something worked once, do not think it will work every time. Always, always, always keep the parameters of a study in mind, respect the limitations of any study. A result on one mouse in one situation has little to do with results from many people in all sorts of variable conditions. Do not extrapolate beyond the data without clearly understanding that the extrapolation is purely speculative guesswork and may not hold up in reality.
6. We have faulty memories.
One way that our memories are faulty is in that confirmatory bias discussed in the previous post. You can see this problem in everyone who gambles, be it at a casino or the stock market. Most people remember their successes far more commonly than their losses. People can lose fortunes this way. Casinos are masters at exploiting this mistake. If a gambler wins early, they tend to continue playing long after they have lost their winnings and more. Every time they win, they remember that one win and forget all the loses before that. Some people do the opposite, focusing on their failures and minimizing their successes, which leads to problems therapists deal with every day.
Science, particularly medical science, has a form of institutionalized faulty memory. It is much easier to publish positive results than negative ones. Therefore, experiments that didn’t work tend to be glossed over and forgotten, focusing on the ones that succeed. Of course, if those successes are due to chance or faulty experimental design, ignoring the negative results leads the whole field astray. How serious is the problem? A paper in 2012 found that only 6 out of 53 “landmark” papers in haemotology (study of blood) and oncology (cancer research) could be replicated. This sort of publication bias on the positive can have profound problems. It may sound like this means that science can’t be trusted, but what it really means is that it is critically important to never jump on the bandwagon and follow the advice of a new study. Wait until it can be confirmed by other research. Science is all about throwing hypotheses out there and testing them to see if they really work. One test doesn’t do it. Multiple tests are needed and you cannot forget the failures.
Where faulty memory really comes into play is in just how easy it is to change our memories. Simply hearing another person’s experiences can change our own. My favorite study showing this interviewed people about their experiences at Disney World. The participants watched an ad showing people interacting with Bugs Bunny at Disney World. The fact that this event is impossible (Bugs Bunny was not owned by Disney and so could not make an appearance at Disney World) did not keep many of the people from saying that they had fond memories of seeing Bugs Bunny at Disney World.
Kida discusses the results from some researchers in which they asked students where they were when they first heard of the space shuttle Challenger exploding. They asked shortly after the event and then again two and a half years later. Despite claiming that their memories were accurate, none of them were entirely accurate. Some of them were wildly off. Yet the students insisted that they were correct and disavowed the record of their earlier remembrance. There are several studies like this that say the same thing: our brains do not faithfully record our experiences and those memories change both over time and through suggestion by others.
So, what does this mean for us? It means that we have a bad habit of misattributing things, combining memories or making them up whole cloth. Criminal psychologists are deeply aware that eyewitness testimony is the least reliable evidence that can be brought into court, despite the fact that it is considered the most reliable by most people. People commonly say “I’ll believe it when I see it,” and “I saw it happen with my own two eyes!” We put a lot of stock into our perceptions and our memories. But, as is quite clear from decades of research, neither our perceptions or our memories are at all reliable.
So what are we to do if we can’t rely on our own experiences? Make records, take pictures, write it down. Compare experiences with other people. There is some truth to the now common statement; “Pics or it didn’t happen.”
And so we conclude the introduction to the six basic errors in thinking we all make to a greater or lesser extent. These mistakes are universal, they happen repeatedly daily basis. Yet they have grave consequences. In science, we have ways to try to avoid them. We record data. We share it with others and let them try to poke holes in it. We do not trust only one example and demand verification. Scientists make these mistakes all the time. But by being aware of the mistakes and having procedures in place to deal with them, we can minimize the problems.
Last post, I covered two of the six most common mistakes people make in their thinking. Today I will cover the next two: appreciating the role of chance and misperceiving the world around us. Both of these are huge topics, so as Inigo Montoya said, “Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much, let me sum up.” 3. We rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in shaping events. Last time we discussed just how much people hate and misuse statistics. Another way our inbred antipathy for statistics comes into play is not understanding the role of chance. People seem to need to have a cause for everything. If something goes wrong, something must be to blame. We hate to admit that anything is left to chance (which, considering that quantum physics makes everything in the universe a probability, make explain why people don’t understand it). As even Einstein said, “God doesn’t play dice with the world.” However, given enough time or occurrences, even rare events occur. I once had a geology professor who told me that given enough time, events that are almost impossible become likely and rare events become commonplace. This is quite true, over enough time and with enough attempts, even the rarest events will happen. Sometime in your life, you are almost certainly going to see something that is incredibly, inconceivably rare. People talk about 1 in a million chances being so rare as to be inconceivable and not worth thinking about, but that chance happens to over 7000 people worldwide, it will happen to eight in New York alone. Occasionally, you will be among that 7000.
Have you ever called someone only to find out they were trying to call you at the same time? I have done that with my wife. Many people invoke something mystical or a psychic connection that made us call at exactly the right time because surely, what are the chances of two people just happening to call each other at the exact same time? However, I talk to my wife on the phone far more often than I talk to anyone else. Considering the number of times that my wife and I try to contact each other, it is almost inevitable that sooner or later, we would try at the same time. There are those that seem to be consistently lucky or unlucky. If it were really just random chance, then it should all even out and everyone should be equally lucky (or not), right? Here again, with enough people, some people will just randomly be consistently luckier than others, no supernatural force required. There will always be outliers that don’t follow the typical pattern just through random chance.
You can see this same type of mistake when people incorrectly tie independent chances together. When flipping a coin, a string of 20 heads will do nothing to change the chance that the next flip will be heads or tails. This sort of mistake is often seen in gamblers and people playing sports in their belief of winning and losing streaks, in which the results of a series of chance occurrences is thought to affect the odds of future events. So how do we avoid this mistake? Never put much stock in one occurrence. Look at the accumulated data and weigh occurrences accordingly.
Probably one of the biggest fallacies people make in this regard is mistaking correlation for causation. Just because two events occur at the same time does not necessarily mean they are connected. Wearing a specific shirt when you win a game does not make it lucky. It will not influence the outcome of any other game except in how it affects your thinking. I can think of no better example of this than the Hemline Theory, which states that women’s skirt lengths are tied to the stock market. Sadly, despite such an absurd premise, it is still commonly believed and one can still find articles debating the merits of the hypothesis. Needless to say, even if they do tend to cycle together, it would be foolish to say that the stock market is controlled by what skirts women are wearing. What might be plausible is that both are influenced by some common factor. Thus, any study which claims to have found a correlation between two events or patterns has only taken the first step. Once a correlation has been found, it is then necessary to demonstrate how one affects the other. Often, it is found that there is no direct connection, but they may both be influenced by an altogether different factor. Check out the site Spurious Correlations to see almost 30,000 graphs showing correlations between totally random occurrences, such as the graph showing that increased Iphone sales are correlated with a drop in rainfall in Mexico, or that US STEM spending is associated with the suicide rate. How to avoid this problem? Look for multiple lines of evidence and a causal mechanism that explains how one could affect the other. Without that mechanism, you can only say that two things have something in common, you should avoid saying one thing caused the other until you can point to a direct connection.
4. We sometimes misperceive the world around us. Many people make the assumption that that their eyes work like cameras, recording faithfully everything in their field of view and the brain accurately records everything that goes into it. Unfortunately, this is not true. Our senses are imperfect. They neither record all the information, nor does the brain provide a complete image of what is around you. Simply put, you cannot trust your senses. Magicians count on this. One of the best I have seen is Derren Brown, who uses a mixture of psychology and good old-fashioned stage magic to perform his tricks. Visual and aural illusions abound. Take our eyes for example. Unlike a video camera that records the whole scene within the confines of its lens at the same time. We put together images from fragments. We rapidly move our eyes all around our field of view in what are called saccades, focusing on one small bit, then another. The light enters the eye and is picked up by the retina, with rods detecting intensity of light and cones detecting color. Signals from these receptors do not enter the brain as a picture. They are filtered through specialized cells, some of which detect boundaries to sharpen focus, some detect movement, etc. All of these separate signals gets sent to the brain which puts together a patchwork image, an image with a lot of gaps. We don’t usually see these gaps because our brains fill them in with what past experience tells it to expect. This is a really important point. Past experience affects what we see. Our hearing works this way as well.
The fact that past experience affects what we see plays out in various ways. We overlook things that change between eye movements. We fill in the gaps with what we expect to see. Thus, how we view the world is in part dependent on what we expect to see and our expectations are based on our experiences. People with different experiences may view the same thing very differently. This happens so much that when we see something that does not fit our expectations, our brains can even go the point of overwriting the visual input with our prior expectations. And it gets worse. If we focus on something, this tendency to be blinded to other things increases. Most people have heard of ignoring the elephant in the room. A couple of researchers at Harvard did what they call the invisible gorilla experiment. People were asked to observe a group of people wearing shirts that were two different colors. They were told to count the number of times a ball was passed between members of the group wearing the same color shirt. Most people could successfully do this. However, many people missed the man in a gorilla suit who walked into the middle of the group, paused to look at them, and then walked off.
How could someone miss such an obvious thing? They were focused on the ball and missed the bigger picture. This problem is called selective attention or “inattentional blindness.”. This experiment has been done with hearing, in which the participants were to listen to only one of two conversations going on at the same time. This time, part way through, someone started saying, “I’m a gorilla,” multiple times. If just told to listen to the recording, everyone could hear it easily. But if told to listen carefully to only one conversation, most people never heard the gorilla. There are many, many examples like this of selective attention. This is exactly why eyewitness accounts in trials are not worth very much. You might hope it stopped at this level, but it doesn’t. Even if we accurately see what is there, our prejudices will affect our interpretation. Different colors affect our moods and perceptions. Religious or political beliefs affect our perceptions to the point we will literally see things differently, even our views of sports games. Space allows only a cursory mention here, but it is easy to find many, many studies, books, and shows that demonstrate just how unreliable our personal observations are. So how do we avoid this? To begin with, we recognize that our perceptions are fallible. Thus, the more independent observations we can make and the more people that observe it, the more likely it is to be valid. Take recordings that can be viewed and listened to at different times. Try this out for yourself. Watch a movie with other people. Have someone prepare a list of questions in advance about a particular scene. After everyone has viewed it, have everyone answer the questions on their own and then compare them. Most likely, you will find some things people answered differently, other things some people did not see at all. Or just listen to the responses from political leaders after any speech by any President. The best way to get around this problem is through multiple, independent observations. Never trust just one observation and always question the biases of the observer.
Next post we will wrap up this series with the last two common mistakes. Stay tuned.
When I was a kid, I was always taught the scientific method is a matter of developing hypotheses, testing them, and using the observations from the tests to revise the hypotheses. Very straightforward, but overly simplistic. My teachers rarely, if ever, talked about the crucial strategy of multiple working hypotheses, coming up with every imaginable way that could explain our observations before we started trying to test them. But the most important thing that was never taught was how to think explicitly and clearly. Logical and clear thinking is the heart and soul of science. In fact, there is no decision that cannot be improved by clearly thinking about the question and the available data. We just celebrated Independence Day in the United States. It is time we celebrate our independence from fuzzy, ill-defined, and confused thinking. In the last post, I discussed the critical importance of clearly defining a problem in terms of actionable questions. The first step is to understand a problem well enough that it can be clearly articulated and defined. Then all factors that contribute to the problem can be clarified. But you can’t stop there. Once you have a list of known factors, you have to decide which ones you can actually do something about and not waste time arguing about those you can’t change. Focusing on the definable and workable factors produces results. Wasting time on things you can do nothing about is counterproductive. In this post, I am going to briefly discuss the first three of six general mistakes that EVERYONE makes from time to time. You can never be completely rid of them, but you can be aware of them and try to reduce their influence in your life. If you do this, I promise you will make better decisions. You will improve your life and the lives of those you touch. These six mistakes are outlined and fully discussed in the book Don’t Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking, by Thomas Kida. I highly recommend you get this book and read it.
1. We prefer stories to statistics. People are terrible at statistics, even people who really should know better, so bad in fact, that they make them up to sound smart. You can easily find numerous variations of the statement, “80% of all statistics are made up on the spot, including this one.” Or, as often (likely incorrectly) attributed to Mark Twain, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” So it’s no wonder that people suck at them and prefer stories. There are abundant studies illustrating how our brains are wired to listen to stories, how personal stories influence our behavior more than statistics, such as this one, or this one. Statistics happen to abstract groups, stories happen to identifiable people. We even prefer to dress up our information to make it more personal, more interesting, but the very act of storifying information makes that information less likely to be true. It is much more likely that Bill robbed Peter than it is that Bill robbed Peter AND paid Paul. The more complicated things get, the less likely. But this mental shortcut can cause serious problems. This is well illustrated by the anti-vaccination scaremongering going about. The whole anti-vax movement can really be traced to one report by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in 1998 that found a correlation between vaccines and autism, research that has been completely discredited and proven fraudulent. Since then numerous studies have linked into the alleged link and found nothing, such as this one. But no matter how many studies find no link, many people hear Jenny McCarthy talk about her autistic son, they hear others talk about their autistic children, and come to the conclusion that all the studies must be wrong, because the stories carry more weight with them. Disregarding the millions of children who get vaccines that never develop autism, people focus only on the stories of people that claim otherwise. Thus, thousands of children are getting sick and dying because of a belief in stories over statistics.
2. We seek to confirm, not to question. Have you ever read something that you disagreed with and instantly dismissed it or conversely, have you ever accepted evidence simply because it agreed with what you thought? If so (and you have, everyone does), you are guilty of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias causes people to seek out and weigh information that already agrees with their point of view and disregard evidence that disagrees with them without ever really analyzing the data. If you get all your news from either FOXNews or MSNBC, you are likely to rarely, if ever, hear contrary points of view and are thereby limiting input to only that which you already agree. Thus, people who do so will weigh that evidence in favor of their preconceptions and will assume that their view is more prevalent than it really is. If one gets all their information about evolution from the Institute for Creation Research, they will never get accurate information about the theory as the ICR is based on the belief that evolution is false, so they seek only information that discounts it. The only way to avoid this is to seek out diverse news outlets. While you read them, remind yourself that you will suffer from confirmation bias, so you may (hopefully) be able to give evidence from all sides a thorough critique.
Lest you think that only untrained laymen fall into this trap, confirmatory bias is rampant in science as well and it is a serious problem. Even the ivied halls of Harvard do not protect one from poor thinking and confirmatory bias as this article by Neuroskeptic clearly illustrates wherein he takes a fellow neuroscientist to task for not recognizing the fallacy of only looking for confirmatory results. There is a publication bias in the scientific literature towards positive results, the negative results get mentioned much less often. While this is true in all fields, it is particularly important in medical research, and psychology research has been hit particularly hard lately.
Next post, I will cover the next two common mistakes. Stay tuned.