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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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Missing Mesozoic Groundcover: Did Biocrusts Secretly Dominate the Mesozoic?

The following is actually a synthesis of thoughts I have been entertaining on this blog since I started in 2012. This might be news to some who only came on to antediluvian salad with such "high profile" pieces as sabertooth facial anatomy, T. rex lips, and Allosaurus bone saw shimmying but personally  some of the work I am most proud of is my earliest pieces dealing with the exact nature of dinosaur mediated environments, especially with regards to ground cover in a world lacking grasses...

I've had this problem, and I think most paleoartists have had this problem - what to illustrate as the ground cover of the Mesozoic? Often times dinosaurs are just thrown onto dusty patches of bare earth with remote patches of cycad/ferns/conifers (the Mesozoic big three of plant types) discrete from the dinosaurs who are conveniently framed by bare earth. Not only is such a look discongruous with how animals actually move through and interact with their veggie costars but is discongruous with how a functioning and healthy ecosystem works and looks. Having such vast expanses of bare, dusty soil would literally bleed minerals, organic matter, all the vital nutrients from the system. You know, the exact stuff needed to grow something like a Dreadnoughtus? Intense solar radiation and heat endemic to a hot house climate would bake such expanses into concrete pans. Without vegetation holding soil together monsoonal rains would wash away all of the valuable topsoil. Dinosaurian megafauna would compress and damage the soil in this compacted, nutrient deficient, scoured out shell of an ecosystem. Any larger trees or shrubs that managed to grow would be very vulnerable to large dinosaurs compacting the soil around their root systems - analogous to how large machinery parked under trees can fatally damage the root systems simply by being there. In short Mesozoic ecosystems with such vast expanses of exposed, barren soil literally paints a picture of ecosystems on the verge of complete collapse, much less capable of robustly supporting the diverse hordes of dinosaurian megafauna we know that such systems hosted.

The go to answer has generally been to just "throw in some ferns and horsetails that'll get her done!". But is that good enough? Too often I feel like the ubiquitous "fern prairie" look is a cop out - grasslands are just replaced with ferns and voila there is your typological replacement!! I'm not saying that such "fern prairies" did not exist, they did and there is some evidence of such mosaic fern/cycad open spaces existing as I discussed in Dino Turf I. I am leery of the ubiquitous "fern prairie" panacea answer usually parroted out because I know from living in a semi-arid habitat (much of the Mesozoic is described as semi-arid) of southern California that ferns generally don't thrive very well in such exposed, water deficient environs. There could have been ubiquitous drought tolerant families of ferns that thrived in such habitats during the Mesozoic , that we have since lost, but we have not found evidence of widespread xerically adapted ferns that would more or less "replace" the role of grass. Just keep in mind that ferns and horsetails - collectively referred to as pteridophytes - are like the amphibians of the plant world - they require a water medium to complete reproduction. Long story short I'm not satisfied and I think others are not as well. Various  gymnosperm type plants could have filled the "grass" niche and probably did: cycads, gnetales, bennettitales, ground cover conifers, the mysterious cheirolepediaceae aka "the cheiros". However I can't help but feel we are missing something that holds it all together. A type of plant - or maybe actually a suite of plants & other organisms - that could serve as a buffer to the stresses of megafauna, intense heat, drought, and monsoons emblematic of the Mesozoic? A collection of organisms that actually ameliorate the conditions for and serve as "nursery" beds for the other, larger, and more well known Mesozoic vegetals?

Such a suite of ground cover organisms exists today right under our noses. They store nutrients; anchor soil and inhibit runoff; fix nitrogen; store carbon; serve as nurseries for larger and "higher" plants; thrive in semiarid climes; and generally fulfill all of what is most needed to support healthy and vibrant Meszoic ecosystem. This ground cover is referred to as biological soil crusts or for short bio-crusts, or crypto-biotic crusts.

cryptobiotic soil crust Natural Bridges Nat'l Monument, Utah
CC3.0 credit Nohonjoe 

Cryptobiotic soil crusts sure are neat things to look at and would add a neat textural touch to Mesozoic landscapes. Best of all these crusts are composed of living communities of fungi, lichens, cyanobacteria,  bryophytes, and algae - which means that no angiosperms need apply - they are composed of organisms  that were all around in the Mesozoic actually before the Mesozoic…

The ancient pedigree of the constituent organisms have caused some researchers to speculate that biological soil crusts are the original land plants. That in fact communities of soil crusts were the first colonizers of land and it is their action via nitrogen and carbon fixation, soil stabilization, and soil aggradation that laid the groundwork for larger, higher plants. Soil crusts don't actually compete with other plants for nutrients but they do ameliorate conditions for other plants, especially by nitrogen and carbon fixation. Over time bio-crusts can actually create soil from impoverished environments.

Is there any evidence of biological soil crusts in the Mesozoic? I am glad you asked because we don't actually have to speculate that these communities were around for at least some of the Mesozoic (arguably all of it) we have proof. The blog Geomdermatophila dedicated to soil crusts hooked me up with this knowledge as they did a piece on a paper documenting the oldest known occurrence of biological soil crusts coming from none other than the Grand Staircase-Escalante Nat'l Monument of New Mexico near the contact of the Wahweap and Kaiparowits formations (Simpson et al., 2010 abstract). Cool!!

credit Simpson et al., 2010
Pretty startling similarity actually.

A couple of observations:

Today biocrusts are emblematic of arid to semi-arid environments. I have found no evidence of widespread aridity in either the Wahweap formation or Kaiparowits. In fact quite the opposite view is most supported.

From: At the Top of the Grand Staircase (Titus & Loewen, Indiana University Press 2013) Chapter 6: The Kaiparowits Formation: A Remarkable Record of Late CretaceousTerrestrial Environments, Ecosytems, and Evolution in Western North America Pp 85:

…the Kairpowits Formation was deposited in a wet alluvial to coastal plain setting with an abundance of large river channels and perennial ponds, lakes, and wetlands…

….the unusually thick (860 m) succesion was deposited in a remarkably short - 2 Myr interval, recording one of the fastest sediment accumulation rates of any richly fossiliferous continental sedimentary sequences in the world (Roberts, 2005).

Not only are these formations not semi-arid, it appears they document one of the wettest fossiliferous environments ever!! The sedimentation rate was just out of control.

One would expect biocrusts to be documented from the Morrison formation or some arid Cretaceous formation from Mongolia… but the Grand Staircase? It is possible that this biocrust occurred in some type of microhabitat, or that there was some sort of anomalous blip of aridity near the contact of the Wahweap formation and the Kaiparowits. Possibly… it's also not impossible to grow biocrusts in wet environs. It's also entirely possible that biocrusts were a lot more widespread, emblematic, and occurring in multiple environments during the Mesozoic. Due to their small, fragile nature, that during sedimentation events (i.e. flooding) their characteristic features get washed out and damaged it is entirely possible that their prevalence has been overlooked due to fossil bias. It is this latter interpretation that I most favor - that biocrusts were emblematic of the Mesozoic in all environments -we've just been missing them.

Biocrust Fossil Bias at Play? Why We Might Be Missing the Most Important Ground Cover Component and Foundational Ecosystem Community of the Mesozoic?

FIrst of all let's state the obvious: paleosols are not the sexiest avenue of research to invest in when it comes to paleontology. Paleosol researchers are certainly not getting the prestige of tyrannosaur researchers. So there is that.

Secondly biocrusts are weird and, despite their vast importance in modern day arid and semi-arid environs, are still greatly under appreciated and a bit of a niche crowd follows them. I'm willing to bet a lot of the people reading this blog have never heard of bio-crusts much less thought of their potential importance during the Mesozoic…

Third of all biocrusts are weird, small, easily dismissed, and simply ignored. Just as biocrusts are trampled on and walked on today without even a cursory question of what is this? it is entirely possible that a great number of paleontologists have trampled over and dismissed preserved traces of bio-crusts simply because they are ignorant of bio-crusts and just dismissed the preservation as some weirdly textured paleosol.

Fourth of all bio-crust detection might be largely escaping detection in the pollen fossil record. Because they are slow growing and low to the ground they are not reproducing and sending up the various spores in huge broadcast spawnings like large trees do with pollen. Instead biocrusts can spread by low rate transmittance. As sort of a background player in the fossil pollen record. But once established on a patch of land they can simply spread vegetatively/colonially/filamentously. Or, if disturbed and moved about, crop up in a new spot. Or possibly pass through the gut of organisms and colonize new areas.

Bio-crusts and the Seasonally Arid/Monsoonal Climate of the Mesozoic: A Perfect Pairing?

Painting in broad strokes here - but Mesozoic environments are often characterized by a highly seasonal wet/dry pattern. A dry period with little to no precipitation for several months, punctuated by a wet monsoonal type deluge of water to various degrees. This regime is actually tailor made for bio-crusts. Let me explain why. Bio-crusts can shrivel up, desiccate, and go into a dormancy period. The various mosses, fungi, bryophytes, lichens etc. etc. look essentially dead. But rehydrate these crusts and voila, the powers of regeneration life coming back from the dead right before your eyes!!

However there is a caveat to mention when illuminating this mode of life, as I will outsource the explanation from this excellent piece: Why mosses can grow in the desert and why their future is uncertain from the blog Geodermatophilia:

In short, multiple small rain events with periods of desiccation can decrease biocrusts. But more singular rain events i.e. a "wet season" or monsoonal type rain pattern followed by one long mainly uninterrupted dry period is great for them.

So should we plop abundant bio-crusts in our Mesozoic paleoart? Do they answer the question of Mesozoic ground cover for us? I say that there is a there… there with regards to bio-crusts in the Mesozoic. That we do have evidence for bio-crust in a very wet environment not typical for bio-crust formation begs the question were bio-crusts more diverse, widespread, and emblematic of the Mesozoic? Are the bio-crusts in today's ecosystems something of a relict from a more widespread diverse condition? That bio-crusts have been winnowed down from a larger and more diverse pedigree?

Such a thought, that bio-crusts were formerly more diverse and widespread, potentially helps answer a question fomenting in your mind: what about dinosaur trampling? After all, that is a major issue with regards to preserving contemporary bio-crusts: human trampling, off road vehicles, cattle grazing, horses etc. etc. How did bio-crusts deal with the large dinosaurian megafauna? Where a single footfall could obliterate decades of growth?

The Tricky Question of Biocrusts and Dinosaur Trampling…

The issue of trampling on biocrusts is not as one dimensional as it may seem. Indeed it appears that bio-crust composition can shift in response to varying degrees of disturbance and there are situations where a certain modicum amount of disturbance may in fact benefit bio-crusts. Too much trampling would be a bad thing, too little disturbance might also have negative consequences… a certain sweet spot might be optimal.

I point you to this abstract:

Take home message: the trampling effect of ungulate hoofs (up to about 25% coverage) actually bolstered moss growth by providing ideal microhabitat for moss growth!! Pretty cool. 

This observation leads to some interesting patterns that might occur with where and how bio-crusts accumulated in dinosaur mediated habitats. They probably did not get a good foothold in "dino-turbation" prone areas - near water ways or on game trails that dinosaurs probably made just as large game animals do today. The lack of bio-crust accumulating near watering hole areas or on game trails would lend towards more preservation bias against bio-crusts. Game trails can act as small drainages transporting material to areas of deposition and fluvial habitats are of course prime areas for fossilization.

Also take a closer look at the authorship of that last abstract, recognize one of the names? An interesting synchronicity that paleoart own's Julius Csotonyi does a bit of biocrust research on the side...

Another issue with regards to crusts is how different dinosaur feet are from hoof dominated mammalian herbivorers. I discussed this issue here: Dino Turf II. Could it be that soft footed dinosaurs enacted a differing regime of disturbance than sharp hoofed mammals? A more compressive type force than shearing and cutting?

Biocrust Grazing Dinosaurs?

You know I had to go there right? If biocrusts were widespread during the Mesozoic, possibly more diverse and important than in today's ecosystems, they possibly comprised a large percentage of the biomass in certain areas. This possibility lends itself to questions of dinosaur exploitation of biocrusts for food… it is not so strange when we consider that modern caribou subsist primarily on lichens and mosses in the Arctic, not the classic grass dominated diet of other ungulates.

Should we envision fern prairies in areas such as the Mesozoic equatorial arid belt - that almost assuredly lacked them based on the evidence on hand. From the Complete Dinosaur Second Edition:

As I discussed on this post Brazilian Death Valley in the Cretaceous fern spores generally diminish towards arid areas in the Mesozoic while Classopolis pollen - indicative of cheirolepidiaceaen conifers - denotes arid environs. A lack of fern pollen makes sense for arid areas - and especially the arid equatorial belt - that seems to have been a semi-permanent fixture for the Mesozoic. Despite the paucity of evidence for abundant ferns at the equatorial arid belt, fern grazing is the go to answer for a group of low latitude herbivorous dinosaurs: rebbachisauridae, especially Nigersaurus, Tataouinea and similar kin.

Tataouinea credit Federico Fanti, Andrea Cau, Luigi Cantelli, Mohsen Hassine, Marco Auditore -

Could such animals have subsisted primarily on biocrusts? Their jaws are weak, teeth show evidence for a gritty, low and dirty diet… if it fits the bill?

If I had to choose between a more likely dominant ground cover type to thrive in the Mesozoic  equatorial arid belt that could have easily been scraped up by the weak jaws of rebbachisaurids - remember ferns decline towards the equator and cycads, gnetales, and horsetails are not especially soft, pliable food stuffs - through process of elimination I'm going with biocrusts.

Like solitary desert schooners, the slow motion march of Tataouinea through the vast North African desert was vast and primarily lonely. A complex system of air sacs and efficient S.I.G.I.L. (sub dermal interstitial gridded insulating layer) provided the animal with an internal air conditioning system in this infernal habitat. The S.I.G.I.L. "bubble-wrap" insulating layer of keratinized skin allowed the animal to shield itself from the hottest temperatures and keep warm during the coolest nights or monsoonal storm. It also allowed the animal an efficient metabolic transfer of food energy to growth, as little metabolic energy was needed to keep the metabolism elevated. Apart from the occasional flush of green growth following monsoonal rains and sporadic mast fruiting events of cycads the mainstay of the dinosaurs' diet was the omnipresent biocrusts that flourished everywhere in this landscape of extremes. Biocrusts sprang up on dunes, stabilizing the sand for higher plants to further colonize. Biocrusts covered every spot of bare soil not covered with clumps of cycad and cherioleopiaeacean groves. Biocrusts were present in all areas except for the most highly trampled locales and game trails - which were few and far between in this desolate realm. Tataouinea could survive on this slow growing resource simply because of the vast expanse of land these crusts covered. The relationship was not one sided however. The micro topography of the dinosaurs footprints served as adequate colonizing grounds for new biocrusts. Spores passed through the dinosaurs digestive tract survived and, deposited within a pile of dung, allowed for new colonization opportunities. The dinosaurs travels within the realm of the massive tidal rivers of this low lying land was infrequent. The higher incidence of large predators discouraged a long stay but the locale served as a reconnaissance point for mating opportunities and egg laying. 

credit Emiliano Troco. form here used w/permission
Hope you got something from this,

It should also not go unnoticed that biocrusts may have not just been important in the Mesozoic but also increasingly evident that biocrusts are critical in todays arid lands, especially with regards to changing climates.


"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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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Breaking Through the 4th Wall: OPEN SCIENCE's Promise of a New Scientific & Spiritual Kingdom

In case you didn't see this coming... well its not like I haven't been dropping hints all along... that I have always had in my back pocket some rather challenging and interesting ideas on how this whole beast of scientific process/communication can be improved, augmented, streamlined, and made more inclusive. That these thought will now be made manifest is here. So hey, if you thought this blog was all about making dromaeosaurids nasty again, plesiosaur machinations, bottom punting hippo Spinosaurus, night stalking T. rex, or droopy lipped sabertooths - well I played you a bit there, as I never really gave away my full hand. Not only will I outline how such an OPEN SCIENCE system can operate I will boldly proclaim that such a system will greatly augment and inform a robust citizenry of science, reclaim sciences status in the world, and usher in a new era of spiritually strong scientifically minded peoples.

I have given the issue much thought, not as yet succinctly expressed. While at once I saw my lack of a peer reviewed publication record as a weakness, I now see it as a badge of honor.  

Some online voices have tried to construe a bit of a false narrative that it is Duane Nash vs. the establishment when in actuality quite a few people in what may be deemed "the establishment" are quite amenable to my ideas and do express to me, mainly in private, that they see the logic and merit in many of my ideas. So personally I don't quite buy the idea that it is this "Duane Nash vs. the establishment" trope as some have tried to convey, although I can't deny some truth to it (wink, wink). However I do recognize that some researchers might feel some consternation that they can not properly cite or comment upon my ideas as they are not "in the literature"and in doing so they might unwittingly open the floodgates for all sorts of online self publishers feeling the need to be "cited". That opinion is due to a culturally enmeshed and unnatural byproduct of the system we are in engaged in, where it is the peer reviewed scientific paper that is the only word that seemingly counts in the minds of most. But this is a cultural notion - it is not a law of nature - and like all cultural notions it is prone to be re-imagined, made over, and transmutated in new and exciting ways. So no, it is not really about Duane Nash vs. the establishment it is about Duane Nash vs. the system. It is the system that is the problem. And it is the system that needs fixing.

It's high time that the modern peer review format goes through such a deconstruction and reconfiguration. Not, as some may wrongly be assuming, by abolishing the peer review process but by dramatically ameliorating the process of peer review in an exponential way. At the same time dropping the curtain on scientific process and controversy, making both creators and reviewers accountable to their words. Creators will face more levels of scrutiny and question but they will also benefit from exponentially more collaboration and insight. Creators will no longer be held at the mercy of their reviewers as reviewers will no longer be anonymous and their critiques will be displayed to all. The inherent collaborative and synergistic methods of a truly free and liberal OPEN SCIENCE paradigm shift will dramatically and irrevocably speed up the process of science. Science operating at maximum RPM. Contrary to what many may fear I advocate, as sort of free for all of self publishing anarchy I actually hope to curtail that pitfall. By allowing any and all to submit their idea or work in whatever format or state of finality they choose all are given a shot and subject to online review. Therefore charges of "ivory tower" orthodoxy, academic bias, and in-group out group shenanigans get cut off right at the root. The lone wolf outsider, forever reeling at the unfair treatment they suffer from "the establishment" will be a thing of the past. In short the future of scientific communication as I envisage it will combine the best elements of the peer review process and the social media, group sourced, immediacy of "blogging" format while eschewing the problematic elements inherent in both practices.

Some bold claims Mr. Nash how can this be achieved? The process as I will lay out is disarmingly simple and intuitive. The paleontological community, both online and off, already has all of the tools at hand ready to implement such a system. As such the paleontological community can serve as a bit of a test run or trial run for how such a system can be utilized in other sciences. It is a bold and exciting new frontier as I will lay out and one paleontology is optimally positioned to be in the vanguard of. As you will see too I am not solely creating or imagining this revolution… it is already happening with or without me and is happening with or without your permission. I'm just a messenger.

Before giving a rundown on how I think the peer review system/science communication needs to be revamped I will be running down some of the major flaws and grievances of the current system. As I do this I challenge you, the reader, to start formulating ideas and hypotheses on how such a system can play out. I also invite you to start entertaining potential problems and pitfalls of such a system and if I offer reasonable guards against such situations. This is, in effect, an experiment being run simultaneous to the reading and I do it to illustrate the manifest benefits of a truly OPEN SCIENCE paradigm shift.

Breaking Through the 4th Wall of Science Engagement

4th Wall: That semi-porous membrane that stands between actors and the audience.

Let me explain this analogy. We have to imagine the scientist presenting his/her findings, ideas, or better yet their "creation" analogous to the actor or performer in a live audience setting giving their presentation or work - their "creation" to an audience. We imagine a sort of 4th wall that separates the actor on the stage from the audience, likewise in the presentation of scientific material there is another 4th wall separating the creator "the scientist" from the viewer or in paleontology the, often times, informed enthusiast. Does this mean that the informed enthusiast is not on the same level? Usually they are not. But not always. As I get to the how part of this process I will explain how the two can be teased apart for the benefit of all. And how valid criticisms or observations can and should be documented, heralded, and archived in the process at all levels, yes, even if it is from a non-professional towards a professional.

These binary divisions are becoming more and more cumbersome and transparently ill-informed. Many of the greatest paradigm shifters in paleontology came up with the bulk of their life's work as undergraduates and several prominent names (Jack Horner & Gregory S. Paul) never graduated with advanced degrees in paleontology. Robert Bakker was formulating the basis of his ideas as an undergraduate. Contrary to a prevailing notion that your thought or opinion only can be viewed with credibility upon receiving that PhD pigskin participants in such programs readily concede that yes, their education was important, but it is not the be all and all of what makes a good scientist or thinker. There is a reason that we have the acronym "P.iled H.igher & D.eeper" and most graduates will begrudgingly or willingly concede some truth to this notion. So no, there is not some arcane wisdom or benefit conferred simply upon receiving a PhD, that now - and only now - your voice matters and carries more weight than it did before graduation. Such graduates are in many cases useful scientists, yet in others such a title merely amounts to union membership.

As always it is the merit of one's work or ideas - whether advanced graduate or no - that is what matters the most. Not how extensive your C.V. is or the "impact factor" of the publication you are published in.

All this being said - you still need to learn and become educated in the basics of paleontology - anatomy, geology (especially sed & strat), chemistry, biology, ecological theory - among others. And yes, even though I don't highlight my own education I have a minors in geology, major in physical anthropology, taken classes in anatomy, ecology, biology, science illustration, chemistry, anatomy and all the basics. My main teacher has, and continues to be, my curiosity.

The Scientist as Creator, as Artist, as Owner of their Work

There has been a revolution in the creative arts, one that has firmly placed creative control back in the hands of the creator. And wrested it from those that seek to profit, exploit, and manipulate artistic works. Probably the most apt analogy is the revolution that we have seen among independent musicians and how the internet has allowed them to carve out a niche of complete artistic control, autonomy, and outreach to fans. What the internet had done is broken the monopoly of the "recording industry" that prior to the internet was the intervening party that artists needed to record their art and have it marketed to an audience. The internet has broke up this domination and now artists can market, engage, and create independently from a record company. This also allows the artist complete ownership and control of their work. While the break up of the gigantic recording industry has meant a loss in giant revenue streams as fans can and do download off the internet, use listening apps, or simply buy individual songs - such a new paradigm has allowed unfettered artistic freedom, outreach, interaction, and ownership for the artist.

Science and scientists need to take a page from artists.

And this means, in no uncertain terms, a complete disruption, cancellation, and termination of a relationship that is cumbersome, slow, parasitic, inefficient, egotistical, and arcane. That relationship is the one between the scientific peer reviewed publishing houses and the creator - the artist - whom actually makes the hypothesis, tests it, and does the real work of science. That abusive relationship needs to end…. yesterday.

While the internet has parked revolutionary changes in just about every facet of modern life the revolution promised in science has only been piecemeal. This has more to do with a culture of science, a staunchly conservative culture handed down to us and not necessarily congruent with the mindset, aspirations, and ideals of the vast majority of modern practitioners of science.

Sins of Our Father. Abuses & Iniquities of the Peer Review Process

Sins of our Father. Biblical reference; sins and iniquities passing from one generation to another.

One of biggest sins of the modern peer reviewed publication process is that it so obviously not fun. I don't know when it became this way or when the exact transition occurred but we have now landed in a place where science as it is communicated today is the antithesis of the creatively rife and anarchic pursuit of knowledge that it actually is. It became boring. This is the ultimate sin that science communication has suffered at exactly the same point in our history where we need to be engaging more and more people to think in a scientific manner. If science is in competition with an IKEA furniture assembly manual for the most boring piece of human literature ever contrived science deserves to lose the battle for the human spirit. And science will lose this war if we continue down this path.

It was not always this way, nor does it have to be mandated that science communication must be so devoid of the human touch: that it is clinical, non-stimulatory, and devoid of any and all touch of humanity or spirit that reading it is akin to an instructional manual. If you go back and read the scientific texts of many of the great natural history writers of the 19th century they were rife with anecdote, wit, and a human element. Why did we stop? Are we really under the illusion that by scrapping any and all notions that an actual human is behind these papers that they are themselves devoid of biases, shortcomings, and imperfections… you know like we all are? That by scrubbing the scientific literature of any notion that, you know, an actual human is behind this thing and not some machine? What is more dangerous: the danger that you know or the danger that you don't? By dressing up scientific discourse in a neat and tidy little pant suit we are giving the false pretense that what is in said paper is true and better than what might be said in a sloppy blog post. I beg to differ. If a sloppy blog post is your average street hood a scientific paper is your white collar criminal. Both have faults but one gets away with more due to its glossy and neat appearance. Show me the warts and all.  Show the process. Deconstruct the whole system and rebuild a better one.

That these sins of our fathers - the patently obvious flaws within the modern peer review system - have been heralded and noted is evident. Who has been most vocal about the flaws within the system? Well the very practitioners of the system themselves we are talking about: publishing academics  i.e. "teh workers" "the authors".  I've followed enough academics in both social media and elsewhere to garner a pretty thorough list of the grievances:

Pay to Play: Any self respecting DIY punk rawker should gawk at the sheer lunacy of this system. Again, scientists should take a page from independent artists when thinking about their work, how it is distributed, and who benefits (financially) from it. You often have to actually pay money to submit your paper for publication. Yes, there are ways around this, but the point stands: pay to play sucks. Pay to play as I use the term here refers to struggling new bands literally shelling out money to get a slot on larger tours. Sharon Osbourne was notorious for doing this to small bands on Ozzfest. More reason to hate Sharon and peer reviewed publications.

Obviously the system I will layout would eschew any sort of pay to play shenanigans.

Paper Owns the Right to Your Work: Now I might be misinterpreting this a bit but I think in broad strokes I am right. After you do the work, synthesize the results, submit and pay for process and publication it is the paper, not you the artist, which owns the result. HOGWASH!! Again, any self respecting punk rawker would gawk at this system! Scientists - who are actually creative artists - need to take a page from independent artists. Again the analogy to the parasitic recording industry who seize control and rights of music - that they did not make - and hold bands/artists hostage with parasitic and ridiculous contracts and sleazy deals is apt. Scientists need to get their liberty spikes up in anger and defiance about the egregious system that they have been beholden to for far too long. Other creative ventures have left the scientific community in the dust in terms of owning, empowering, and controlling their creative product!! Wake up scientists all the tools are already at hand!!

Again, in the system I will present the creator has complete control and rights to their creation - their work. By now you should be starting to piece together what I will be presenting as the new paradigm of scientific discourse and you should be coming up with some potential criticisms of what I will present. That is good and how it should be… but don't be too shocked that I have anticipated and dealt with many of these problems as you will see…

"Peer Review" Really?: I'm not going to mince any words here and I'm going to hone in on some very harsh and difficult truths we should all look at… unflinchingly. I suspect that the reason a lot in the  academic world look down in disdain at bloggers, self publishers, those that come in the back door so to speak is that we show open defiance and disdain for a system that they themselves don't like or enjoy. It is less about "does this blog make a good point?" and more about "if I have to suffer through inane formatting technicalities, grueling and idiotic reviewers and all this other soul-killing bulgerdash why should I give a blogger who doesn't go through any of this - admittedly - inane bullcrap the time of day?" I don't even need to conjecture here, Jingmai O'Connor, a lightning rod in the blogger vs. published paper debate, says so much herself:

"Aren't we all forced into this stupid world of publication rates and H-indices and what not?"

Yes it is a stupid world but no, Jingmai, we are not forced into it. Most just willingly succumb to the system because they can't imagine a better one. More on Jingmai to come and you might be surprised I agree with her fundamentally on one important, probably the most important, principal that I will delve into later.

Now I'm not saying that there are not good reviewers out there or that they don't for the most part help and assist to make a better product. To take the analogy to the music industry further a good reviewer can be like a good producer, they bring out the best in the artist and cut and trim away the problematic parts.

But let's get real about some, just plain stupid, aspects of the peer review process:

Peer review, in today's parlance, amounts to a sort of blessing. That what is said in a paper is true, good, and can be trusted. However when we deconstruct what peer review actually encompasses, how indefinable it really is, and really hone in on the problems inherent in the system that blessing, becomes more of a curse.

Reviewers are anonymous, unpaid, and often times limited to just two?!? I suspect a lot of younger paleo-grommet enthusiasts have this fantastical idea that peer review is this very involved all encompassing type of thing with a literal army of leading workers looking over every last detail and scruple. Not the case. Again often just two of them. And since they are anonymous if they make a mistake or overlook something guess what type of repercussion do they get? Nothing?!? That's some bullshit if I ever heard of it.

In the system I will present work is presented in it's raw form for all in they system to look over, analyze, and critique. The review process is therefore group sourced and made transparent for all to see. No more anonymity. Not just two reviewers but in fact dozens if not hundreds. Again, you the reader, should already be piecing together what I will be suggesting as an improved model for science communication, putting together the pieces and formulating critiques. This is science in process. This is OPEN SCIENCE. The creators can take and synthesize criticisms and update/augment/change their work in real time. Imagine that, people see science working!!

And finally did you know that people submitting papers for review can deliberately request that specific parties don't act as reviewers?!?! Conflict of interest anybody? Can it be laid any more bare?

Some may have been working under the premise that bloggers, self publishers, i.e. people coming through the back door are seeking to circumnavigate the peer review system. In my case at least, you couldn't be further from the truth. I am hoping to exponentially increase the net of review. But doing it in such a way that unscrupulous reviewers will be exposed as they can't hide behind a cloak of anonymity and that the scientific creator has tools to not be "at the mercy" of reviewers.

And finally, and most damningly, no one can actually define or quantify what are the responsibilities, tasks, and essentially the rubric for what it means to be a reviewer? It seems every reviewer has their own method and criteria for what they want to check and how in depth they want to go. Given that reviewers are anonymous and not paid who often do you think professors outsource their review jobs to their grad students. Probably a lot. There is a reason for the term "shit rolls down hill."

Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science and journals

Peer review: Troubled from the start

Again, and this should be a consistent pattern by now, most of the critiques of the system come from those working within the system. Peer review is probably the best example of this, unfortunately most within the system capitulate to something along the notion of, "It has problems, but it is the best method we have". In this post I challenge that and after reading it I challenge any and all comers to honestly and transparently maintain that it really is the best system available. OPEN SCIENCE smashes the current system to smithereens. It not only answers every question all the time, it answers questions we didn't even know we had!!

Paywall… Really Why Are We Still Having this Conversation?!?: Unlike the free-balling informed speculative hypothesizing I deal in, in order to go out and test hypotheses vigorously it takes a lot of money. You have to travel; see specimens; understand and get access to complex machinery/computer programs etc. etc. It's real work and man hours. Where does this money usually come from? Grants. Where do grants come from? Publicly funded i.e. you and I pay for the research. Which by extension means that since we pay for the research, we should see the research FOR FREE. But guess who hijacks this completely logical sequence of transactions. Those pesky Pay to Play; meagerly reviewed; and unscrupulous scientific journals who often charge up to 40 US$ to get access to one article!?! BOLLOCKS!!

Those jive turkeys at publishing houses will come up with reason X, Y & Z for why they do what they do. Their time is coming to pass. OPEN ACCESS publications are a step in the rich direction but even that modification to a paradigm will quickly become obsolete  under the vastly improved potentialities of OPEN SCIENCE.

Again, I don't want to explicitly define this system just yet - what OPEN SCIENCE means when taken to its logical conclusion - but I do want this idea of what a truly liberal, open, transparent, and inclusive scientific process could mean and how it could be enacted. Just let those two words, open science,  kind of bounce and dance around in your head without judgment, scorn, or ridicule. And just know that as you are reading this the true merits and benefits of OPEN SCIENCE are playing out right now between you, me, and others with or without your permission or acknowledgement.

Blogging Vs. Publishing: Jingmai O'Connor Saga Revisited

"Those who can, publish. Those who can't, blog." Jingmai O'Connor

An unavoidable touchstone that crystalized the blog vs published debate is the saga of Jingmai O' Connor. Brief recap: Mickey Mortimer of theropod database wrote some pieces calling into question some of Jingmai O' Connors conclusions on some stem bird taxonomy. Jingmai really didn't like this post publication peer review (PPPR), and wrote some nasty stuff on FB directed to Mickey. Jingmai deleted her FB response to Mickey but by the power of screen shot those words still live on. Its not my intention to reopen old wounds for some of the people involved but it is necessary back story for the several screeds against blogging that Jingmai subsequently put forth. Probably the most succinct distillation of Jingmai's thoughts are this interview here: If you have valid criticisms, publish them! An interview you should read (as well as the comments) for a refresher or if you are new to the whole incident several quotes of which I will be pulling from.

It was an event that never really came to a consensus or conclusion it just kinda happened and things went back to normal. What normal means basically is that published works and authors just kept on doing what they are doing paying little to no attention to blogging. More or less status quo. No need to cite, reference, or pay heed to blogs.

I firmly believe that Jingmai is a very useful and necessary player in all of this. She said, in no uncertain terms, what I think the vast majority of academics really feel. I applaud her for that, she pulled back the curtain. But that doesn't mean I am not going to take her to task for the things she stipulated about blogging/social media/"amateur hour" and ultimately provide an answer to every problem she details in this interview as well as lay out a rather simple alternative system to the peer review system of which she states:

"But you can't destroy the whole system (unless you have a better one to put in its place) because of a few flaws…. Although the scientific system of peer review is flawed, it is a better system than a free for all of ideas/comments/critiques from netizens of varying education backgrounds."

The destruction of the system will commence and yes, there is a better one.

One of the better points that Jingmai makes, and one I second, is that social media and online "anonymity" have a downside. Everyone has a voice now and they are not afraid to use it, regardless of their educational background or the veracity of their word. What can and does happen online is a sort of  tyranny of the masses, where what we want or expect to be true is often times incongruent with what actually is true. From there a sort of group-think and cognitive dissonance can easily embolden large groups to create us vs. them divisions. The online paleo-community is especially vulnerable to this in my estimation.

How would I suggest that this inherent problem - a savage democracy of science - be dealt with in a system that I am advocating to replace the peer reviewed publication system? Easy. You are not allowed to be anonymous when working within OPEN SCIENCE. What you say and write and put down there follows you… you want to be a 12 year old Jr. paleontologist fine… but say enough dumb shit and your reputation will start to sink faster than the titanic. Words matter in the system I am suggesting. Your words follow you there in OPEN SCIENCE, so probably better for most juniors to just watch, learn, and listen and if you are going to say something best to mind your P's and Q's.

Open Science: Dawning of a New and Exciting Paradigm in Scientific Advancement and Communication

OPEN SCIENCE is already here. The foundation is already laid. All that is needed is the will.

OPEN SCIENCE framework.

OPEN SCIENCE would necessitate a central hub, a gathering ground, where anyone can join and become part of the process. You have an account under your real name. Care to venture forth a critique Go for it. Put forth your own hypothesis. Go for it. Such a hub - it would sort of resemble a large forum or something like Reddit - with various subs and specializations would allow delocalized collaboration of science. One party might offer a novel hypothesis. Another party might have the means to test that novel hypothesis. Additionally you might have several parties all simultaneously testing a hypothesis. All the while these parties are showcasing and uploading their work in real time. People can see and read this work in real time and offer real time critiques that can further augment the process. Conclusion derived from the test can be further independently sourced. Maybe a third party that did not do the test or come up with the hypothesis notices something or a line of inquiry that the testers missed… or they noticed a pattern that was missed.

Another source of irritation that I see is when people have relevant work that is not cited or discussed that can be fixed as well in this system because they can see the process happening real time, upload your work, and join in!! Hey check this out, this is relevant!!

Such a hub as I am envisaging it is not really an impossible scenario in fact I would venture that it is happening right now in a more diffuse pattern. We are already seeing large multiple author papers, I'm reminded of that 20 author paper on pterosaurs that Darren Naish talked about on his blog (Dyke, 2014) a bit ago. Pre-print publication is a growing phenomena. I would suggest that blogs, poster presentations, and other such discourses constitute a form of pre-print of putting something out there in order to get feedback. Science happening in real time is already occurring and physics seems to be on the forefront as detailed in this interesting story.  And then there is this: Group of Biologists Bypasses Journals and Uploads Their Work Straight to the Internet. As I keep mentioning there is a new synthesis, a new paradigm occurring in science communication and research; multiple author collaborations; group sourcing; blogging; multiple parallel testing; multiple reviewers; pre-prints; citizen scientists; the disruption of traditional avenues of communication; stewardship; "dropping the curtains"; and breaking the fourth wall. It is all already happening. All I'm saying is that we should streamline the process and put it all under one umbrella.

Are You an Ego Serving Science or is Science Serving Your Ego?

Earlier in this piece I alluded to one central problem that Jingmai O'Connor presciently addressed inherent in the modern paradigm of how science is done: the human ego.

The human ego is a problem for the advancement of science and the human ego is actually the chief stumbling block that stands in the way of a fully operational OPEN SCIENCE paradigm shift. Why is this? Well simply put the human ego is woven into the very fabric of the current paradigm. Who is first author, second author, third author etc. etc.? Who gets quoted in the media? Who gets to be  televised? What "high impact" journal do I get published in? Who gets on the magazine cover? How big and extensive is my C.V.? How much bigger is mine than yours? How many papers did I pump out this year (i.e. publish or perish)?  Who "won the race" towards publication? Who gets the credit? Who gets tenure?

Again these are all problems inherent to the system of academia and the influence of the ego-beast in science and culture at large. Most scientists, like most people in our ego-driven world. are constantly looking for outside validation for internal truths. They need that outside recognition to feed the hole in their heart that they are possibly not good enough. It is an endless cycle to constantly feed the ego-beast. For as much as we feed it, as much as science panders to it, the ego is essentially a human creation. The ego-beast, if you have not noticed, is more dangerous, cunning, and vile than any antediluvian beast I have ever discussed on this blog. The ego-beast holds sway in the whole academic and intellectual enterprise of science. Is it not amazing and ironic that modern science, for all its emphasis on reproducibility, quantifications, and rational discourse, is beholden to something that can not actually be measured, seen, weighed, or that we know for certain is actually a real definable thing?

The human ego will reel at the eternal truths and manifest possibilities of a truly OPEN SCIENCE paradigm shift because such a paradigm shift, in no uncertain terms, takes direct aim at the human ego. There will be victims in such a shift, apart form the more obvious publication peer review system. Because such collaborations as OPEN SCIENCE allows creates the potential for dozens or even hundreds of "authors" collaborating on a piece the cultural construct of the "lead author" conceit bites the dust to a large extent. Because the process is done in complete transparency and openness for the world to see the curtain is lifted creating the "opportunity" for other teams to "steal" ideas and "beat competing" groups to the "finish line". However this really won't be a problem because it will be patently obvious when this is happening. Instead what OPEN SCIENCE promises is the scientific engines revving at maximum capacity and the highest RPMs. Instead of waiting for months or years for a project or study to be published OPEN SCIENCE will speed up this process. The necessary confirming or denying "post" studies can actually be performed in tandem or in parallel at this point. Several independent teams can now test a hypothesis in parallel but complimentary studies to confirm or deny. This creates a faster, more efficient, and collaborative scientific turn over and will dramatically speed up the scientific process. The benefits will become immediately manifest. What might be a tough pill to swallow for some is that notions of "lead authorship", "finishing first", and "beating the competition" become less and less important and will, after some cultural shifting, become transparently ridiculous.

A diminution of the ego-beast, both in science and the world at large, is our calling.

Scientists need to ask themselves, and do some serious soul searching: "Am I an ego serving science?" or, "Is science serving my ego?"

Say it with me, try it on for size: "Am I an ego serving science?" or "Is science serving my ego?"

That will be the crux of the dilemma: the source of the consternation, skepticism, and cognitive dissonance that the scientific community will have to face up to when realizing the manifest potentials of a truly OPEN SCIENCE paradigm shift.

As I keep pointing out the change, the shift, is already happening with or without your acknowledgement or permission. There are already leaders in this paradigm shift away from the ego-beast dominated current science paradigm. Maths "Nobel" prize declined by Russian recluse. Maybe we should all take a page from Grigory Perelman who declined receiving accolades, including 1 million dollars, for his self published work on a mathematical theorem which has confounded mathematicians for over 100 years: the Poincare conjecture.

"Emptiness is everywhere and it can be calculated, which gives us a great opportunity. I know how to control the universe. So tell me, why should I run for a million?" Grigory Perelman

Just let that notion waft through your brain cells a bit. Is the prize of science the external validation? The magazine covers, invitations, speaking engagements, prizes, and accolades? The outside world confirming an internal truth? Or is the process of science, the immersion, the revelation, and the oneness with discovery and the universe the real prize - an internal reward knowable and only felt through the rapture of the pursuit and gaining of knowledge? Tell me which one do you feel is more becoming, more in line with a higher purpose, the magazine cover or the rapture of discovery? Which is reaching for a higher self?

Competition Cooperation and Science Striving for a Higher Self

If we are indeed in an age inculcated with the ego-beast and science is therefore thrall to the ego where can we get a glimpse of how science might work if the ego took a back seat? Can such a situation occur? What might a culture of science look like that did not center on competition, turf wars, politics, publish or perish, huuuuuuge C.V.'s. You know, teh academic cvlt mentality writ large?

There has been such precedence for unfettered and free exchange of scientific information and thought frequencies as documented in the book Innovation in Science and Organizational Renewal (Heinze & Munch). In the chapter "From Salomon's House to Synthesis Centers" (Hackett & Parker) the innovative collaborative strategies of groups such as the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) from UCSB are highlighted. These immersive working and living arrangements allow a sort of emotionally laden, fact to face, interdisciplinary and creative process to emerge in order to create new ideas. The caveat is that highly ego-driven participants - those that tend to monopolize and dominate talking time - are not allowed. What occurs at these synthesis centers is a unique sort of push-pull between open and free exchange of ideas and criticism: basically the free form hypothesizing and outside the box thinking coupled with intense "peer review" and criticism. However because this push-pull is occurring in a social setting there is much more profound emotional energy and cadence to the whole process.

From the book (PP 70):

Another group specializing in formulating new ideas and hypotheses, the RA group. actually live on an island together. The RA group as opposed to the NCEAS group actively shuns intense criticism and thought policing during the idea formulation stage.

In the words of one of the participants:

Remember kiddies… these are rational, evidence based scientists laying down more or less a quasi-mystical spiritual experience from their intellectual experiment. Are you brave enough to imagine a sort of scientific process that empowers and emboldens such notions? That far removed from the hyper-competitive, ego driven, slow and stifling process of scientific communication and creation in the current system lays a largely untapped, funner, more collaborative, more efficient, faster, more inclusive, more spiritual and less cumbersome alternative? Just play with these ideas of synthesis centers and unmitigated free thinking and carry them over to the larger online internet community. Can such a diffuse collective brain of the internet, a meta-brain, be already awakening? If you think I'm just getting too far out there I say you are not thinking big enough…

Microelectronics pioneer Carver Mead on the stalled revolution of physics:

"A revolution is when something goes clear around. And what happened during the first 25 years of the 20th century was that there was the beginning of a revolution, and it got stuck about a quarter of the way around."

"What we're living with today is a bunch of mysteries and misconceptions that came about partly because people couldn't imagine nature being as interesting as it really is and partly because a bunch of big egos got in the way and wouldn't let the revolution proceed."

Death of the Iconoclast, Inclusion, and Educational, Financial, and Media Repercussions of an OPEN SCIENCE Paradigm Shift

Death of the Iconoclast

Every scientific sub discipline has its real or self proclaimed iconoclast(s). Depending on who you talk to I myself might be placed in one of these holding boxes. Over here in dinosaur online paleo-weirdo-community we have no lack of such personalities crying foul over the "ivory tower" establishments refusal to acknowledge or entertain their work. My view is probably, not surprisingly, a little bit skewed to the left of what most feel about these characters. Often times buried or hidden amidst the bad or erroneous work of some of these characters are hidden gems that deserve the light of day. Unfortunately because of politics, because of in-group out-group dynamics, because of good guy bad guy dichotomies such gems are often overlooked. In a truly open and free OPEN SCIENCE paradigm such figures whether real or imagined or some combination there of, would hardly get the oxygen needed for such status because everyone can submit their work or even their ideas into the system. Where they can receive not only critique but also help. Sometimes an idea is merely that, an idea that is a bit left of center and can not properly be tested at present. Such ideas should still be archived and kept in the back pocket for future reference.


This might be one of the more controversial and challenging aspects that I will highlight in this piece. It is also a very timely topic in paleontology and STEM sciences in general. No doubt it could warrant its own article but I will include it here because OPEN SCIENCE directly speaks to issues of inclusivity, namely the dearth of females and minority groups in paleontology and science/academia in general. I can anticipate that as many read this they will, sometimes in rapid succession, meet me with both extreme agreement and disagreement regarding my opinions on the matter. I never claimed this was an easy read.

Its Not My Beard Holding You back, Its the System

Yup, this is referencing what you think it is - the bearded ladies project. A social critique of the "bearded, rugged, sweaty, white male" stereotype that many feel stymies entry of females and minorities into the paleontology and potentially academia in general. Now I have to be honest to you about my initial exposure to this project at the Salt Lake City SVP and how it made me feel: ambivalence. Let me parcel this out carefully, I am not doubting or challenging the right for females to express their truths. Their is much to be garnered from how appearances influence reality. How the ubiquity of a certain "appearance" becomes emblematic of that profession and how people not fitting that stereotype will and do face social hardships. I'm not challenging that.

What I can speak to is my truth and that as a; white male; who is bearded; who is large and burly; who is sweaty; who is outdoorsy; and who loves dinosaurs - I felt attacked. Was their something inherent in me, who meets so many of these superficial criteria (OK I don't wear TIVO I wear Patagonia cuz Ventura 805 bitches!), that thwarts others from entering paleontology?!? To add a super thick, greasy, and heavy cheeseburger layer of consternation to this whole thing I myself don't fit into paleontology!?!  I get loads of cold shoulders from people at SVP; I'm not a "real paleontologist" or "scientist"according to many; I'm "just trying to be different"; I obviously detest the modern peer review format and business model; opinion on me amongst the online paleo-community is extremely divisive; "teh workers" ignore my emails all the time; academia and all of it's trappings, don't even get me started… I most assuredly do not fit into paleontology yet someone of my likeness is heralded as "emblematic" of what it takes to be a paleontologist. It's giving me a real conniption fit!!

What I've learned, what is my truth, is that an emotion is there trying to tell you something… so listen!!  Go into the emotion, not away from it. Go deeper. And when I go deeper into the truth of why I feel so ambivalent towards "the bearded ladies project" it is that I too feel alienated, despite my superficial appearance to what a stereotypical paleontologist "looks like", from the paleontological community!

However I've come to the truth that, "I'm not meant to fit into a system that I am here to upend." 

Sexism is certainly a problem, as are gender roles; role models; and subtle social dissuasion. Overall though I see an extremely overt "virtue signaling" appeal amongst paleontology and the sciences to attract and retain females. The issue as I see it goes deeper than the people in paleontology and the stereotype of what it means to look like a paleontologist.  The real elephant in the room, the true barrier that thwarts not just many females but many personality types not amenable to academia is the system itself. Academia is drawn from and retains a patriarchal pedigree. It does not matter how many overtures to females paleontology or other sciences make. It does not matter how many "bearded lady" projects upend gender norms. It does not matter how much virtue signaling we do or shaming of any and all "boys club" type shenanigans occurs. If the system of academia is poisoned from the inside by patriarchy, then you can expect more of the same.

Yes, I did just do that. I called academia a patriarchal establishment and I referred to most overtures towards female and minority inclusion nothing more than virtue signaling. Deal with that seeming contradiction and realize that you will see similar strange bedfellows arise as traditional systems continue to collapse.

Academia promotes:

1) Intense competition for positions and prestige. Ideas are not shared freely for fear of someone stealing. This thwarts and slows science down. Some females may naturally feel comfortable in such an intense environment of competition. Many females and some males may not.

2) Politicking. Yes politics plays and insanely important role in academia. The people above you determine your future, if you get tenure or if you get sent to adjunct professor purgatory. Best not piss anyone above you off, which means you probably don't want to upend any of their theories. This thwarts and slows science down.

3) Non stop working. Want to take a break to have a kid? This could be a dilemma, one hurdle that falls squarely on the shoulders of females. This is unequivocally a patriarchal element of the system and unfairly stymies female progress.

4) My C.V. is bigger than yours!! Can we get any more patriarchal than size comparisons LOLZ? This goes hand and hand with the publish or perish mentality of academia, it is not necessarily the merit of your work but the sheer overflowing abundance of it that counts!?!

5) I made it in the lifeboat why didn't you? This is the attitude espoused by the few that make it to have a successful career in academia. Something must be right with me and wrong with you for me to have received what you can't. Condescending to put it mildly.

6) GROW A THICKER SKIN!! Again patriarchy, emotions are bad blah blah… I take complete offense to this on an internal level because I consider myself a highly sensitive person, and I don't consider my sensitivity a weakness. But if academia is going to make a direct threat to my personhood - what makes me who I am - the gloves are coming off. You can label this under patriarchy and you can confer whatever meanings you like to it if you consider females "inherently" more emotional than men or whatever….

So what if we instead had a system that did not require intense competition but availed the competitive impulse with a more commensal, collaborative process. What if we had a system where politicking was not even necessary but actually tragically passé? What if we had a system that allowed people to take breaks, work remotely, and you know live a life outside of intense academia? That you could leave it and come back to it freely? Where ego, C.V.'s, and impact factors simply did not matter and became transparently bullshite? Instead of stepping on people's heads to get into the lifeboat an immense tidal surge lifted us all to safety and enhanced productivity? Where "growing a thicker skin" was not a prerequisite to having a productive, engaging, and successful intellectual life?

There is a whole army of people that did not finish their phd, that did not come into fruition professionally in academia. Life happened or maybe the cult like trappings of academic politics shook them to their core. The vast majority aspired to join academia for all the right reasons - a calling to learning and the pursuit of knowledge. However what greeted them in academia did not meet these higher aspirations. Academia weeds people out and it is not always the best and brightest that survive the system. These people the system weeded out deserve a voice, they deserve to engage in an intellectual life. OPEN SCIENCE provides this avenue to them. To have a meaningful, engaging, and revelatory investment in intellectual pursuits despite bugging out of a system that did not meet their higher aspirations. A system that failed them and made them feel… less than. This is the ultimate iron, disservice, and crime of our current academic system. It abandons people.

A truly encompassing OPEN SCIENCE paradigm shift could provide these things. It would allow people generally at odds for whatever reasons - culturally, financially, emotionally, biologically - with the current system access to a better one. OPEN SCIENCE will likely be seen as a threat by a certain segment of career academics, as well as it should be. Because it is a threat to how things have been done and how "prestige" is doled out. The inclusivity inherent in OPEN SCIENCE necessarily promotes a shift of intellectual prowess and prestige away from traditional bastions of power and imbues it upon a growing and capable citizenry of science.

Education, Funding, & the Media Within an OPEN SCIENCE Paradigm

Gonna make these parts a quickie because this whole piece is going on for too long already. You know those boring, rote, and cliche things called "academic term papers" that students hate doing and teachers hate reading & grading. They suck right? In fact I would venture they are more about following rules, copying a rubric, and regurgitating information than about actually teaching science. OPEN SCIENCE would make such slavish practises obsolete. Students could instead log into an OPEN SCIENCE hub and immerse themselves in a sub field relevant to their class. Teachers could actively monitor and follow their viewings and comments in OPEN SCIENCE. The student might actually assist in the scientific process!! Way better than another ol' term paper. And hey, if you think term papers are needed to "teach kids to be better science writers" then they should take a science writing course. Your average science instructor is not going to teach jack shit about becoming a better writer anyways. But he/she will ding you for improper formatting of your references… bleagh.

You know how Donald Trump just wants to gut anything to do with science in the US budget? Do you know how a big chunk of Americans are OK with that? Well screw 'em. If it got big enough OPEN SCIENCE could provide a group sourced avenue towards funding research. Maybe its not such a bad thing to get off the government teat as goes research funding.

Bad science reporting anyone? Well OPEN SCIENCE largely puts media out of the loop. People can log in and see science happen real time, not just read some shitty click bait article. Furthermore creators can write multiple versions of their work - highly technical ones as well as more easily digestible ones. Media problem solved.

Somewhere I read that open access solves every problem every time. Well OPEN SCIENCE completely curb stomps open access and answers questions people have not even been asking!!

Worldwide Systems Collapse: OPEN SCIENCE & the Spiritual Revolution

Systems are broke. Things are falling apart.

exert from The Second Coming credit W.B. Yeats

Science is not immune from these depredations. As I have been pointing out throughout this piece many of the most damning indictments against science come from within, from active scientists. That large chunks of the populace have disavowed science or do not completely understand the process of science is reason for fear. However such misgivings are not completely surprising given the failure of the modern system of science to adequately express its merits and techniques.

The way science can get back on track, improve its standing in the world and become the shining light it once promised to be is to complete the revolution. In essence to go full circle back to a time when the spiritual world and science were intertwined.

Keep in mind that Rainn made this before Brexit and Trump, but we can expect more of the same dramatic oscillations. Things fall apart.The center will not hold.

Science no longer has the luxury of not commenting on social, political, and spiritual matters. Those days are gone. Science must find its voice. Science must find its spirit. Part of this process is a diminution of the ego and a policy of transparency and openness that OPEN SCIENCE beckons. Such a simple move on the part of science will do miracles in itself to serve as a template towards diminution of the ego, and increase in transparency and authenticity in other institutions. A disavowal of the ego will give science back its cutting edge - that science can be both a leader in intellectual matters but spiritual ones as well.

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

It is a bold and brash proposition and one I'm sure I will get push back on. But the alternative is… more of the same.

We do have to try something new. Instead of always condemning a world that is ignorant of science and scientific thinking the science community needs to realize that when you point a finger outwards, three fingers are pointing back at you. It is the scientific community that has; become slavishly beholden to a cryptic method of publication in "peer reviewed journals" rife with obscene profits, inconsistent review processes, and obfuscating language - but worst of all boring; slavishly upholds an academic system based on ego, cutthroat competition, politics, weeding out creative/original people and that perpetuates a patriarchal worldview disharmonious with females and minorities; a system that instead of actively promoting a citizenry of science where those that put in the work and effort can engage in an intellectual life, us vs. them dichotomies abound. None of these problems were created by "those that are ignorant of science" they were created and upheld by those that practice science. Scientists are complicit in this very broken system. A system holding back the floodgates that an OPEN SCIENCE paradigm shift would enact in terms of establishing a robust citizenry of science and unparalleled recognizing of how science actually proceeds, warts and all.

There will of course be challenges and problems in enacting this system, many as yet unforeseen. But the reason number one for resisting a truly all encompassing OPEN SCIENCE paradigm shift is the human ego. And the ego among scientists is huuuge. Putting out your research and ideas in rough form will go against every instinct instilled in many scientists through academia. Many will resist the notion that lead authorship will become an increasingly fragmented and laughable concept. Many will scramble to shore up their ego built castle - made transparently ridiculous that the foundational piece of the modern scientific paradigm, the ego, is inherently nebulous, impossible to measure, and not at all rigorously defined in any certain "scientific terms". Yet we all know that it is there. So if modern science has no problem basing its current system on a completely nebulous concept known as the ego - if science already crossed that road - why not aim for something higher? A more enlightened, authentic higher version of ones self and science.

Spirituality does not equal organized religion. Nor does it equal doing Yoga and shopping at Whole Foods. What I envisage scientific spirituality looking like is nothing dogmatic, nothing decreed from above, but actually a highly personal inward looking subtle acknowledgement of one's being, actions, and thoughts reverberating amongst others and through the cosmos and ultimately bouncing back to you the  creator - not God - but you the creator who has a universe within.

This is, after all, not disharmonious with what science is actually telling us about our relationship to the universe. And hey, you can do a lot worse amiright?

This is the dawning….
of the ago of aquarius

*special thanks Anneke van Giersbergen & Devin Townsend

"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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