Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Collecting fossils: Free for all or just the pros?

This is obviously an opinion piece and my feelings on it make no difference to the legality of collecting fossils in various places. If you are in doubt about what you can and cannot collect, please do check the local laws or speak to a palaeontologist in your closest museum about it.

Quite simply, I probably would not be a palaeontologist if I had not been able to collect fossils when I was a child. I found my first fossils on the Jurassic Coast in the UK (aged about 4 or 5) where anybody can collect fossils from the foreshore (there are laws about certain sites and hammering into cliffs/rocks is not allowed nor is it safe). In a very Victorian way, I loved collecting things growing up. I had rocks/minerals, coins, stamps but most prized were my fossils (yes, I am a nerd). Over the years and various travels around the world I collected fossils and back home they reminded me of travels as well. It must be said that none of my collection are rare or important. It is made up of mostly ammonites, belemnites, crinoids, some plant fossils, some trilobites and some shark teeth.

Me, somewhat embarrassingly, way back in my youth about to go diving in the Cooper River for fossil shark teeth.
The haul on my first trip covering teeth, vertebrae, tusks, whale ear bones etc. All eroded out of the sediment by the river, and have lost their geological provenance. 
Pretty much the same things you find in the fossil starter boxes you get for children, except in my case I had found most of them. The exceptions are the various fossil fish from the Green River formation of the USA, and some of my first Megalodon teeth that I had were bought in fossil shops and off of eBay. Both the collecting, trading and the buying are things that are worth discussing as both are subject to various laws (and again please check your local legislation if you are not sure, and I do not claim to be a lawyer or know all of the current laws).

In general, collecting on private land is not possible unless you have permission from the land owners. There may be an added layer of complication in some places that fossils count as minerals, so you need mineral rights to collect, so you can purchase the rights to that without owning the rest of the land. If for some reason the owner of the land denies you access to the land you may end up unable to access your rights resulting in a legal battle.

Out in the public realm, I will refer a lot to places I have been to or have knowledge of. One of them is the Jurassic Coast, made famous by Mary Anning who was collecting fossils there back in the 1800s. The Jurassic Coast (and the UK public land in general) deals with fossil collecting by allowing everyone to collect, but this is because the rate of erosion is so high that if fossils are not collected they are rapidly lost to the sea forever. It should be said that because of this there are a great number of professional collectors who collect, prepare, and sell the fossils for money. There remains an unwritten rule that the fossils of particular importance are offered to back to public collections (e.g. the Weymouth Bay pliosaur and the David Sole specimens of Scelidosaurus).

The Weymouth Bay pliosaur. Figure from Foffa et al., 2014 Functional anatomy and feeding biomechanics of a giant Upper Jurassic pliosaur (Reptilia: Sauroptergyia) from Weymouth Bay, Dorset, UK. Journal of Anatomy 225, 209-219.
Inevitably some fossils will end up being sold to private collections and/or leave the country which is where the issues come from, particularly if they are important for science (discussed below). In the USA you are (or at least of my last checking) able to collect invertebrate fossils on most public land, but any vertebrate material requires a licence to collect it; a famous example is "Big Al" a very complete Allosaurus which was found just on public land (the crew had thought they were on private land they were allowed to collect on). In Canada, the rules vary from province to province with Alberta having the strictest in that you can only surface collect (no digging) in crown lands that are not provincial/national parks or protected areas (no collecting there), and even then all fossils are still owned by the state and cannot leave the province without permission from the the government.

I personally think everyone should be allowed to collect (with some clear caveats below). It is particularly important in this day and age where we are struggling with the rise of anti-intellectualism, an increasing lack of enthusiasm for the outdoors, and a surprising lack of awareness of palaeontology (despite the Jurassic Park effects). Fossils make a lot more sense when in context and you can see how the layers exist and how different fossils appear in each layer, with fossils that increasingly resemble modern forms as you get closer and closer to the surface. You also get to wander around lots of great places from beaches, to hills, and badlands as well as seeing all manner of nature and wildlife. Additionally, like the Jurassic Coast and many badlands of North America, fossils on the surface have a lifespan of anywhere from hours to a couple of years. If people aren't actively searching and collecting many things may simple erode away and will never be found (or found in a state useless to science).

Some small pieces of well preserved, but exploded, dinosaur bone. We know there was probably a complete dinosaur bone here once, but beyond that these bone fragements are seldom of use.
I will put this with a big caveat though (I appreciate this is where a lot of palaeontologists will have been previously been screaming loudly at me). Sometimes very important fossils will end up in hands of people who don't know how important they are, fossils may be poorly prepared and end up damaged, fossils lose their geological context and perhaps most importantly someone may surface collect something small which was part of a far bigger thing that is just underground and we may never find the rest because of it.

What do I suggest we should do? Well, anyone with no formal training in fossil hunting wanting to go find fossils (anywhere they are allowed to) should first find someone with experience. There are an abundance of sources for amateurs (e.g. UKFossils) where you can get locale information, fossils you are looking for etc. etc.. I would suggest that people look for local clubs or sites. On the Jurassic Coast at Charmouth there are daily guided trips to the beach from the Heritage Centre with people who know what they are looking for who help. At a bare minimum, everyone should get into the habit of carrying a GPS, camera (or camera phone), and some collection bags/containers and some paper for notes. When a fossil is found, GPS the site, write down a detailed note (date, time, GPS coordinates) and put it near the fossil (assuming the fossil isn't enormous) and take a photo. If the site is going to be tricky to refind (even with GPS coordinates), take some photos of surrounding features that help triangulate the location later. Then collect the fossil and put it in a specimen holder/container. If you don't have a field book keeping track of your finds, do so when you get home. These methods are almost exactly the same as what palaeontologists do. I tend to have a GPS on my phone and screen shot the location, take a photo of the fossil with a scale and then collect it (if it is worth collecting whilst prospecting). That way I have all of the data to hand for recording later. If you have an unusual/rare fossil find, ideally leave it in situ (unless a real risk it might be destroyed before coming back, and only collect within the law) and take lots of photos and GPS locations, to show an expert in a museum. If you have collected a fossil of importance, it is far easier for you and a professional to relocate the site if there is something more exciting to be found in future. Do remember that the many new species are found by amateurs, and it is only with their help that these fossils come to light!

Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, Mongolia and I'm sure many more have severe limitation on export of fossils, and Germany's new laws (from what I understand) limit the value of fossils you can own as a private collector. The Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology, of which I am a member, does not condone the commercial sale or trading of vertebrate fossils unless it keep them within or brings them into public domain (see their ethics statement here). Therefore my youthful buying as part of my collection would have brought me directly into violation of one of the societies of which I am a member. I must say I haven't purchased any vertebrate fossils in the last decade or so, and many of the fossils I have collected have been distributed to young friends and family who are interested in fossils.

The fossil trade does raise interesting issues though, and something that is increasingly worth talking about. There are well documented cases of famous celebrities owning a dinosaur (or part thereof) such as Nicholas Cage owning a Tarbosaurus bataar skull that he voluntarily returned to Mongolia having been informed of its illegality. It is not uncommon to see famous auction houses offering up fossils (of all types, not just vertebrates), and even the largest T. rex ever found, SUE, was purchased by the Field Museum in Chicago (with the support of various individuals and companies including Walt Disney and McDonalds) for $7.6 million from an auction and remains the most ever spent on a dinosaur. Sophie the Stegosaurus at the Natural History Museum, London was purchased from a private dealer too. The commercial industry responsible for the trade of fossils has led to massive issues with poaching of fossils (e.g. Mongolia, although it is working hard with authorities across the globe to get its fossils back), and even fake fossils (e.g. Morocco). More importantly many of these fossils will be sold to private collectors at a vastly inflated price and will never be studied by scientists and their information lost to the public. In private conversations with many people who carry out field work, they have suggested that for the price paid for various fossils (e.g. the €177k spent on a Triceratops skull earlier this year) could fund the finding of far more specimens that would end up in public collections (with field seasons costing anywhere $10k-100k a year depending on exotic locales and size of crews) as evidenced by the Museum of the Rockies vast collection of not just Triceratops (I believe they have about 100 now), but many dinosaurs including about half of the known T. rex specimens.

What should we do? I have no good answer here. The trade of fossils has always existed, from the snakestones of Dorset (carved ammonites that look like snakes which were sold to Christian pilgrims near Whitby) to the famous Mary Anning selling fossils on the Jurassic Coast to generate a living (and likely give rise to the She Sells Sea Shells tongue twister) to eBay (only picked because it is the place I purchased fossils from many years ago).
Ammonites carved to look like snakes from the Whitby Museum website. http://www.whitbymuseum.org.uk/hpmimages/snakehead.jpg
Commercial traders are responsible for discovering and bringing many fossils into the public light, but regularly the commercial industry is responsible for crimes (particularly the export/trade in illegal fossils, poaching of fossils or destruction of specimens to get the claws and teeth which are smaller, more collectable and far easier to trade). With the rise of GPS location tracking, and a drive to more open publication practices, fossils (and their locales) that were once safely out of the eye of commercial traders (or even opportunistic locals) are no longer safe.

Buying fossils only fuels the trade, and as such the commercial trade of fossils should be approached with caution if you are a private collector, and only for bringing fossils into the public holdings if you are an academic (see SVP ethics above). I searched eBay (UK) for fossils tonight in the collectables<rocks/fossils/minerals<fossils section and found 38,098 items for sale (as of 23:30BST, 27/03/2017). The most expensive is a Triceratops skull (£660,501.98 + £40,000 postage), with 3 items over £100,000 and the first 200 all over £1600. That is just eBay UK and gives you an idea for the magnitude of the fossil trade. It is a great resource for people looking to add to their collection, but really do consider if the item is worth that much (and fakes aren't uncommon on eBay) or if you would do better to go and spend your money finding something yourself (e.g. £100 for a nice ammonite would allow you to go from London to the Jurassic Coast and stay overnight, giving you at least 2 days of collecting time and who knows what you might find). If you are a millionaire reading this and looking to get a dinosaur/other large fossil for your own collection (unlikely, I appreciate), really consider why you want it and whether would it be better to sponsor some digs, have your name permanently attached to those specimens (and regularly new species are named after people/companies who fund the expeditions), and those specimens to appear to the wider public as a whole.

This has been a long discussion on my points of view on the issues of finding and trading fossils. I will say I love my fossil collection, but I do cherish those that I found above those I have bought or been given (which will have been purchased somewhere). With time, experiences finding fossils, and my career in palaeontology it has become easy for me to turn away from the purchase of fossils. I would hope that people considering buying fossils might go out and search for their own (please do get in touch if you are struggling to find contacts in your area and I will happily help to the best of my abilities to help get you in touch with someone). If anything happens to me, I hope my collection would be donated to a university or museum that might be able to use them to educate the public rather than be sold off (not that it is worth much anyway). If you have anything to add please do comment and let me know if you agree/disagree with what I have said. I would love to hear from people around the world, particularly those in locations where fossil collecting is illegal to see how it affected your enthusiasm about palaeontology.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The brains of cats

So 2017 begins on a high for publishing with another paper hot off the presses and long overdue:

Cuff AR, Stockey C, Goswami A, 2017. Endocranial morphology of the extinct North American lion (Panthera atrox). Brain, Behavior and Evolution. DOI: 10.1159/000454705.

To quickly catch everyone up, P. atrox is an extinct lion from North America (as the paper title suggests). The species evolved from a "cave" lion (P. spalaea) population from Eurasia that crossed the Bering Sea around 340,000 years ago. These lion populations in turn split from the lineage that gives rise to the modern lions 1.89 million years ago (Barnett et al., 2016).

Phylogeny of the lion species
A quick note, endocasts are the natural cast (the infilling) of the endocranium (the braincase). In mammals the brain almost entirely fills the cavity so brain and endocast are almost identical (which is why brain swelling is such a major health issues). Birds are similar with their brains filling most of their endocast, but most non-avian dinosaurs and crocodiles have large sinuses that take up large volumes of the endocranium. Prior to our study the only data for P. atrox was from casts of skulls, (where they infilled brain cases with material to produce a cast) carried out in 1932 (Merriam and Stock, 1932). The new study adds some more details to those casts, as well as some additional information on the inner ear (red in the figure below).

From Cuff et al., 2017. Fig. 1. Endocranial reconstruction of P. atrox in left lateral ( a ), right lateral ( b ), dorsal ( c ), and ventral ( d ) views. Anterior is toward the left in a, c, and d and toward the right in b . The endocast is rendered in blue, the inner ear in red, and the cranial nerves in yellow. CN II, optic nerve; CN V 1–3, trigeminal nerve (ophthalmic, maxillary, and mandibular branches); CN VII, facial nerve; CN VIII, vestibulocochlear nerve; CN IX, glossopharyngeal nerve; CN X, vagus nerve; CN XII, hypoglossal nerve; hy, hypophysis/pituitary; ob, olfactory bulb; ocx, olfactory cortex; pf, paraflocculus; v, vermis. Scale bar = 20 mm. The endocranial orientation in a and b is linked to the likely “alert” head posture
We also compared the morphology of the extinct North American lion to modern Asian/Asiatic lions (below).
From Cuff et al., 2017.Figure 2. Endocranial reconstruction of P. leo persica in A, left lateral; B, right lateral; C, dorsal; and D, ventral views. Anterior is toward the left in A, C, D and toward the right in B. The endocast is rendered in blue, the inner ear in red, and the cranial nerves in yellow.; CN II optic nerve; CN V1-3, trigeminal nerve (ophthalmic, maxillary and mandibular branches); CN VII facial nerve; CN VIII vestibulocochlear nerve; CN IX, glossopharyngeal nerve; CN X, vagus nerve; CN XII, hypoglossal nerve; hy, hypophysis/pituitary; ob, olfactory bulb; ocx, olfactory cortex; pf, paraflocculus; v, vermis. Scale bar = 20 mm. Endocranial orientation in A and B linked to the likely “alert” head posture. 
Overall the endocasts look fairly similar, but something that you might have noticed is how much more elongate the P. atrox brain looks relative to the modern lion (P. leo). There are some previously published 2D models of some extinct taxa (Radinsky, 1975), with the oldest species showing this similar "elongate" morphology. However, the morphology seen in P. leo where the forebrain sits further back on the hindbrain is more "folded" and was also seen in some of the extinct species (particularly the sabre-tooth cats). So we needed a way to quantify the elongate/folded brain morphology (linked to cephalic flexure), which ended up being a simple ratio of length of hindbrain not covered relative to total brain length (P. atrox and P. leo shown below):

Long line is total length, short line is "exposed" hindbrain not covered by the forebrain.
We however lacked information for many of the extant species on whether the elongate or folded brains were more common and if there were any patterns. Therefore we got hold of a bunch of CT scans from colleagues (Z.J. Tseng, C.Grohé, and J.J. Flynn), and Christopher Stockey (a summer student joined us from Imperial). Chris segmented endocasts from a wide range of extant taxa (see below).
From Cuff et al., 2017. Figure 3. Brain anatomy through Felidae. Proailurus, Pseudaelurus, Dinobastis and Smilodon are all modified from Radinsky[1975]. Phylogeny modified from Piras et al.[2013], total length 27Ma. All scale bars = 2cm.
The results are shown in the table below, with the species with the most elongate brain morphologies with the highest proportion "exposed". P. atrox has 18.6% exposed, whilst P. leo is only 5.9% exposed (actually the lowest we measured). Typically, as with all biology, there is a spectrum rather than a hard and fast rule about the elongation of the brain of felids. Just within the pantherines (Panthera spp. - the big cats) there is a large range in the level of folding. Most of the other living species of cats are fairly consistent in their levels elongation.

Cerebrum and cerebellum length
“Exposed” cerebellum length
Proportion “exposed”
Dinobastis sp.*
Smilodon fatalis*
Neofelis nebulosi
Panthera tigris
Panthera pardus
Panthera atrox
Panthera leo
Pardofelis marmorata
Carcal aurata
Leopardus wiedii
Lynx rufus
Acinonyx jubatus
Puma concolor
Prionailurus viverrina
Felis silvestris

What does this mean? Honestly I don't know. It's a weird quirk of felid morphology that deserves further study, so there is a project if anyone wants to collaborate.

Beyond the crazy brain shapes, what about their sizes? We measured the volume of the endocasts and multiplied it by standard brain tissue density (somewhere between 1.027 g/cm3 [Schröder, 1968] and 1.100 g/cm3 [Barber et al., 1970]). This was this compared to the body size to get a relative brain size.

From Cuff et al., 2017. Figure 4. Regression of log maximum brain mass against log body mass (both in kilograms) for Felidae.
Most cats are fairly similar in relative brain size, with P. atrox slightly above that expected for its body mass. In addition, the absolute brain size (both of this endocast and some of the other P. atrox measured in 1932) is higher than any other felid species measured to date. But what does that mean for the intelligence? Actually in cats there doesn't appear to be an obvious correlation between brain size and sociality with similarly "brainy" cats being capable of both solo living and group living so we cannot say if P. atrox lived in prides like its modern relatives.

Barber TEDW, Brockway JA, Higgins LS (1970): The density of tissues in and about the. Acta Neurol Scand 46: 85–92.

Barnett R, Shapiro B, Barnes I, Ho SY, Burger J, Yamaguchi N, et al. (2009): Phylogeography of lions (Panthera leo ssp.) reveals three distinct taxa and a late Pleistocene reduction in genetic diversity. Mol Ecol Apr;18:1668–1677.

Merriam JC, Stock C (1932): The Felidæ of Rancho La Brea. Washington, Carnegie Institute of Washington.

Radinsky L (1975): Evolution of the felid brain. Brain Behav Evol 11:214–254.

Schröder R (1968): Über das spezifische Gewicht des Hirngewebes in der Nachbarschaft von Tumoren. Aus dem Max-Planck-Institut fur Hirnforschung, Abteilung fur Tumor forschung und expirementelle Pathologie, und der Neurochirurgischen Universitiitsklinik, Koln. 

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Year in review 2016

2016 was best described as a busy year. It started incredibly well with 4 publications in the first four months starting off in January with my first publication on a fossil I found:

Halliday TJD, Cuff AR, Prasad GVR, Thanglemmoi MS, Goswami A, 2016. New record of Egertonia (Phyllodontidae, Elopiformes) from the Late Cretaceous of South India. Papers in Palaeontology. DOI: 10.1002/spp2.1040. Paper link, blog.

The following month the PhD student on the project, Marcela Randau, published the first of her papers on the vertebral column of cats:

Randau M, Goswami A, Hutchinson JR, Cuff AR, Pierce SE. 2016. Cryptic complexity in felid vertebral evolution: shape differentiation and allometry of the axial skeleton. Biological Journal of Linnean Society. DOI: 10.1111/zoj.12403. Paper link, blog.

The early part of they year would also involve various efforts in the field with different cat species as a student and I attempted to gather force plate data (with varying levels of success).

March was a slow publishing month, but April was to be a double whammy with both the papers on cat muscle scaling across the postcrania:

Cuff AR, Sparkes EL, Randau M, Pierce SE, Kitchener AR, Gosawmi A, Hutchinson JR, 2016. The scaling of postcranial muscles in cats (Felidae) I: forelimb, cervical and thoracic muscles. Journal of Anatomy 229, 128-141. Paper link, blog

Cuff AR, Sparkes EL,Randau M, Pierce SE, Kitchener AR, Gosawmi A, Hutchinson JR, 2016. The scaling of postcranial muscles in cats (Felidae) II: hindlimb and lumbosacral muscles. Journal of Anatomy 229, 142-152. Paper link, blog

Also in April I joined Anjali (as well as Ryan and Carla from the lab) on another trip to Argentina where we joined up with our Argentinian colleagues for continued explorations of the Salta area looking for more fossils. It was a largely unproductive trip in terms of finding many new fossil locales, but we did rule out large areas, revisited the site I discovered previously and found another very promising site. Hopefully Anjali is successful with a large grant that would allow for a longer term exploration of the area with a bigger crew.

April was to be the final month of publishing for a while, but in May my blog passed the 10,000 view mark (or at least as far as blogger's tally count goes) so at least that publishing kept going strong. 

At the end of June and into early July I attended the International Congress of Vertebrate Mophology - ICVM. It was another fabulous conference with an abundance of cool science. It made up for not being able to make SVP this year, the first time I haven't attended in 6 years. In years gone by I've heard stories of the attendees who haven't missed on in 40+ years. Guess that won't be me!

The summer would lead to publishing my two most popular blog posts of all times, the first on why extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence (still surprised there haven't been many comments on it), and the second on some of my favourite figures from palaeontological papers. Both posts got over a thousand hits in their first month which no other posts before or since have matched.

August was a particularly crazy month as I was expecting to be unemployed when September got around. Applications had gone into various places with a fair few rejections before interview, one failed interview (although a friend got the job so can't be too upset about it), and eventually an interview at RVC which was successful in getting me three more months employment as a technician whilst searching for something longer term.

In September I started my technician role, and whilst filling in the paperwork to start was invited to interview for postdoc on John's massive European Research Council (ERC) grant looking at the evolution of pseudosuchians (the crocodile line), and dinosaurs in the Triassic. After a tricky interview and encountering what I now think is a brilliant question on who I would invite to a symposium about the project (although hated it at the time as I blanked on names), I would eventually be offered the position which I gladly accepted. I would be returning to dinosaurs in December, learning some new techniques, and having a couple more years at the RVC.

After a six month hiatus, October would bring the next publication with Marcela again publishing on felid vertebral columns and her kindly writing a blog post for me becoming the first guest blogger on my site.

Randau M, Cuff AR, Hutchinson JR, Pierce SE, Goswami A. 2016. Regional differentiation of felid vertebral column evolution: a study of 3D shape trajectories.Organisms, Diversity & Evolution
DOI 10.1007/s13127-016-0304-4. Paper link, blog

November would result in my paper on felid brains (in combination with Anjali and our summer student/Imperial Uni undergrad) being accepted, and at present it has a DOI, but we are awaiting proofs before it gets published fully. I was hoping it would be fully online before the end of the year to count as published in 2016 and take my final total up to 6 for the year but it has not made it. At the start of the year I had hoped for 7-10 papers to be published this year. The 2 papers in review (one should be accepted after this round), a few failed projects (like digital image correlation on cat bones) and collaborations that are completed from my end, but not submitted are where I fell short. All of these should add to the expectation of at least 5 more by the end of 2017.

Ultimately December would bring the start of my second postdoctorate on the ERC project (expect many, many posts over the next few years on it), as well as leaving the UK for a much needed 3 week break having not had time off since Easter and feeling exhausted from work.

Across the year I have been practicing what I preach in regards to reviewing papers, with 12 reviews completed for 5 papers across 6 journals (one I got for 2 different journals when it wasn't deemed suitable for the first journal). Somewhat crazily, I have accepted another review across the Christmas holidays, so will be reviewing another one early in 2017.

It has been another good year for me, although maybe not so much politically for science in the UK with Brexit threatening large amounts of funding and collaborations. It shall be interesting to see where things go and I live in the optimistic (and probably vain) hope that it is not the doom and gloom we all fear,

A final amazing figure for the year from an undergraduate research project at Leicester (and a great example of how to get students thinking about science at all levels). I have to say I have nothing to do with the research, but it is a fun studying into whether the satellite phone swallowed by the Spinosaurus in Jurassic Park 3 could really have been heard by the main characters.
Childs et al., 2016. Dinosaur in-dial-gestion. Journal of Physics Special Topics.
Fig 1. A rough model of the path travelled by the sound, with Z-values from the literature.
Happy New Years and best wishes to all for 2017!