Obama vs Attenborough – showdown in the Ediacaran

The Ediacaran period (635-541 Ma) is perplexing for palaeontologists. From the Cambrian onwards (541 Ma – present), fossils are often quite easily recognisable as the remains of ancient life and can mostly be recognised and classified. The Ediacaran, on the other hand, requires a lot of head-scratching; even simply demonstrating that what is being observed is a body fossil can be fraught with difficulty. For the most part, Ediacaran organisms were soft-bodied and, when found as fossils, they are often preserved as casts. When simple body plans abound, it is easy to muddle up trace fossils, body fossils, and the products of abiogenic processes. Additionally, preservation bias can occur within a single organism composed of multiple parts – sometimes only a small part of the organism is preserved. It is sometimes necessary to demonstrate that the fossils in question are not simply a small part of a larger, more complex organism, but are much simpler.

Mary Droser’s research team from the University of California – Riverside have done that for two new organisms, one which has been described and the other which is due to be published. Droser described them as a new, unique body plan and it took them a while to verify that they were individual organisms (in the press release quotation, Droser mistakenly refers to them as animals, despite that not being verified). These new organisms are from a newly described fossil bed in the famous Flinders Ranges of Australia, which they have named the “Alice’s Restaurant Bed” after the Arlo Guthrie song. It’s quite a long song:

The paper describing the bed is titled You can get anything you want from Alice’s Restaurant Bed: exceptional preservation and an unusual fossil assemblage from a newly excavated bed (Ediacara Member, Nilpena, South Australia). Droser and her colleagues have a knack for memorable paper titles, a personal favourite of mine is When the worm turned: Concordance of Early Cambrian ichnofabric and trace-fossil record in siliciclastic rocks of South Australia. 

As already mentioned, they have named two new species, one is awaiting publication, the other has been named already in another memorably titled paperStuck in the mat: Obamus coronatus, a new benthic organism from the Ediacara Member, Rawnsley Quartzite, South Australia. (“Stuck in the mat” is a reference to the organism’s way of life, partially embedded in microbial mats.) This organism has been named after former US President Barack Obama to honour his passion for science, whilst the forthcoming organism has been named Attenborites janeae after naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough for his advocacy of science and support of palaeontology (Droser and Gehling both worked on Attenborough’s First Life documentary as well).

Obamus coronatus (left) and Attenborites janeae (right). Credit: University of California – Riverside

It seemed to me that Attenborough has a lot of organisms named after him and although I am a big fan of his, and I do think he deserves to have some organisms named after him, it seems to be overkill. So I had a bit of a look into how many organisms have been named after Attenborough, which also led me to find that Obama has a lot named after him too. So who has the most?

I haven’t excluded names which are no longer valid as the naming still happened in the first place.

Starting with Sir David Frederick Attenborough OM CH CVO CBE FRS FLS FZS FSA FRSGS:

Source: EPA

The first organism named after the UK’s adopted grandfather was Sirdavidia, a plant, for which there is only one species (as far as I can tell). He has two other plants named after him, Blakea attenboroughi and Nepenthes attenboroughi, as well. The rest are all animals and include two spiders, Prethopalpus attenboroughi and Spintharus davidattenboroughi, the beetle Trigonopterus attenboroughi, the dragonfly Acisoma attenboroughi which was named to commemorate his 90th birthday, the crustacean Ctenocheloides attenboroughi, the fish Materpiscis attenboroughi, the echidna Zaglossus attenboroughi, and finally the plesiosaur Attenborosaurus. Add on Attenborites and it is quite the haul.

How does everyone’s most loved/hated former US President, Barack Hussein Obama II, compare?

Obama has no plants but he does have the lichen Caloplaca obamae. He instead boasts more animals, one of which belongs to the same genus as one of Attenborough’s: the spider Spintharus barackobamai. He also has the spider Aptostichus barackobamai to his name. There is also the blood fluke Baracktrema obamai, the beetle Desmopachria barackobamai, the bee Lasioglossum obamai, the horsehair worm Paragordius obamai, the fishes Tosanoides obama and Etheostoma obama, the bird Nystalus obamai, and finally the extinct reptile Obamadon. Again, once Obamus coronatus is added, that is quite the haul.

If you decided to tally up these organisms, you will have noticed that they are neck and neck on twelve apiece. Is there a way to declare a winner? Both have two genera each named after them but as far as I can tell they are monospecific, so we can’t toss a load of extra species onto one pile. Is there another way to decide?

There actually is as I held one back. The fish Teleogramma obamaorum is named for both Barack and Michelle Obama so it does add to his list. Astonishingly, Barack Obama has more organisms named after him than the arguably more appropriate David Attenborough. Michelle Obama isn’t limited to sharing with her husband; the spider Spintharus doesn’t just include the species S. davidattenboroughi and S. barackobamai, as there’s also S. michelleobamaae. 

Whilst I’m mentioning family members, Sir David’s late brother Richard Attenborough got in on the act as well. The Jurassic ankylosaur Tianchisaurus nedegoapeferima gets its specific name from a combination of Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Ariana Richards, and Joseph Mazzello.

One person who might envy Obama’s impressive list of namesakes is, of course, Donald Trump, who so far has the moth Neopalpa donaldtrumpi and the fossil sea urchin Tetragramma donaldtrumpi. The latter was named simply because its discoverer is a fan of Trump, whereas the moth bears a striking resemblance due to its “hair” and apparently diminutive genitals:

By Close up photograph of the Head of a Male Neopalpa donaldtrumpi.jpg: Dr. Vazrick Nazariderivative work: Kmhkmh – This file was derived from: Close up photograph of the Head of a Male Neopalpa donaldtrumpi.jpg:, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55126737

 

I’m hoping he stops at two.

 

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Science haiku

Haiku is one of the quickest and most fun forms of poetry to write. It’s also perfect for Twitter (which I recently joined). At some point, I intend to do some longer palaeontological poetry but for now, I have written a few haiku (mostly in the shower). I decided to tweet them all and am going to attempt to embed the first post here (I’ve never embedded a tweet before). They are mostly about the Ediacaran biota, with a few about palaeontology in general. Also birds. One of the challenges of writing a haiku about science, especially palaeontology, is the structure which limits the number of syllables one can use; a word like palaeontologist, for example, is too long for the first or last line and takes up a lot of allocated syllables when used in the second line. I had fun with that.

 

This first tweet was about Charnia, the important and puzzling Ediacaran fossil. The next one was about another Ediacaran organism, Dickinsonia. They are all on Twitter as well.

Dickinsonia
Your fossils are confusing
Reveal your secrets

For the next organism, I took a more tongue-in-cheek approach to its appearance.

Oh dear, Spriggina
You look like a used condom
Ribbed for her pleasure

And how could I leave out Kimberella?

Look, Kimberella
Maker of fossil scratch marks
Is that the back end?

I took a look at Ediacarans as a whole in these three:

Ediacarans
Are those animals, maybe?
A lively debate

Ediacarans
Where do you fit on life’s tree?
Pesky Rorschach tests

Precambrian life
Always called “enigmatic”
A truthful label

And onto the Cambrian:

Things got complex in
The Cambrian Explosion
But what was the cause?

I wasn’t as keen on that one as it seems to suggest a singular cause. I had written a different final line in my head but it has sadly disappeared. The next three were about palaeontology as a whole:

Wonderful life, dead
Palaeontologists find
Minds put flesh on bone

The rocks hold within
Secrets for us to unveil
Remnants of deep time

Life of distant pasts
Myriad deep connections
Try to uncover

And, finally, I thought I would hammer one particular point home:

Birds are dinosaurs
Birds? Yes, they are dinosaurs
Living dinosaurs

If you enjoyed these, drop me a message or comment on Twitter, I’d be happy to write some more.

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Is Jurassic World Evolution useful for science communication? An open question

I’d love for this to be an in-depth discussion about the merits of the soon-to-be-released Jurassic World Evolution game, however, it is not (my apologies if you wanted some actual insight). It’s something I’d like to see investigated and it opens up a broader question: do video games geared towards entertainment have the potential for education? Testing a person’s knowledge of dinosaurs before and after the game could yield some interesting results.

Before I say any more, check out one of the trailers for the game:

Recently, a friend of mine who is extremely excited about the game added me to a Facebook group (aptly named Jurassic World Evolution!) geared towards discussion about the game. His intention was to get me interested in playing it, which would have worked if I actually played computer games; it looks right up my alley. What I found was mostly discussions about possibilities in the game, which I found tedious. In amongst the game-speak was genuine discussions about dinosaurs, with some of the commenters displaying some quite in-depth knowledge about dinosaurs (and, of course, lots of arguments about Spinosaurus vs Tyrannosaurus). Even simple questions asking which dinosaurs the gamers wanted to see elicited some responses which sent me to Google, looking up dinosaur names which I had ashamedly never seen before or about which I had limited knowledge. The possibility that a game like Jurassic World Evolution, which is purely meant for entertainment and to make money off of a popular franchise, could educate people about dinosaurs excited the budding science communicator in me and put a smile on the palaeontologist’s face (he’s in there too).

It wasn’t all good news. Many misconceptions popped up in the discussion threads. One particularly egregious example was the frustratingly often mentioned “T. rex was a scavenger” argument which should have died long ago. Some people seemed resistant to the idea that some dinosaurs had feathers, whilst the idea that birds are dinosaurs seemed completely lost on some of the people I encountered. I got the sense that they weren’t getting their information from the game and that perhaps when the game conflicted with other information they had in their head, they perceived the game as taking creative liberties (much as the films did to an extent).

As an example of how uninformed some of the fans were, see the screenshot below. Those are responses to the question, “What is your favourite dinosaur of all time?”

Dinosaur fans don’t like dinosaurs much

As you can see, there are some decent answers. In this screenshot alone, there are Therizinosaurus and Acrocanthasaurus, both examples which are not obvious choices. The thread also included Herrerasaurus, Suchomimus, Shantungosaurus, Gualicho, Gastonia, Corythosaurus, Saichania, Saurophaganax, and even Irritator (and more but I think the point is obvious). Some great, more obscure choices in amongst the usual Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor and other typical Jurassic Park fare.

Also present were Tapejara, Sarcosuchus, Dimorphodon, Pteranodon and Mosasaurus, none of which are dinosaurs. If games like Jurassic World Evolution do have the potential to teach people, then obviously some of the basics about dinosaurs are passing some of the gamers by.

I’m drawing no conclusions from this very brief and simple look into the world of Jurassic World Evolution fandom, except that I would love to see a study on its impact or the impact of games in general.

Also, I will hopefully soon be reviewing Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, if I manage to see it. I still have a number of half-written blog posts reviewing Jurassic World as I hated the film so the same could happen with Fallen Kingdom. I have, however, thrown around quite a few opinions on the franchise.

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My dog’s scientific papers

My dog is not the smartest of dogs. She knows barely any tricks and often does stupid things but sometimes she surprises me. Like the time we wrote a couple of scientific papers together. She’s called Peanut and she looks like this:

This is Peanut at her most majestic.

This isn’t just an excuse to post pictures of my dog, though here is another:

We actually wrote a couple of scientific papers together. Instead of focusing on palaeontology or science communication, the two things I should supposedly be able to write about, or rolling in fox poo and eating plants, which are Peanut’s areas of expertise, we decided to write a couple of papers on computer science. This is the first:

Looks good, right?

Have a good read of that and see how far you get. It is tempting to go off on a tangent and discuss how people have the propensity to perceive text to have deeper meaning if they have to invest a lot of time to understand it, leading to intelligent sounding statements which are really lacking in profundity, but that is a story for another time (that’s not a planned blog post, I don’t even write the planned ones). There is no meaning to this paper, it is all nonsense. I produced it using the automatic paper generator SCIgen, which creates fully formed papers including typical formatting, graphs, diagrams and citations, all of which is complete nonsense yet appears to be grammatically sound. It can even be downloaded as a pdf, our second paper looks like this:

Available on request from either myself or Peanut.

It is all a bit of fun but it does have a legitimate function. Journals suspected of having low publishing standards can be exposed by submitting a paper from SCIgen, as can predatory conferences which prey on inexperienced researchers in an attempt to exploit them for money. In case you are worried that computer science is flooded with SCIgen papers, there is even a free program designed to spot them. They do look good though:

Look, sciencey stuff.

Jump to the references in the paper and you should find that the authors – in this case, Peanut and me – have been involved with other papers. I was shocked to find that Peanut had been publishing papers as far back as 1999. Not only did I feel deceived but I am baffled too; she was born in 2007.

She’s been busy.

In case you wanted to see us hard at work, this is us (she is the hairier one):

This post has partly been an excuse to share pictures of my dog, follow her on Instagram at adogcalledpeanut if you want to see more pictures like this:

Just be aware that the Sun actually shines out of my dog’s arse:

And she is going to ditch her career in computer science to fly off on the Millennium Falcon:

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Doncaster Dinosaur Fouling

Most, if not all, councils have a page for reporting dog fouling in public places. My local council has one for reporting dinosaur poo, which you can see here.

Naturally, it’s not real. Instead, it’s a nice little bit of advertising for the local museum which has a new website, which you can see here. I recommend a visit, I used to volunteer at Doncaster Museum and they have some great material in their collection, a passion for local history, and they were always good to me as a volunteer.

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Pointless Dinosaurs

The BBC quiz show Pointless is the only quiz show I watch. The idea behind it, if you’re not familiar with it, is that every question has been presented to 100 people and the number of points for each answer depends on the number of people who responded correctly; as a contestant or a viewer joining in at home, you want to score as low as you can and, if possible, guess a coveted pointless answer (which increases the prize money). So not only do you need to know the answers, you need to be able to guess what others might not know. It rewards obscure knowledge. The only downside to the show really is that the prize money is incredibly low compared to a lot of run-of-the-mill quiz shows on TV. I would also like to see a more interactive version for viewers at home, particularly on the last round where only pointless answers will suffice – it is not always clear whether one achieved a pointless answer at home, as they only read out a handful of pointless answers.

Yesterday, there was a round on dinosaurs. I was hoping for something difficult; despite being a qualified palaeontologist, there are a lot of dinosaurs I either don’t know or would struggle to guess based on the limited information given. It seemed like a round where pointless answers could abound. Instead, this is what we got:

 

As I was watching the show with my mum, I allowed her to answer them. She found them all easy and even quoted Jurassic Park for C. Believe it or not, C was a low scoring answer whilst D was pointless. Out of 100 people asked, nobody knew the answer to D (if you ever read a study based on polling 100 people, remember, 0% of the British public knew the answer to D – it’s a small, useless dataset). I feel embarrassed for my country.

I’ve deliberately avoided giving the answers, however, if you genuinely need to know what they are, drop me a comment and I will provide them.

To follow it up, they had a very easy Star Wars round (I’m a Star Wars nerd) and the final round included an International Rugby category, which the finalists chose, and again my mum got a pointless answer (she often watches rugby when I have it on TV). Had we been on the show, we would have won it.

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Remind me, how many claws did a Velociraptor have?

I’ve had this sign for a while now, I think I got it in a Loot Crate, yet have only just noticed that rather well-endowed forelimb.

Ugh, no feathers either

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