Portrait of a Sensitive, Armoured Snout

Unraveling an ancient mystery

Picturing the world of the prehistoric is often likened to a jigsaw puzzle: one in which each new piece starts a whole new puzzle. Your pieces are scattered across all the museum stores in the world or weathering out of the ground. The quality is variable and some of the pieces are warped. In some cases we get lucky and find an immaculately preserved specimen, like the ones being uncovered in China, with evidence of soft tissue still preserved. In other cases, we must rely on osteological correlates in living animals to work out what’s going on.

Palaeontologist Mark Witton recently wrote a post
about a group of predatory dinosaurs called abelisaurs. These animals have a rough, cornified texture to their skulls. Living animals with a comparable bone texture usually have hardened, reinforced skin. Hippopotamus faces regularly endure blows from rival hippo teeth and, while scarring occurs, lasting damage is usually avoided. Some theropod dinosaurs* show bite scars on their faces which suggest that something similar was happening with these too. Hardened, armoured skin would be very useful here. However…

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We are used to thinking of armour in the mediaeval knight or Kevlar sense of the word. This is not quite how tough hide works in living animals and apparently not for extinct ones either.

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Neovenator salerii, showing neurovascular regions. Image property of Darren Naish, shown here with permission.

Enter Neovenator

A new paper, published today by Chris Tijani Barker and colleagues, point to a network of sensory canals in the snout of Neovenator salerii – an early Cretaceous allosauroid theropod. The type specimen, held at the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology, has all the hallmarks of abelisaur-style facial armour but also sensory features similar to those found in crocodiles.

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Crocodile facial tissue is both tough and sensitive, like a gauntlet that can read Braille.

It’s most intriguing because, in 2014, Nizar Ibrahim and colleagues highlighted sensory pits in Spinosaurus as one of a suite of characteristics that demonstrate aquatic behaviour. That paper ricocheted around social media like a gunshot, with many critiques of the revised limb proportions of Spinosaurus

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New-look Spinosaurus. Image property of Natee Himmapaan, shown here with permission.

but very little attention was paid to the sensory pits – until now. Neovenator is a clearly terrestrial carnivore, built for land-based activity, yet it has these sensory features on its snout which allow the face to respond to subtle touch stimuli. The paper goes into other examples of animals that have such protective face coverings and delicate sense of touch: duck beaks to name but one. I shan’t steal the paper’s thunder by reciting them all here – it’s well worth a read if you’re curious. One of the paper’s contributors, Darren Naish, has also written up the discovery here.

Perhaps we will see another revision of the Spinosaurus material when the long-awaited monograph comes out, now that yet another feature has fallen into the “not necessarily aquatic” category, we can only wait and see. Regardless, Neovenator is an interesting specimen in its own right and I’m sure it has even more secrets to yield.

* I’m explicitly not naming that species: It already gets the lion’s share of press coverage and is mentioned in unrelated press articles, it’s about time it was ignored in related ones.

 

NatSCA Digital Digest – May

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What a month we’ve had! The Conference at Cambridge on the 20th to 21st April was a roaring success. Over 100 museum delegates gathered together beneath the mantle of a Finback whale skeleton, to swap notes and revive old connections. Many heated exchanges were had over issues ranging from fungi to frocked wolves. No museum-based conference is complete without a tour of the stores – big thanks once again to the Zoology Museum for having us. We got a sneak-preview of the new gallery space too and, while I can’t post pictures of that, I can tell you that you have to go and see it when they open. Highlights for me included an elephant from Sri Lanka with links to Stanley Kubrik, and a Diorama of a beach with added surprises for future conservators. Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest

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Welcome to the August 2016 edition of the NatSCA Digital Digest: an oasis of calm in a raging tempest of olympics, Trump, brexit, austerity, and celebrity deaths.

News from the Blogospbere

Hannah Cornish has been writing about the often-overlooked gems of the museum collection: the slides. You can read it here.

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Image courtesy of the Oxford University Museum of Natural history

So Pokémon Go happened last month: the Smartphone game that has been an unintended boon for the museum world. Several curators have weighed in on the phenomenon; here is Jack Ashby’s take on it.
News from Nature

The organisation which used to call itself “Nature First” has just demonstrated why that name was no good. In a shock announcement last week, Natural England seems to be favouring the lives of human-reared pheasants over the lives of the wild buzzard. We have watched buzzard numbers slowly recover over the past thirty years, it would be dreadful to see all that progress lost now – and even worse if the hunters mistake other struggling raptors (the Hen Harrier, e.g.) for a buzzard. Here is the RSPB’s response.
News from the Museums

I’ve been doing some travelling lately. I visited the Natural History Museum in Doncaster. It’s a small but delightful museum which has struggled through some hard times, as so many have, but makes the most of what it has. Its collections are benefitting greatly from having a specialist curator right now – long may it continue.

A little closer to home: I visited the Natural History Museum’s new Colour and Vision exhibition, which is beautiful despite not mentioning the Tuatara anywhere. The exhibition looks at the evolution of the eye throughout nature and the beautiful ways in which nature tries to catch the visual attention of others. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend it.

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A montage of Trilobite sensory organs

Announcements

I am delighted to announce that Deputy Keeper of the Horniman Museum, co-blogger, and good friend Emma Louise Nicholls is engaged to be married! I wish her and her fiance every happiness for the future.

NatSCA Digital Digest

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May the force of nature be with you! Welcome to another Digital Digest, everybody. It seems people really took home the message of last year’s conference and so the social media enthusiasm for this year’s NatSCA conference was immense – thank you to everybody who tweeted, shared, pinned, and otherwise spread the message of Noticing Nature.

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The conference also fell on a designated digest day, so rather than halve our resources to deliver a digest to an already overwhelmed readership, we thought we’d bring you a bumper installment this month instead. Vicky Purewal has recently touched upon the topic of our conference. Write-ups from our bursary recipients will be posted here, and talk write-ups will be published in Notes & Comments and in the next issue of the Journal of Natural Science Collections, due out at the end of this year.

Next year’s NatSCA conference will be held in Cambridge, so start planning your accommodation now, folks! You don’t want to miss this one.

News

Next, I’d like to congratulate both of my fellow NatSCA bloggers on their recent news:

Rachel Jennings, congratulations on joining the committee as our newest Editor. Rachel will be taking on the task of crafting our yearly journal into a thing of beauty. You’ve all seen what she’s done with our Facebook page and this blog, so I’m sure you’ll all agree that she’ll do a terrific job of this too.

Emma-Louise Nicholls, congratulations on becoming the Deputy Keeper at the Horniman Museum. Those of you who have been around a while will know that the former occupant of this position was our very own Paolo Viscardi.

Gina Allnatt has just started at Doncaster Museum this week as their new Natural History Curatorial Assistant, and we’re all really looking forward to learning more about this charming museum.

Events

NatSCA will be holding a seminar on Natural Science Collections and the Law on 15th June 2016 at the University of Bristol. Booking is open now! See here for details: http://natsca.org/event/2256.

Next month on the 1st of June, PubSci will be hearing from guest speaker Katrina Van Grouw on the marriage between art and the life sciences. Katrina is author of the Unfeathered Bird and has an exciting new book in the pipeline. She may even show us some sneak previews if we’re lucky. Do come along if you can, it’s going to be great.

And Finally

Finally, a belated happy 90th birthday to David Attenborough, who first graced our screens in 1952 and is still going to this day! I’m sure I speak for us all when I say that his natural history documentaries have been an inspiration and a delight.

NatSCA Digital Digest

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Welcome to the February installment of our new monthly format of the NatSCA Digital Digest. This will give your lovely blog editors much more time to write about cool stuff between digests, which can only be a good thing – right?
Jobs
You’d better get applying for Paolo‘s old job at the Horniman. Deadline is the 17th February!
Conferences and Workshops
It is the 14th Coleopterist Day at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History this Saturday. Do come along if you can, it’s free and no sign up is required.
Early word from the world of Darren and John suggests a likely November date for Tetzoocon 2016. If you haven’t been to a Tetzoocon yet, do go – they’re great fun with lots of informative speakers including several NatSCA members.
News from the Museums
The Grant Museum is hosting a Valentine’s event this year – do check it out – it looks like it’s going to be lots of fun.
I went to visit the new Anthropology exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London at the end of last week. Those of you who visited the old one will notice some differences: Gone are the spinning skull casts worn smooth like the statue of a church Saint. Gone is the disproportionate emphasis on genus Homo and the appearance of agriculture. Instead what you have is a walk-through gallery outlining the entire hominid line, featuring footprints, skeletons, and tools – including a rather impressively preserved 420,000 year-old wooden spear. Beside each of the better-preserved skulls sits a fetching artist’s reconstruction of the individual. The cases are right up-to-date with specimens found as recently as last year. Sure the handling specimens will wear smooth and the taxonomy will need revising in another 30 years but, for now, it’s a beautiful place to visit and I can’t wait to see what they’re doing to the dinosaur gallery.
A tree full of hominids
If you missed Mark Carnall’s BBC Radio 4 talk about underwhelming fossil fish, fear not: you can catch it all on Inside Science. We are reminded in segments like these that the fossil record is no trophy room and nature will keep many specimens that we might otherwise throw back.
We often hear from London and Oxford Museums but today I have a small treat for you: did you know that the Doncaster Museum has a hybrid quagga foal? Neither did I until last month. You can read about it here. I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot more from the Doncaster Museum in the near future – more on that story later.

NatSCA Digital Digest

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Jobs
There is a temporary Curatorial Assistant position going in Sheffield. For more details about the spec, see here.
Be sure to check the NatSCA jobs board regularly, we don’t want you to miss out.
Exhibitions 
A new exhibition on the Bates specimens has just opened up at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, put together by our very own Gina Allnatt. You can read more about the exhibition here and of course visit the new display in the top hall of the museum.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology are commissioning a new  wall of birds – the wall will feature over 260 species painted to scale and I for one will definitely need to go and see it!
Cool stuff on the Internet
You may know him from his phylogenetic silhouette site Phylopic. If you’re really ancient, you’ll know him from a great site called the Dinosauricon. Now T. M. Keesey has embarked on a new Palaeocene comic, which looks fantastic and you can read it here.
The people from Palaeocast are working on a virtual natural history museum. It will be a way for people to access digitised resources like never before. It’s early stages yet but do check it out.
Papers and Blogs about Papers
Chris Stringer raises some issues with exactly where Homo naledi sits on the hominid family tree in this piece for eLife.

NatSCA Digital Digest

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(Image by Ton Rulkens, in public domain)

Good morning all, I’m recently back from volunteering on the Orchid Observers project, working on determining the effect of climate change on the UK’s orchid species. I’m going to talk about that in a bit more detail later but let’s see what’s been happening this week:

In the News

The Natural History Museum, London, will be reprising its Human origins permanent exhibition next month. Anyone who remembers the old exhibition in the upper gallery and then attended the temporary One Million Years exhibition will know that much of the research of the last decade was missing from the old one. This relaunch comes as welcome news to many.

 

Speaking of Welcome news, the Wellcome Collection will soon be launching its exhibition on Tibet’s Lukhang Palace. One may not ordinarily think of cultural structures as coming under the remit of Natural History but it’s amazing how much geology there is in stone work, not to mention all the nature-inspired tapestries and decorations, andthe animal-skin boats used to reach the palace.

11-year-old nature enthusiast Zach has just finished a year of daily nature blogging. Check out the fruits of his impressive work here.

 

News from NatSCA

Don’t forget that the final entries for a Bill Pettit Memorial Award grant are due in on the 12th December 2015 – get submitting here.

 

From the Blogosphere

Oxford’s Mark Carnall has written a must-read piece in the wake of the Museums Association conference on the role of the Subject Specialist. You can find it here.

If your local museum is up to something interesting, do get in touch.