What Went Down in Pittsburgh : SVP 2010 (part 2)

Posted by Nima On Thursday, January 20, 2011 14 comments

Last time on What Went Down in Pittsburgh: 

...the dark Rockies slowly moved into view.

Wolfgang was Pucked.

These gangly stick figures held no appeal for me

...probably not Roethlisberger.

 He had been jilted.

“What the hell – get a new hotel!"

“don't even worry about it, just get on. Save it for your tab with the bartender tonight!”.

“smokers stay off this property – take your butts to MacGee!”. 

The elevator groaned like a bad case of indigestion, but for some unknown reason the stairs were “off limits”.  

a creationist or catastrophist technician in the building had turned on the AC to an obnoxiously high level to make life difficult for all the paleo-people in the main lecture hall. 

Overhead costs...

Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were nowhere to be seen, but Errol Flynn took his place...

“You know that crazy new paper about Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus that just came out? Well I'm sorry to say this – but actually, I'm afraid those guys are kind of right."

"The type specimen of Apatosaurus is made of such bad material it's not even diagnostic!"

Half of ceratopsidae had been sunk into one genus! Blasphemy I tells ye, blasphemy! 

“Hmm, sounds like pretty standard advice”

Being the naughty inquisitive person that I am, I asked about anything and everything that hinted of rivalry and controversy.

“you HAVE to have a lot of stuff in color. That's where the real money is in paleo-art.”

"I cant tell you. I have no advice!" 

"a lot of people like to preach and ... pontificate... about things they don't know."


The next morning we were due to wake up very early, around six or so, to have breakfast at the local Bruegger's Bagels with Andrew Farke, curator of the Raymond Alf museum and leader of the Open Dinosaur Project. I set the alarm, with less than four hours to go. In the morning, we woke up hurriedly, picked up Bruce at the Westin, and drove to the bagel shop. The air was freezing, and Rob's Altima took a few minutes to warm up. After grabbing our bagels, we sat down with Andrew Farke and Brian Switek. We had a nice talk over the ODP and Brian's new book. The Open Dinosaur Project is an open database of measurements of major bones of various dinosaurs. The ultimate aim of the project is to compile measurement data on all species of dinosaurs, and as many museum specimens as possible. It turned out that the database was heavily Ornithischian-dominated. Sauropods were not even on the list, though they will be added in phase 2 of the project, next year. But Rob and I did get the opportunity to contribute to the paper that is supposed to come out at the end of the year, which will involve mainly ornithopods and ceratopsians.

 Left to right: Bruce Woollatt, Rob Taylor, Brian Switek, and Andy Farke (breakfast at Bruegger's Bagels).

Next we went to the Westin to hear more talks. Horner and Scannella's team was presenting. There was a lot of material on ceratopsian skulls they had found, yet because the presentations were limited to around 10 minutes each, there was not a lot of time to get into the details, and it would be easy to dismiss many conclusions as arm-waving. The biggest difficulty with embracing Horner's theory of Torosaurus being old individuals of Triceratops is the extreme changes in skull shape that would require. The shape of the face, beak, frill, and even horns of Torosaurus doesn't match up very well with large individuals of either T. horridus or T. prorsus. So the “aging Triceratops” would have to go through some very rapid skull transformation to get a shape like torosaurus, something that just isn't feasible in old animals that are past puberty. This is the other glaring issue the Horner team didn't seem to be able to give a straight answer about: in their theory, was Torosaurus an old Triceratops, or a recently matured adult with many years ahead? Were the largest currently known specimens of T. horridus recent adults or at least adolescents capable of sex, or immature juveniles? And what sort of animal has “juveniles” that are bigger than the “adults”?All known Torosaurus specimens are from animals that were no more than 25 ft. long, whereas the biggest Triceratops skeletons reach 30 ft. or more, and that's without adding the spacing between vertebrae where cartilage disks would have been. Torosaurus has a larger (and proportionally larger) head than Triceratops, but a smaller body. It's a typical “flamboyant” chasmosaurine with a huge butterfly frill. It's got totally different proportions. And for Triceratops to become Torosaurus, all of the actual bones would have to shrink in size, not just the thickness of spinal ligaments which result in geriatric loss of height in humans.

Triceratops? I never knew the guy!

There is not a single animal that reduces the bones in such a way. But Scannella and the others had an even more obvious problem to overcome: those adorable little studs on the edge of the frill, known as epoccipitals. In some chasmosaurs they are enlarged (as in Pentaceratops) but in Triceratops and Torosaurus they are fairly small. More importantly, Triceratops has fewer of them than Torosaurus. This pattern is consistent throughout all the skulls. Triceratops babies hatch out with all the epoccipitals they will ever have – larger specimens have no more on average than small ones (not withstanding mutations and pathologies which can give the appearance of extra studs to a decaying frill with perforations). Yet Torosaurus has on average at least nine more epoccipitals on its frill than Triceratops. And from what is known for certain about ceratopsian growth and development, they never add extra frill studs as they get older – they actually tend to reduce and re-absorb them! So how can Torosaurus be Triceratops, when the number and positioning of the studs (a pretty reliable indicator of species identity in horned dinosaurs) is completely different?

Scannella had an answer which was for all its elegance pure speculation, and which some might more crassly call “tongue in cheek”: “Triceratops had at least five epoccipitals on the upper edge of their frill. To get the ten epoccipitals typical of the top edge of Torosaurus frills, all you have to do is multiply by 2 – that is, simply split each epoccipital into two smaller ones, make five into ten!” Scannella said this with total confidence, and though I had some big reservations about this assumption, I have to respect the guy – he presented the actual data in a very detailed manner, even if most people present may not have interpreted it the same way. A true gentleman, who did not stoop to bashing alternate points of view and actually gave the best and most candid explanation I know of to date about what the 'Hornerite' notion of ceratopsian ontogeny and taxonomy really is: nearly quixotic, but tenacious and fervently optimistic.

All the same, aside from die-hard Hornerites, most of the audience members I spoke with later had very big doubts about the whole 'Toroceratops' theory. Nor were they any more moved by the argument of Denver Fowler, a particularly volcanic member of the Horner-Scannella team, who made statements to the effect that we all are in need of “a paradigm shift” to understand ceratopsian ontogeny. Once you say out loud that you think a paradigm shift is necessary, you're taking a huge risk with your theory - that pretty much is an attack on the way your audience (or the professional field) currently thinks.

Now in some cases that attack can be justified (such as with Bakker taking on the inaccurate stereotype of dinosaurs as cold-blooded reptiles – though I don't recall him ever using the words “paradigm shift”), but with things as uncertain and narrowly defined as taxonomic splitting vs. lumping, calling out for a paradigm shift is a weak tactic indeed. For it implies that the very same fossil evidence must be interpreted a certain way to be “correct” and can not properly speak for itself. Bakker's case was justified because the evidence had been neglected and not analyzed closely enough, and in the few cases where it had (such as Enlow and Brown's dinosaur histology study in the 50's), the establishment had suppressed and ridiculed the results – the evidence had not been allowed to speak. Once Bakker gave it a platform it speak some twenty years later, it quickly pointed the way to warm-blooded and often birdlike dinosaurs. But after having supposedly found so many Triceratops skulls, done so much stratigraphic analysis, in a modern decade free of the stifling, unquestioning “dinosaur orthodoxy” that Bakker had to contend with in the 1970s, the Horner-Scannella group hasn't found anything conclusive to prove their contention that Torosaurus was Triceratops. They have found lots of Triceratops – but none that look like Torosaurus in any critical area, like the number of epoccipitals or the beak morphology, nor even in the rather gray area of frill fenestrae. And their critical “teenage transition” case, Nedoceratops, has such a confusing mix of “juvenile” and “adult” features resembling aspects of several different (and non-consecutive) Triceratops growth stages, that it can't be assigned to either Triceratops or Torosaurus without having to seriously distort everything we know about genus-specific features on ceratopsian heads. So that's why they would have to make the point that we need a paradigm shift. The evidence apparently can't tell the truth unless one particular group interprets it.

Which reminds me.... I probably should have asked the company that printed up my business cards to print up some “ontogeny indulgences” on imitation parchment so that whoever doesn't like the “Toroceratops” theory doesn't have to get stuck in academic purgatory in the holy Hornerian future which some would no doubt like to believe awaits us... Of course I don't know how many paleontologists make the annual pilgrimage to Bozeman and hence can be there to purchase them, but seeing as there's some pretty good “Tyrant king” (sorry, I meant lazy scavenger) material there, there is probably a good stream of excited children and amateur enthusiasts visiting who would make eager converts and gladly pay for the previlege. Perhaps selling them online may be a more viable long-term strategy... and as an economist I could certainly be of help in the financial side of this endeavor.  

 Thou shalt be a willing penitent! And a paying one...   

But these were far from the only talks there. There was another similar presentation by the Scannella team that mentioned the discovery of two new genera related to Pentaceratops and Anchiceratops, which judging by their stratigraphic age and location, may form missing links between the two. This sounded crazy at first, but then I realized that I had never looked that closely at the stratigraphy of the Campanian and Maastrichtian epochs, in terms of tenths of millions of years, the way they did. Not everything in the Maastrichtian survived all the way to the end. Several Maastrichtian horned dinosaurs already were extinct when the big asteroid hit. Even Triceratops horridus, it seemed, was gone, having evolved a couple of million years earlier into T. prorsus, which was indeed one of the last dinosaurs. Pentaceratops was long gone, as was Anchiceratops and those two yet unnamed transitional taxa. They looked downright gorgeous. Imagine a Pentaceratops frill, even more “pimped out” than the ones we know currently. Then watch the central “v” close up so that the two innermost epoccipitals are no longer divided from each other, but point forward as part of a merged upper frill midline. You get something close to Anchiceratops. This idea actually didn't seem so far-fetched once I saw the transitional forms (which will be named someday....)

The other talks continued, some involving sauropods, small mammals, and everything in between. Victoria Arbour, a PhD student at the university of Alberta, gave a lively talk on ankylosaurs which I particularly liked. As it turned out, Euplocephalus the way it's currently known is not a single genus. There are several unique features found in only some of the “Euplocephalus” specimens (like cheek nodules and extremely wide “battle axe” tail clubs) that pretty much justify resurrecting an old abandoned genus – Anodontosaurus – to place them in. Differences in stratigraphy and geographic provenance also backed this up. Anodontosaurus also appeared later than Euplocephalus, and was what really could have clubbed T. rex.
Rarrrrr!!! You though Euplocephalus was a tough customer? Wimps.

After many more talks we exited and looked at the day's new posters before going out for lunch. In front of a big titanosaur poster I met Victoria Egerton, Ph.D and Elena Schroeter, Ph.D student, both from Drexel University, who were working on a giant Argentinian titanosaur under Professor Kenneth Lacovara, and we talked about this titanosaur. It was a massive beast, easily rivaling Argentinosaurus in size, and far more complete. Once I showed them my sauropod art it was not only clear that we had much in common, but also that this was something the professor himself needed to see. So they kindly introduced me to him, and he spent a good while looking at the drawings. I recall him particularly liking the scientific scaled restorations of titanosaurs, and he mentioned a possibility to illustrate the full description of the new titanosaur when it comes out. It turned out that this same titanosaur is nearly 80% complete, and among its remains were the same ones that I had seen earlier in the Carnegie Museum's fossil lab (though the humerus was not from this beast, but a cast from Paralititan).



Don't pay any attention to the little Diplodocus toy in the corner... these are titansoaur remains, not diplodocid remains. However there was a Diplodocus skull in the same lab not too far away.

Sorry to say, I don't see proof of the Witmer tubes... ^_^

I approached many more professors and grad students for the next hour and then Rob called. We were off to get pizza with Tracy and Bruce. However, I once again made the genius decision to take the elevator – which groaned even worse this time. There were two elevators in that part of the convention center. One was already out of order, and the other one was at that moment packed with at least eight people, including Ken Carpenter and myself. The groaning got slower and louder until it sounded like the cables were sparking as we descended down a few floors. The doors clattered open and we all exited, some of the more claustrophobic ones gasping for air and releasing a flurry of stress pheromones into the lower hall. And this in a world-class Westin, with the latest post-modern design.

I swore never to take that vile elevator again.

We met at a different pizza place this time, where I ran into paleoartist Jason “Chewie” Poole of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. As we chomped down pizza and chatted, we started talking about the new giant titanosaurs and some not-so-new ones, how to draw them (hint: not the way Ken Carpenter did it...) and the possible taxonomic relationships between them. I didn't know it at that instant, but Chewie was one of the people working on Lacovara's new titanosaur. Part of it is in the Carnegie, and the rest is at the Academy of Natural Sciences, which will reduce the preparation time for this colossal beast. Chewie, a man of few words and tremendous artistic talent, finished his pizza and left before the rest of us.

Returning to the Westin, we spent the rest of the afternoon in the poster session. The same posters were up as earlier in the day, so I checked out ones I'd missed. Dr. Jim Kirkland, state paleontologist of Utah, had a very impressive poster on Gastonia and Mymoorapelta. Kirkland has several major dinosaur discoveries to his credit, including the ferocious Utahraptor and its stubby armored contemporary, Gastonia – and more recently, the early therizinosaur Falcarius. Kirkland was currently focusing on early ankylosaurians, some of which (like Gargoyleosaurus) actually dated back to the Jurassic. Of course, I had to pop the big question about this group that had been bugging me for years: did Mymoorapelta really have a hook on the tip of its tail?

For a very long time the only place I had even heard mention of Mymoorapelta was in The World Beneath, the second book in James Gurney's Dinotopia saga. It was a beautiful illustration to be sure, but I had a hard time believing this was a real dinosaur due to the fact that Gurney painted a curved hook on the end of its tail! Gurney takes certain liberties in his books, such as changing the name Oviraptor to Ovinutrix (since as we know, they were caring for their own eggs, not stealing them) and also imagining up new species similar to known ones – such as with the Skybax. So I didn't know whether to trust him at the time. Later I did hear about Mymoorapelta in the press, but there was no mention of a tail hook.

Jim Kirkland's answer was a jolly one: “Hah, no way, there's no hook on that tail! But I know what you're talking about, James Gurney was pretty much the first person to illustrate Mymoorapelta, and when I gave him some pictures of the fossils, took this little bit of bone at the tail tip, and assumed it was a hook. It's not a hook, it's a small osteoderm, more like an enlarged scute or nodule or even a very small club that couldn't do much damage – ah but it's certainly not a hook!”

Next door was another ankyosaurian poster – on the dwarf species Minmi. The presenter was Lucy Leahey, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. To tell the truth I knew next to nothing about Minmi other than its name and small size (though I wasn't lacking for curiosity), but after 15 minutes in her presence I felt like an expert. I volunteered my services as an artist and she said she had no money to pay me. This was fine, I said, because I meant to illustrate scientific papers to get my name out there first – scientific papers are after all not the real commercial end of paleo-art.

Further on, were posters of a new specimen of Falcarius found by Paul Sereno (Falcarius – that totally rings like a beast that would cut your head off and take shameless sadistic pleasure in doing it), as well as plenty of non-dinosaur posters on things like plesiosaurs and giant ground sloths. The sloth crowd were an interesting bunch. Very sociable, all had a great sense of humor, and weren't the least bit high-strung or excessively emotional about their work or certain pet theories. They were very smart and matter-of-fact, but without making other feel like idiots. They had little or no interest in dinosaurs, but that's forgivable given the good vibe they gave off – and it's understandable, you sort of have to block out all the dinosaurs, to be the kind of person who goes to the trouble of doing their PhD research on not-so-sexy things like sloths. I wish certain excessively bitter dinosaur folks (you know who you are!) would take a clue from our sloth sleuth pals.

The earliest sloth-dinosaur...

Mike Habib of Johns Hopkins University rounded out the poster talks for the day. Habib's a very cool dude, in case you don't know him. You can tell because he's a mellow east-coaster just like me (if you think all Californians are laid back and chill, just take a trip to Irvine instead of Berkeley or San Francisco, and prepare to choke on your words). And because he works on pterosaurs, and let's face it – there should be more people working on pterosaurs. Yeah they're not “flying dinosaurs”, but they're pretty darn close. They belong to Ornithodira, the same grouping of archosaurs as Dinosauria. Most other Archosaurs (like crocodiles and their many crocodile-like ancestors and cousins, the pseudosuchians) are cold-blooded members of the rival grouping Crurotarsa, or “crooked ankles”. They have bent ankle joints, whereas dinosaurs and pterosaurs have a straight ankle hinge, which makes them far more agile (as well as erect) runners. Not only that, but pterosaurs seem to be the only major group of archosaurs aside from dinosaurs to achieve warm-bloodedness.

Habib's new research largely focused on anurognathids, those weird little flying fuzzballs of the Jurassic that supposedly hung around huge sauropods, picking bugs off their backs. Some of his info sounded stranger than fiction, but it was all supported: anurognathids have insanely powerful arm and chest muscles, able to support twenty times their own weight – an incredible feat worthy of ants and other insects but not too many vertebrates – not even Eugen Sandow. The critical thing here is to think of the wings as functional push-up-capable arms rather than simply wings. “You could drop a textbook onto one of these little guys and he'd still keep going.” Seemingly indestructible. “And they could turn on a dime, literally. Their wing structure shows that they were maneuverable enough to change direction in mere tenths of a second”. Okay, so they were indestructible and next to un-catchable. I'm not sure why such little supermen would need to hang around sauropods for protection, but perhaps if they did have contact with sauropods it was for a free lunch - to eat their parasites or any of the millions of insects the giants stirred up while stomping through forests and fern plains. Anurognathids, it seems, were certainly fast enough to catch most any type of insect.

And Mike Habib had a novel idea up his sleeve: a dinner for paleoartists, paid for by SVP, where people could see and even buy the art. By around 7:00 or so, our gang of four started following him out the front lobby and through downtown Pittsburgh – which is a lot quieter and less crowded than I had ever expected for a big city. The place is almost dead on sundays, and not to much more packed during the week. Also coming were Scott Hartman and a very well-dressed Tom Holtz. Of course we only had a very vague idea where Mike was taking us, and it was several blocks in the cold Pittsburgh air before we got there. Eventually we took a sharp left and ended up at a big Mexican restaurant/bar/grill that had several levels. We all took seats and Mike thanked the gracious owners for offering unlimited free drinks on the house. No I'm not joking. These guys either really love SVP, or SVP must have pretty deep pockets. Of course the charisma of Mr. Habib can not be discounted either. He's an all around consummate charmer, whether with the ladies or with business.

It took a while for the restaurant staff to get the food ready, which was basically a custom buffet of, in the words of one SVP-er, “the finest Cancun cuisine to be found on the East Coast”. Spicy shrimp, fish, rice, black beans with hot peppers, a very good salad, ample avocado, grilled veggies and of course carne asada. Mild, medium, and ice-cold salsas. No habanero salsa, but perhaps that was for the best. As I sat down, our table was switched up with people wanting to see my art. Tom Holtz and Scott Hartman grabbed seats, as did dino-aficionado David Marjanovic (who for some reason is a lot taller in photos than I remember him in person). Tom and Scott are definitely cutting-edge in dinosaur research, not to mention top-notch at presentation and public speaking, and very funny to boot - this was probably the most interesting table in the whole place that night. Everything was fair game – even the most wacky tongue-in-cheek theory about the uses of various odd dinosaur body parts, nobody take yourself too seriously, this was the time to chill and enjoy one of the real perks of membership in SVP. Hey, I shelled out the cash, didn't I? I had to hand it to David – he's got the most ironic sense of humor I've ever come across (and I mean that in the best of ways). Who says paleo people have to be boring and stuck up? Ahh my friend, you've never been to SVP, have you?

 Left to right: Scott Hartman, Daniel Snyder, and Tom Holtz.

David Marjanovic and the Paleo King

Yours truly with Matt Celeskey and Mike Habib

My art got a lot of attention at the dinner, but suffice it to say, it did not end up being a paleo-art event as Mike had planned. Everyone in SVP heard about it, and plenty of them came – including people who couldn't draw to save their lives, much less even had interest in paleo art. There wasn't any actual art being shown at the dinner except for mine. Just little glossy flyers and business cards being handed out. We had a lot of dinosaur folks, but the fish and sloth people came too, which was actually good. What was really important was that other artists got to see my work.

 David and Scott scrutinize my work as I sweat bullets...

After a pretty late night Rob, Bruce, and I got back to the Westin (with a few dino-envious mammal girls in our wake) and had some dessert at the upscale restaurant/lounge built into the place. Rob asked us both to draw quick dinosaurs for him on a card. Bruce's was a witty parody of Jack Horner's “Torosaurus = Triceratops” theory: a distraught Torosaurus sobbing: “I don't know who I am anymore!” Mine was a young Brachiosaurus whispering into the ear of a much larger one, “not needing a chiropractor or plastic surgery – PRICELESS”. Think about that for a minute, if you're familiar with Kent Stevens and Larry Witmer and where I stand on their theories, it's actually quite funny.

Back at the Quality Inn, I looked at more PDFs. There was a lot of good dino-information there, and I learned a huge amount. Many of these papers were from journals that are either extinct themselves, or no longer offer reprints. Rob gave me enough of these to last me another five years worth of skeletal reconstructions. Some were fine, some were excellent – and then there were some that made you draw a big blank and just wonder what the heck were the authors thinking? Or smoking? A big example was the published work of a certain M. Sadiq Malkani, a paleontologist from Pakistan who had put out at least four or five papers on his native country's sauropods, and taken the controversial move of renaming titanosauria to “Pakisauridae”, and saltasauridae to “Balochisauridae”. Now despite the blatant puffed-up nationalist pride in such a move, Malkani's actual finds in Pakistan are nothing more than worn fragments and pebble-like rocks that he claims are all verified titanosaur remains. Many of them are really just rocks. And he keeps publishing new “species” based on the least diagnostic of material, much of which may not even be titanosaur or sauropod material, or even animal remains of any sort.

A few of Malkani's random bits of sandstone superb titanosaur fossils. Erecting an entire clade on material nobody else can possibly refute, since nobody else can figure out what it is! What a novel idea...
(modified from Malkani, 2008)


Malkani!!! That was the first word out of my mouth as I woke up. And every time we saw some out-there theory or paper that looked like someone must have been stoned while they formulated it, that was also our byword. This morning I woke up far later than usual – I had not set my alarm, there was no scheduled appointment in the morning as there had been the previous day with Andy Farke, and I was flat-out tired. Unfortunately it seems I was as tired as a rock because Rob was gone. And when I called him he said he'd tried to wake me twice and failed, and he was at the SVP convention (as was his car). I had two options – wait all day (and probably all night) for him to get back, or call a cab and get there myself. I wasn't about to waste a whole day of SVP no matter how tired I was, so I went down and had a quick breakfast at Panera, then called a taxi company. I got to SVP around noon and took a seat in the main presentation hall, where some completely new ceratopsians were being presented. I can't say much about this research since it's still under way, but there are some very weird basal centrosaurines in the mix, related to Albertaceratops and Diabloceratops, but even stranger. Most of this day was the usual SVP fare - posters and lectures – on top of which I met several more researchers. The night was to be the annual SVP auction, and this one promised to be the best and biggest yet.

The auction was to be held upstairs in a large hall several floors up in the Westin. Basically a very big ballroom, with huge amounts of crystalline chandeliers and mirrors. I arrived early and began looking at all the tables that were set up. There were rare books and journals of paleontology, casts of fossils, prints of work by some rather obscure artists, and the usual souvenirs like t-shirts, keychains, and whatnot. The total number and diversity of the items up for auction is too great to list, but suffice it to say there was a very interesting mix of old and new, dinosaur-related and not. Rob was bidding on two books. I literally was out of cash so no bids for me... all the same the whole SVP crowd was there, so even more time to network and make new friends before the auction started. I met everyone from Brad McFeeters to Victoria Arbour (a.k.a. “Miss battle axe”) to more of our fish and sloth friends.

 The secret SVP Illuminati auction room.  
Speak not a word of this to anyone...

A number of the Drexel students from Dr. Lacovara's team were gathered on one side of the room behind some desks. And before too long, some of them began getting “pen tattoos” of dinosaurs from the artists there. Jason “Chewie” Poole was there too, drawing sauropods on Victoria Egerton and Elena Schroeter's arms. Then they asked me to draw some of mine as well, having seen my work earlier in the week. So I did - Victoria got a mamenchisaur on her right arm, Elena got a brachiosaur head and neck on her left. Chewie had already gotten there first and drawn an even larger-scale Amphicoelias-looking diplodocid on her shoulders, arms and back, which took up most of the available natural canvas and stole all the attention of the onlookers, so you could imagine I was a bit jealous ;) But all in good fun. More requests started pouring in for dinosaur pen tattoos all night.

 Chewie drawing on Elena
 Flaunting Chewie's sauropod
 This one's mine.

A mamenchisaur for Victoria

Finally it was time for the auction itself to begin. People entered their bids, and the winners were slowly being called up. Rob, as it turned out, had not won most of the stuff he bid on.

Professor Lacovara once again appeared, and we had a brief conversation. But soon his large group of Drexel students took his attention.

The Auctioneers were all dressed up in costume following this years SVP cosplay theme: Star Trek! Every year at auction night, the SVP's top organizing team all dress up in some weird funny theme costumes, this year was the year of the Trekkies. Ralph Chapman (or at least someone who roughly resembled him – I couldn't tell beneath all the heavy makeup and masks) was a Klingon and stood behind the podium along with the other SVP trekkies, making comical announcements on the microphone. “You will really not like me, since I am the most un-likeable person in the galaxy – I'm a Klingon lawyer!”

The room quaked with laughter. The items for the final (trekkie) stage of the auction ran from the eclectic to the bizarre. First there were the casts – a Protoceratops clutching an egg in its beak (did they ever actually move their eggs around this way? They had hands after all). Then, a cast of the 'unnamed Oviraptorosaur' identical to the one in the museum, courtesy of the Rust Foundation (wonderful name by the way). There was a scaled-down sculpture of a live Alioramus head (not just the skull) by a master paleo-sculptor, which is a rare item by any stretch of the imagination. I think it was by Brian Cooley, but don't quote me on that.

Spock didn't bid on this Mongolian masterpiece... his loss ;)

 Then there was a large caricature of Paul Sereno up for auction, followed by one of Catherine Forster. To my alarm Sereno's caricature just wasn't selling, and the longer it sat on the auction block, the more shocked the reactions got. Giggles arose as the auction of this item, the face of the “sexiest man in paleontology”, descended into a farcical state. There were no bids! Sereno's face twisted and flushed as the bidders seemed to be giving his caricature the cold shoulder repeatedly. The Klingon lawyer had to actually strike down the price several times – it went down over several increments from at least $250 to a mere $10 before it sold. Catherine Forster's caricature sold for considerably more.

Come on! Somebody buy it! $20? $15? I don't believe this.
He's the sexiest man in Paleo and I'm practically giving it away here!

Next came Paleo-Barbie, a one-of-a-kind custom Barbie doll with custom box, digging tools, binoculars, and fossil-hunter uniform. And then several less memorable fossil-related artifacts.

Towards the end of the auction event, I ran into Paul Sereno and introduced myself. It was of course an honor to meet Mr. Sahara Supercroc himself. However, I quickly noticed that there were some tensions that simmered under the surface of SVP between others and Sereno. I won't get into details here – personal conflicts are certainly not what the field needs more of – but the air was palpable with the sentiments echoed by many that Sereno was an outspoken and controversial figure in the field, whom some researchers felt had rubbed them the wrong way, both personally and academically. And worst of all, he was popular. More like a celebrity, in fact. National Geographic scientist, explorer, charismatic public speaker, marathon runner, and featured in People magazine and numerous Discovery Channel specials. But celebrity often comes at a price. Academic conflicts aside, I personally didn't find anything all that negative about the man himself. And he had a very dynamic and animated way of presenting his ideas which others undoubtedly envied. I showed him my dinosaurs, and this got him talking about his past.

Apparently he too started out as an artist, long before going into paleontology. He took many anatomy classes for the human figure in college, and this kind of traditional art training had given him an insight into merging science with art. Within short order, Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger showed up, and the four of us plunged deep into discussion about art, paleontology, and how society was missing the point when it came to both. Some excerpts of the conversation are as follows:

Bob: the real problem here is, that today in America, artists don't respect science. They have a lot less respect for scientists, than the scientists have for artists.

Tess: Well I disagree. I see scientists bashing artists as too frivolous, they don't see the point in art. It's too bad because in our line of work, you need art to make science accessible to the public.

Bob: Well from what I've seen it's not like that, it's more the art world poo-pooing paleo-art and other scientific art, they keep complaining about rules and constraints of accuracy being some ind of “shackles” and claim that it's not really art.

Nima: That's true, most career artists have never heard of paleo-art in the true sense of the word. They think dinosaur paintings are just textbook illustrations, nothing more. They don't get that the fact that we've never seen these creatures live makes for endless possibilities of artistic freedom.

Tess: Yeah, exactly! They think that just because it's not a picture of a bowl of fruits or a saint, it's somehow not art. They think science takes away artistic freedom, but they're ignorant of the fact that even with all their “freedom” they keep painting the same old boring stuff anyway.

Paul: The majority of artists, anyway... not the big names, the trend-setters.

Nima: Yeah, not the trend-setters – but the over-commercialized copycats that never step out of their doorjamb. Thomas Kinkade paints the same old stuff over and over again – and he's good at it, but he can't think outside the box. He's just a master at promoting the stuff to other stale people who can't think outside of the box. And there are millions of them, he's very good with his audience who are basically just like him. So we see all this development and investment of resources among people who paint that kind of thing, yet finding a dinosaur-related painting, much less a good one, in an art gallery is practically impossible.

Bob: And the reality of it is that science and art are inextricably linked. You can't separate the two. They're literally extensions of each other.

Tess: That's right, you can't separate them.

Nima: Yeah, it was always like that back in the renaissance, artists had to be good scientists and vice versa. Even in the 1800s, Ernst Haeckel illustrated all of his papers and books himself, that guy was a genius and did more engravings than you can count in a lifetime. Audubon, the same way.

Paul: It's interesting that you mention that, because I actually started out as an artist before I became a paleontologist. And honestly it's given me a huge arsenal of skills that are invaluable to finding fossils. You have to learn to think visually if you're going to look for dinosaurs. A lot of times I've found remarkable specimens where only a tooth or a bit of jaw was sticking out of the ground. It just hangs on that sometimes – if you don't have an eye for it, you'll miss it. That's just the way it was with Carcharodontosaurus.

Bob: Yeah, the funny thing is you started out as an artist and became a fossil-hunter, I started out as a fossil-hunter and became an artist! And people growing up in this country, have no idea how to connect the two. There's no class on it. There's no wikipedia article. There's no manual.

Tess: Yeah, I mean look, if you really think about it, the attitude you see here is so medieval. It's like the Renaissance just passed us by. Just because something's not a painting of a saint or a cozy cottage, people think it has no value. The Renaissance made it clear that science is in art and art is in science, I Europe got that, but the US is still trying to separate the two and ignore the connection.

Nima: Da Vinci was only superior to other artists inasmuch as he understood the science of anatomy. Michelangelo too. It's the empirical aspect – you have to study the real thing if you want to paint it, that's called science!

Bob: True, all the great artists studied live people and anatomy. All the great ones. They even dug up dead people to figure out how all the muscles went together! I mean look, these guys were dedicated. They didn't whine about “oh no being accurate is boring and it has too many rules”. It gave them more freedom, look at all the poses and perspectives you could have!

Nima: Yeah, and what do we see today? Oh look, a cottage. Just a stock image of a cottage, copied from a million older cottage paintings with no original input - it doesn't even need perspective, you can rotate it whichever way and it looks the same. Just some window dressing, some dabs of paint to pass for flowers. But real skill? If Da Vinci wanted to paint a fish, he went to the market and sat down by the fish stand. He didn't care if the fishmonger thought he was crazy, he was looking for a real fish. If he wanted to paint a horse, he watched horses. If he wanted to paint the 12 disciples, he didn't copy some icon – he got the heck out of the cathedral or the Medici palace and went looking for poor fishermen, carpenters, and ugly rough laborers. When Boticelli wanted to paint his nudes, he macked beautiful women and brought them back to his place, or if he was in a hurry he went to the red light districts.

Paul: Hah, yeah that's how they did it! There were no art books, no “how to draw” books. They went out into the world and figure it out on the wing. And their work is still better than most people who spent years and years in art school learning to draw fruit baskets. And now that we have all these art schools and all these books and classes, artists have regressed. Now I'm not bashing abstract art or modern art or freedom of expression. But suddenly we have this explosion of abstract art, and any splatter of paint is a masterpiece, but scientific art – oh no, that's not art! Somebody put a lot of effort and research and knowledge of perspective into that dinosaur painting, but art critics and a lot of these abstract artists just sneer and say that's not art.

Nima: Exactly, how is paleo-art not art, if even a haphazard splatter of paint is art? Don't get me wrong, I'm not some Orwellian art-nazi. I have a lot of respect for people like Jackson Pollock because they had the guts to go crazy and invent something nobody had ever thought of before, but now we see a bunch of blind imitators, crowd followers with no perception acting as if they're the iconoclasts and yet at the same time the rule-makers, acting like dinosaurs are not art but their splatter or a single red line on a white canvas somehow is far superior. It is enshrined in a museum, interpreted a million ways by conceited critics who don't understand it but still read a million different Freudian diagnoses into it, and this random blob or that arbitrary drip is given the honor of being called high art, but somehow paleo art isn't? Is all our work not even worth a careless splatter?

Tess: Well that's the only result to expect when you're not really a freethinking artist. When abstract artists claim to be for freedom of expression but at the same time they label these beautiful forks of paleoartists as “not real art” they're hypocrites.

Bob: Exactly, that's what the art world doesn't get. And the reality is, what we do is art, and there's a distinct style to ours and a different style and aesthetic to every paleo-artist's work, they can all operate according to the fossil evidence and never be “boring”. They will all have a new and different take on a subject, and it's not some repetitive stock clip-art in a textbook. The fossils don't say, a lot more than they say. I mean look at color, patterns, behavior, even in some cases movement. There's a lot of stuff that's open to interpretation besides shape and proportions, most artists miss this entirely and think “oh dinosaurs are just textbook illustrations, they're dull and repetitive.”

Paul: But it also seems like nature artists have a different problem – in their minds, dinosaur art is not repetitive enough. There are too few rules, too much room for interpretation. There's only one way to draw a lion. One way to draw a water buffalo. They're still alive so we know, and a nature artist has to work within that boundary. But for them dinosaurs are like fantasy. They've never seen a living Diplodocus so they have to imagine it, even with fossil diagrams they have a hard time doing this because they're so used to having all the external appearance taken care of for them, they already have color photographs of a live cheetah in front of them.

Nima: And many times because of this it's the nature artists that make dinosaurs look “boring” and “un-artistic” to the art world. They shut science up because they have no idea what to make of it and how to present it. It's easy to romanticize a lion or a cheetah, because you have them still around today and most people can easily see them as elegant creatures. But they have no clue how to make a dinosaur look elegant, and since they know so little about anatomy – and this is a travesty because they are paid to illustrate wildlife realistically – they don't study the bones, they don't read any scientific papers, they just buy a book hoping the illustrator knew what he was doing, and work off of that, bewildered that a publisher gave them an assignment to draw dinosaurs for an upcoming book when they have no experience drawing dinosaurs.

Bob: And usually that illustrator had also done the exact same thing. They keep copying and repeating old wrong images that are full of errors. So artists don't consider it art, they haven't seen the real art. They just see “illustration”.

Tess: And that's a loaded word, 'illustration'. In this country it actually has a different legal definition. If you're an artist you can apply for government grants in public works programs. If you're an illustrator, they don't even see you as contributing to culture or society and forget the grants. You actually have to fill in a different numerical code for tax purposes if you're an “illustrator” than if you're an artist. Bob and I, we have to file as illustrators, NOT artists, and it's just ridiculous.

Nima: So if you're legally considered an illustrator, do you have to pay more in taxes than if you filed as an artist? What about if you also sell painting, are you both illustrator and artist?

Tess: Oh yes. They don't let you claim the exemptions that an artist can claim. You end up paying a lot more. And if you both sell paintings and illustrate books or do murals for museums, you have to list both as separate sources of income and still you do not get the same level of exemptions that strictly an “artist” would get. See, in Europe they have illustrators guilds, they have collective political influence, and they are treated as artists and given all the same benefits. Over there they know that you don't have to paint saints to be an artist, or paint houses or meadows or whatever. If you make your living though any creative visual means, be it book illustration or selling paintings, you have the same rights as any other artist. There's a huge amount of public funding, say in France, where the state actually supports artists.

Nima: True, it is France after all, what would France be without art?

Bob: Exactly. Best advice is to move to France. If you're prepared to do it. Us, we're already established here.....


Paul: The thing is that a culture of art is not being encouraged. If it was then re-uniting the science world with the art world would be much easier. The intersecting webs of knowledge are not perceived except as separate planes, artificially separated.

Nima: And the other issue here is that the notion of renaissance people is thought of as old dust, abandoned. Much of the foundation of human knowledge is the work of only a handful of people who were outstanding experts in every field. But today it's like even though there's no formal feudal class stratification, most people never bust out of what they were brought up in. The polymath is a dying or dead breed, and education is simply the classroom and the exam, no value put on personal understanding of the lesson. Any time that's left over, is wasted on the empty allures of the television and updating your twitter status. And yet people claim this is the most enlightened time in human history.

Tess: And then it's all about what's popular. To really bring paleo-art into the mainstream, to make a combination of science ant art mainstream, we have to socialize both a lot better. Right now art is separated from society. In our culture, artists are supposed to be stinky bohemians or emotionally unstable people, crazy, sissy, frivolous, and so on. This is not the popular ideal of what society promotes as the “perfect” person. And scientists are supposed to be boring, pedantic, awkward, fussy, wimpy, and less lively than a block of granite. And neither one could be further from the truth. 

Nima: Well the key is in what our society glorifies. Kids are taught today that science is “nerdy” and not cool, art is “sissy” and therefore also not cool, peer pressure gets solely blamed but schools don't do anything to make students think any differently – art's a silly elective class, science is a bore, teachers don't make either one look badass, sexy, interesting, etc. So instead “cool” is what? Sports jocks who get scholarships to colleges they'd never have the SAT scores to attend, just because they are born with the right genes. Pop idols groomed by Disney to make millions lip-synching songs they didn't write, but they can't find America on a world map. They hear all the news about Iraq, but where is Iraq? They don't know! I'm not saying higher education is for everybody. Not everyone is cut out to be a brain surgeon or an engineer. But is even the basic respect for knowledge and people of knowledge completely lost? Do they even have a clue? It's like we're glorifying stupidity.

Tess: Exactly, we're glorifying stupidity. And not just that, the stupidity has to be contained in an idealized vessel, the “perfect” Barbie-doll body with the perfect plastic surgery face. They're selling an unreality, and it has nothing to do with the things that actually move knowledge and society forward. I'll tell you, I was never one of the “popular girls” growing up in school. I was always into math and science, not fashion and soap operas. I was always reading. I was always getting teased and picked on. And then the teachers couldn't believe that I was actually for real, they acted like there was no way I could have gotten an A on that math test, I must have cheated. They didn't believe a girl could be that smart, I must have had my parents do all the homework for me! So there was a very narrowly defined role, if you aren't shallow and mediocre enough, you get ridiculed.

Nima: So basically we have to being the renaissance back – in a sense. Not just let ourselves get stuck in whatever confined hole the consensus trance may glorify. Heck I remember even back in the 90s people didn't fear knowledge or love ignorance as much as today.

Bob: Well the big irony of this is that when it comes to dinosaurs, we're in the Renaissance. It wasn't the 70s and 80s with Bakker and his guys, we call that the dinosaur renaissance but really the renaissance is today. There are so many more dinosaurs being found now, so many advances in the art and the science, look at Lukas Panzarin, that kid is doing all sorts of cutting edge stuff. Your generation is going to see a huge expansion in knowledge in the field, and with the internet all of this information will spread over the globe. I mean it's easy, the information is out there, problem is everyone's so lazy, they'd rather watch American Idol than learn something. But that's a huge opportunity for you young people to really make a name for yourselves while everyone else is wasting their time. I mean this is the symptom of declining empires here. In the 50s and 60s, astronauts and physicists were sexy. Every guy wanted to be Von Braun or Neil Armstrong, every girl wanted to meet her Buck Rogers. But the stage for science to make a comeback is there. We just need dynamic charismatic people to make it popular, make it cool again.

Nima: Yeah, because when it isn't, we fall behind. Now those who do well in science are shunned and harassed in their formative years – and imagine how many possible career paths that wrecks in America. And where are all the so-caller winners from those years? The ones who thought themselves superior, who only had brawn and not brains? Where are the popular kids, the ones who thought they were so great - they're not in college getting PhDs, they are flipping burgers at Mcdonald's. The surfers, the gangsters, the jock bigshots on the quad, they are nearly all losers once senior year ends and they walk. Their bubble in school is over, and their parents aren't supporting their drug habits. They ruined the lives of the smart, useful students during those four years, and in the end they wasted their own.

Tess: But in the future those gangsters and greasers are going to be the grunts working for people like you. Look at all the plans to explore Mars or go back to the moon. You'd need people that are very tough, very fatalistic, and don't care if they get hurt or die, if you're going to build structures on Mars, pioneer the planet, fix things that break. These angry brute types will make perfect space explorers once they get some discipline with their danger, while you, the scientists, will be making the plans and giving them orders, telling them where to go and what to build. They'll be willing to risk their lives because that's their aggressive personality and they won't demand a lot of money for it.

(Upon hearing these wise words from Tess, this was about the most elitist I'd felt in my life so far. This was downright addicting.)

Bob: It's really all hinging on what happens in the next 20 years. If artists get enough of a lobbying presence, and state and federal agencies get their act together, then there may be a good cultural future here. If not, then art will diminish. I mean in Europe there is an actual artists' lobby and it's very powerful. Artists have many rights that they just don't have here, rights protected by law. And over there scientists are more than just people that measure this and pour out that. They can actually draw! And there isn't this mistrust between the science world and the art world that we have here.

Tess: And really its sad. Sad. People are constantly bombarded by all this anti-scientific thinking, parents are suing school districts for not conforming to one person's personal beliefs. And so many people are just shunning reason. We need more people like you in the younger generation, people who are passionate about learning and exploring things for themselves and asking the tough questions. Science is being abandoned in popular society, so many people these days are are going into the occult. It's just mind-boggling. Science and reason are just getting thrown by the wayside.


Paul: But we are working at it, at getting science out in the mainstream and also integrating art into it. I've even gone further than most, with dinosaur surrealism. You know that famous Dali painting with the melted watches?

Nima: Yeah, the Persistence of Memory

Paul: That painting, I got the idea from that to do a sculpture garden for the Field Museum. And it's amazing what you can do when you use a well-known theme to being science to the public. Now a lot of the more old-school curators would look on this as unspeakeable! But I talked to the board of trustees and also we were very fortunate to have John Lanzendorf on board with a lot of our projects, so it got done. We have dinosaurs next to the melted watches, along with melted skeletons and distorted replicas of famous fossils. Spacetime itself is looking distorted. There are skulls with vines and flowers growing out of them, there's a lot of modern art meets prehistoric science. And it's 100% imaginative but see, what it does a lot better than a traditional naturalistic exhibit is get children's attention. We want to get more kids bugging their parents to take them to the museum. That's the big goal. The more we make the museum popular, the more funding we can get.

Tess: That's right, that's why we're doing these big brightly colored murals with digital technology. Somebody walks in the museum and gets to see dinosaurs moving in an almost photographic space, not just a personal impression. They want to touch the mural, that's fine – that's why we have a robot paint it and then coat the thing with protective sealants, so you can touch the painting and not damage it. Museums have to get more interactive, everything today is a youtube and SecondLife world. So the museums need to catch up, have more technology in their presentations.

Nima: I'm all for the retro feel of the museums in the 80s, as long as the mounts are updated, but there does need to be a lot of technology that isn't there most of the time. And some good dioramas would help too. You have bones and paintings, now I think there's a real place for hi-fi sculptures. This museum has a few, but I'd like to see more. A good step is all the real plants that are here in the exhibits. But even better would be plants around the feet of lifelike sculptures rather than just skeletons. The skeletons of course have their place too. These new cradle mounts maximize their usefulness.

Bob: Absolutely. I remember back when it was all fusing, drilling, welding, bolting, and all kinds of messes. And then you couldn't research the bones that were on display.

Tess: See, the thing that's really going to move this field forward is showing the history of dinosaurs, not just telling it. This is a very big story, and new chapters are being wedged in all the time.

Bob: Yeah, it's the way you show it that makes all the difference. Is it going to be chronicle or narrative?

Paul: Because a chronicle is the way things have usually been presented. Like one long continuous story with one author listing out all the natural world across the eons. But it's all pretty much one interpretation. Narrative on the other hand is basically combining all the best ideas from different accounts and sorting them into a tapestry. And most people don't look at paleontology as narrative, but we need to show it that way to take it out of the stale shelves and make it something you can step into. What do authors do when they want to get children to learn how to read? They write a narrative you can step into, so the child isn't just reading, they are thinking: “what should Roger Rabbit do?”

Bob: Museums need to do the same thing. The dinosaurs are now real-life characters with real survival concerns. And they have action and unusual situations. Like not everything's a fight, but still, strange things happen. Like a mural with Mamenchisaurus drinking from the same lake as Guanlong. And the narrative, whether on a placard or a recording, says 'little does it know that this little meat-eater will one day give rise to T.rex” or something like that.

Nima: Strange things, like Tarbosaurus running into Therizinosaurus. Or dinosaurs that are not so famous, with their eggs hatching and a small predator actually stealing the eggs. We never see any real behavior in museums. Just skeletons. If you want to do it with skin models rather than skeletons, fine, but do it. No fights, not even much nesting or courtship behavior. Dinosaurs did all these things, we don't see all these things in museums.

Bob: right. They did everything. Except fall in love.

[everyone laughs].


Apparently ceratopsians were a point of contention...

Bob: Ceratopsians didn't gallop. I'm sorry to say it, but they just can't.

Nima: Well most museums have the opposite problem – they sprawl their Triceratopses, and all the arm joints get dislocated, the radius and ulna are mounted side by side instead of one in front of the other. They just break all the rules of vertebrate anatomy to get these precious sprawling arms. And the footprint evidence actually refutes the notion of sprawling arms, the hand tracks are no further apart than the shoulders.

Bob: But there's another problem – most people assume it's all one or the other. Ceratopsids weren't “either sprawlers or gallopers”. There are other options to consider. Now the arms articulate in a bowed posture, not really a sprawl but not perfectly straight either, but the hands do align with the shoulders. But the main point is that they do not have a good galloping design. They have some crazy-long shoulder blades. And these things just swing, whoosh back and forth in galloping animals. But in ceratopsids the shoulder blades are so long relative to the torso depth, that if it galloped they would break through the skin and go up past the backbone, maybe even crash into each other if both arms are in parallel stride.

Paul: Yeah, that's right. And it's a bit sad, everyone likes the idea of galloping ceratopsids, charging like rhinos. But they just don't seem to be built for it. They could trot though.

Bob: Yeah, they could trot. That's very easy for ceratopsids to do. They could still move pretty fast for something so big, they just couldn't gallop.

At this point, I didn't quite know what to think. They seemed to have their science down. But Paul Sereno and Bob Walters are far from the entire field. Is the notion of galloping ceratopsians truly dead among paleontologists? Or is it still viable? Or were they only capable of a “staggered” gallop in which the arms did not move in unison but somewhat more alternating? I remember a paper by Greg Paul and Per Christiansen in which galloping ceratopsians were defended, and the included Triceratops horridus skeletal didn't seem to present any problems for galloping, and I doubt Greg Paul distorted any parts. This is an area of controversy that doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.

Paul: Another thing that a lot of artists still get wrong is theropod arm posture. T. rex and other big meat-eaters couldn't pronate their arms and hands! They were supinated, facing each other.

'They didn't pronate!"

They could only supinate!

Nima: Yeah, the funny thing is they actually used to be drawn with supinated arms in a lot of old books, then in the 80s a pronated posture became popular and supinated arms went out of style since they were sometimes associated with dragging tails and awkward cold-blooded restorations. But now it's pretty clear that supinated hands are actually a far more natural position in theropods, and far better for grabbing prey. Only abelisaurs can't supinate, and their arms are too pathetic to grab anything, they're so useless they make T. rex's arms look like Schwarzenegger.

Bob: And there's no way T. rex could pronate. Its arms don't even fit together facing down, but facing inward they are very powerful. So it must have used them for  something even though they were so short.

Nima; Ken Carpenter says they were for foreplay...

Bob: Hahhahah! Maybe. Or maybe to hold onto carcasses while scavenging. They did scavenge, just not as often as they hunted.

Rob: Yeah, I'd say Horner really crashed off a cliff with that one...

There was another interesting anatomical point on dinosaur shoulders that I hadn't noticed before – apparently, clavicles suck. Bigtime.

Rob: I've always wondered why quadrupedal dinosaurs got so huge, and mammals never did. I mean I've heard the theories about higher oxygen levels back then, but somehow that just seemed too fantastic that it was purely a chemical reason for them getting that big.

Paul: A funny thing is that we've all always been wondering is why big mammals like mammoths and indricotheres never got as big as sauropods. Was it really a matter of oxygen content? There's a much simpler solution. Mammals have a weaker chest design that just can't take the pressure of such huge sizes. Mammals use clavicles to hold up the chest. Dinosaurs have a much stronger system.

Bruce: Well one thing is that dinosaurs don't have clavicles. Some have wishbones but they don't anchor the chest to any moving bones the way mammal clavicles do.

Paul: The big quadrupedal dinosaurs, for the most part, don't have a wishbone. And they definitely don't have clavicles. See, mammals have clavicles to connect the shoulders to the chest, but they're just thin struts of bone that can break or snap. There's a good reason why heavy mammals today can't grow beyond a certain size.... the way their shoulders are supported makes a big difference. Look at sauropods, they have the coracoids up near the sternum, close together with cartilage in between. The chest isn't “hanging off” the shoulders, it's sitting on them, so an impact can't snap any bones because the shoulders prop up the chest, and the coracoids are close together to brace an impact yet still able to move. Mammals don't have the coracoid, they hang the chest off the shoulders with these thin spindly clavicles, so they only reach a few tons.

Bob: And the dinosaurs, they have this strong, well-plated chest that can support huge sizes and take some pretty nasty impacts. The front shoulders basically support the chest from below with the coracoids, but in mammals the chest and upper torso hangs off the shoulders with clavicles acting as the suspension. You can push on a coracoid as hard as you want, but you can't pull too hard on a clavicle or dangle too much weight off of it, or you pop the suspension. Even human athletes have problems with popping or fracturing clavicles with too much strain in exercise. And injured clavicles are painful like hell.

Bob demonstrating the desirable merits of the dinosaur chest

Bruce: Oh, by the way, Paul, I've really been hoping to show you my T. rex skeleton sculpture. This is a scale replica of T. rex and here's the skull... 

Bob: that is amazing!....


Back at the hotel I got up and the plan was tightly timed. Basically I had arranged for a shuttle to come by the Westin and pick me up to take me to the airport around 3:30. The flight was leaving at 6:00 but I wasn't taking any chances. Pittsburgh International was actually a considerable distance outside of Pittsburgh. We wouldn't be returning to the Quality inn, so I put my suitcase in Rob's car.

The best of the sauropod talks, sadly, were later in the day than I was planning to stay. They were around 4:30-5:00 and later, which was absolutely disastrous for wanting to get on the plane back to Denver in time. Awful, awful. I was there on all the best theropod days, yet the only combination of flights to get me back that would not require me to empty my pockets several time over forced me to skip the one afternoon in which the bulk of the sauropod talks were concentrated. All the same I endeavored to make the most of this final day. With ample business cards still present in my hands, I ventured to hand out as many to as many relevant people as possible.

Once again I went between the actual talks and the poster room. Gone at last were the piles of saltines and gorgonzola cheese, replaced with sweet pastries. Carnotaurus, the Anatomy of a Speed Demon. Several more sloth papers. The hot-as-lightning discovery of a new, far more complete specimen of the basal therizinosaur Falcarius, this one with Paul Sereno's name all over it. One thing you have to say about the guy, he's a master of self-presentation, who at least appears to hit prehistoric gold every time he picks up a shovel. People were actually whispering “has Paul ever dug up a BAD specimen?”

This was apparently only the second specimen of Falcarius ever found. Falcarius... that just oozes grim-reaper badassitude. I mean think about it, Falcarius doesn't sound like a puny turkey-like scavenger (which is probably what it was...), it sounds like some huge mean medieval griffon-headed executioner ready to slice your head off!

Rob and I went to lunch that day at T______ in which some member of the sloth crowd were also dining, but they did not seem to notice the awesomeness of our dinosaur crew. Some of the finest minds in paleo-dom were there. The food was mediocre, ukh..... They did not know who they were serving. The server was quite obviously either drunk or incredibly stupid, as the ensuing spillage and seemingly lost expressions tended to show. But this was the last day I was there, so I could forget about this rather dismal meal. Sunshine was bright as we left the restaurant, on our way back to the Westin.

Going upstairs and through he hall we ran into more SVP-ers and had good chats with many of them. Most had never seen my work before, and some could barely catch their breath. There were surprisingly few Greg Paul comparisons. The last few talks I saw with Rob were on (what else?) mammals and theropods. The sauropod talks were yet to start. And sleep was seeming to overtake me. Tawa, one of the earliest dinosaurs, was a presentation topic, as was a single sauropod topic – whether any sauropods were nocturnal. The lecture hall and It was sad to say goodbye to this place.

Around 3:18 Rob and I left the Westin and went to his car. I grabbed the suitcase and we headed to the hotel lobby. Within around 15 minutes the shuttle would be arriving. We looked around at the roof and floor. I took a few final photos. The marble floor (or something like marble, perhaps Travertine) had some odd stains on it that looked strangely like blood. “Horner or one of his students must have had a run-in with a T. rex” we joked... “you know how angry they can get when you call them scavengers.”

It was a macabre gaff, and probably not in the best taste. But it really takes a lot of nerve to make out a creature like T. rex to be nothing more than a walking garbage dump, talk about your theory all over the press for several years, and then deny it was ever an important part of your research. “Yeah that always sounded a bit fishy” said Rob. “Horner practically nailed his colors to that theory.” I took more pictures of the lobby. It was a very nice place to say the least. I remembered the gilded wire in the elevators that Bruce couldn't stand to look at, the opulent hall deep beneath the Carnegie Museum, and the huge titanosaur still awaiting description. All the amazing people. All the jokes and laughs at Mike Habib's party. And being pretty much treated like princes most places we went. It was all over. The shuttle arrived, I said farewell to Rob, and departed.

It took nearly an hour to get to the airport through Pittsburgh and ten or so small industrial towns outside it, running into such curious shops as Fagnelli plumbing along the way (no joke, that's really what it's called).

I said goodbye to the landmarks and the city.

In the shuttle were four other SVP-ers (all of them much older than me) who mainly studied things like amphibians and mammals. And sitting back among them, sticking out like a sore thumb, was a tense, red-faced lawyer. Noticeably uneasy and feeling out of place with all the paleo-jargon we were talking in. What's more, paleo-people and lawyers aren't always the best of friends, given the checkered legal history of events like the Black Hills raid. None of the scientists talked much to him.

We got the the airport and the driver kicked us out. The lawyer was insanely overprotective of his suitcase, cuddling it as if it were a baby and taking far too long to get it out of the back of the shuttle. Another hour to go through the airport to the correct terminal. The airport was surprisingly un-crowded and spacious. At the security check in, the officer looked at my tickets and asked “You flying back to Los Angeles, Mr. Sassani?”

“Orange County”.

“Ah, the OC! So how many days did you stay in Pittsburgh, Mr. Sassani?”

“I came here on Friday”.

“Did you enjoy your stay in Pittsburgh?”

“Yeah, it was a good time”

“Nobody gave you any trouble did they? Because if they did, Mr. Sassani, I'll have to rough 'em up for you.”

“Haha no. Everyone was really cool.”

“Good. I wouldn't want to have to rough up anyone”.

I could tell the guy was trying to be funny. Still, a TSA officer talking about roughing up anyone gives me the creeps. Actually, airport security in general give me the creeps. You can never tell if they're smiling or frowning, or plotting their next racial profiling/strip search. Guess I should consider myself lucky this trip was before those awful body scanners were installed everywhere...

The security line was a mess, and very clogged as a result. I nearly tripped over several of those gray plastic tubs you have to put your wallets and bags in, as nobody had bothered to pick up some empty ones that had fallen on the floor. After this, I went past the T. rex and up the escalators to the main food court. A quick Sbarro pizza and I was off to the terminal.

The plane ride to Houston started off very well. I started trying to go to sleep despite the cramped seat. This was a 737, and not that I expect to be upgraded to business class, but the airbuses had a lot more leg room. As the plane started ascending higher and higher, a problem popped its ugly head up. The man next to me in the window seat – really more of a dog than a man judging by his stench – started asking chatting about Pittsburgh and asked about where I was going and what I saw in Pittsburgh. He said he had been visiting his nephews, and was going back to Arizona. With that sort of look in his eyes that the suspects on “To Catch a Predator” have, seconds before they are busted, just as he said “nephews”.

Here I was thinking he was just a bit disturbing. But he was also as annoying as he was delusional. And an idiot of the first water to boot. “Dinosaurs heh? There's dinosaurs out in California. I'm going there too. Except the government is hiding them all in Roswell in area 51. I've seen some things though. I don't know what you've seen. But lots of cigarettes, I start getting' itchy in places huh huh.”

Well so he didn't know Arizona from California. And he sounded more like he was from Texas in any case. Itchy 'in places' because of too many cigarettes? And reeking of booze through every pore? How do wasted bumbling hicks like this even get through luggage check-in let alone onto planes? Did the TSA even check his bags to make sure he didn't have a gun?

“Hey buddy, where do you live in California?” At this point I didn't even bother to give him an answer. I knew where this tomfoolery would probably lead. He was a bleary-eyed chump, and I could probably land him in the E.R. if we were on solid ground. But this would be asking for far more trouble than it was worth on a plane. I turned away. “Aw come on. I didn't mean nothin'. I've just got the headache and want a smoke... do you have a smoke?”

He kept mumbling something for another 30 seconds before he started snoozing. The flight attendants tried to wake him up but I told them not to bother. I'll have an orange juice and this guy doesn't want to be disturbed. Or at least no more disturbed than he already is.

The plane touched down around 6:00 and I got off as soon as the passengers in front of me got out of the way. I left the fumbling fool in his seat, and he had to be woken up by the stewardesses.

The way through George Bush airport was pretty straightforward, as long as you watch out for the big staff motor carts - really popular over there since not a single airport employee actually seems to bother to walk. Most of the porters don't port on foot. It was pretty easy to get around this place, as I had been there before. There was nothing all that confusing about the layout. It was just big. I reached the terminal for my flight to Orange County with only a few minutes to spare.

As soon as I was on the plane, I fell asleep.

The entire thing was over about four hours later. I was more tired than I'd been for a week, and the nearly empty halls at John Wayne were a welcome sight. I had just been to something amazing and back. And the one next year will be even better. Hopefully much better in terms of travel since it's in Vegas!