Thursday, June 27, 2013

Research as it happens I: Museum of the Rockies

Museums at their best are living institutions that serve science in addition to public education. I took this photograph today in the Hall of Growth and Behavior at the exemplary Siebel Dinosaur Complex of the Museum of the Rockies (Bozeman, MT).
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Introduction – what am I doing?
 I presently have five major research projects on the go; two are descriptive monographs, one is a descriptive article, and the last are works on tyrannosaurid ontogeny.
On Monday, June 24 (2013), I began a two-week research trip at the paleontology collections of the Museum of the Rockies (Bozeman, MT), where my goal is to complete the text and photographic plates for a monographic description of a new taxon of tyrannosaurid. I’ve arrived with a manuscript that is 426 pages long (double spaced!), and I expect it to leap up over my time here.
The goal of this entry is to give non-paleontologists a sense of what types of activities are actually required to produce a formal anatomical description, which I present in a question and answer format.
Why am I doing this?
Descriptive works are a part of the discovery venture of science; the outcome for paleontology will be new information about a long-extinct organism from a vanished ecosystem. The quality and completeness of the fossils promises a level of detail that is usually not seen, which will help to improve our understanding of variation among tyrannosaurids in general.
My personal motivation is that I want to learn everything that I can about how this group of dinosaurs grew and evolved for a longer-term project that will attempt to synthesize those sets of information. A synthesis of ontogeny (growth) and phylogeny (evolution) can provide the footing to explain how evolutionary changes occurred between ancestors and their descendants.
Why should anyone care?
Descriptions of new species of extinct organisms inevitably expand humanity’s understanding of nature, and serves to incrementally displace and reduce the influence of superstition upon people. Extinct animals are a reminder that our day-to-day concerns are limited to the current moment of our lives, the mere skin of history stretched thin over a vast and knowable summit of geological time.
What is a monograph?
A monograph is a detailed and lengthy formal scientific description of a specimen or specimens that is unconstrained by the short traditional page length of a typical journal article. Monographs are sometimes measured in the hundreds of pages, including the one I am drafting on this visit.
Why take this approach?
In my view, the days are over where short descriptions are sufficient enough to describe new species (I too am guilty of this approach), especially if a growth series is available. We have to take the opportunity to accurately assess variation and clear the noise from the signals of phylogeny and ontogeny. These goals require detail. We also have to make the effort to keep up with the volume of data that is scattered among many publications.
How long have you been working on this particular project?
In total, this project so far has required two previous research trips; the first took a month and the second was for two weeks. In total, I expect that it will have taken me two full months to write the description and produce the series of photographic plates while the specimens are in hand.
How does the writing process proceed?
This project has been a two-pass experience. During the first month-long visit, I drafted the entire ~300 page manuscript. With that raw description in hand, at home I then read it alongside other descriptive works (e.g., Russell, 1970, Brusatte et al., 2012) and phylogenetic studies (e.g., Currie et al., 2003; Brusatte et al., 2010). Along the way, I made certain to take note of all of the osteological features and phylogenetic characters that are mentioned in those works and include them in the manuscript for comparison with the new fossils.
This part of the process is written by hand as marginalia; on this collections visit and during the previous one, I systematically proceed page by page, comparing each note with the specimens, and adding those data to the manuscript. This has resulted in an expanded description that will make it useful for researchers to readily understand how the new species compares with other fossils.
In addition to adding the marginalia, I am also adding specimens to the description. During the first month I spent the first three weeks writing up the entire growth series of specimens until I realized that I was running out of time. For the last week I only wrote up the type (reference) specimen, leaving much of the palate and the entire mandibular ramus without comparative description. I am rectifying that deficit on this trip.
What have I accomplished so far?
In four days I have written 57 pages in expanding the anatomical descriptions of the ectopterygoid, articular, surangular, and angular; today I’ve largely finished writing up the prearticular, which has brought the page count of the manuscript to 483. The pterygoid, splenial, intercoronoid, dentary, dentition, and lesions are left for me to complete. Beyond that, I have the photographic plates to prepare and label.
What is the level of commitment required to do this?
The level of commitment is quite high; usually collections visits are from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, but depending on the institution the day can start as early as 7:30 am and end at 10:00 pm. Some research trips can extend over weekends. I take every moment that is made available to me.
This sort of work is solitary; it requires long hours of isolation and intense focus. My best hours are in the morning, whereas the afternoon interval of 2:00 pm-5:00 pm is a slog. There is also the emotional cost of an extended time away from family, and the literal expense of personal money if research funds are not available.
What do I expect to accomplish?
1)   Complete the osteological description of the type specimen and the referred specimens in the context of a growth series.
2)   Document the lesions on the skull and jaws.
3)   Complete the sets of measurements for each specimen.
4)   Complete a draft of each photographic plate with labels.
I still have a little over a week to accomplish these goals…

At work on the monograph in January, 2013. Photograph by Holly Woodward.
References cited

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Brusatte, S. L., T.D. Carr, andM.A. Norell.  2012. The osteology of Alioramus, a gracile and long-snouted tyrannosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 366: 1-197.

Brusatte, S.L., M.A. Norell, T.D. Carr, G.M. Erickson, J.R. Hutchinson, A.M. Balanoff, G.S. Bever, J.N. Choiniere, P.J. Makovicky, and X. Xu. 2010. Tyrannosaur paleobiology: new research on ancient exemplar organisms. Science 329: 1481-1485.

Currie, P.J. 2003. Cranial anatomy of tyrannosaurid dinosaurs from the late Cretaceous
Alberta, Canada. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 48: 191–226.

Currie, P.J., J.H. Hurum, and K. Sabath. 2003. Skull structure and evolution in
tyrannosaurid dinosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 48: 227–234.

Russell, D.A. 1970. Tyrannosaurs from the Late Cretaceous of western Canada. National Museum of Natural Science Publications in Palaeontology 1: 1-34.

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