Welcome to our new Research Highlights blog series! A new post series in which we highlight recent noteworthy studies from across PLOS…
In my previous post, I introduced Aquilops, a new little dinosaur from ancient Montana, and talked about some of the science behind establishing its identity. Here, I want to step back (or is that look down?) for a little navel-gazing about the process behind the paper (and you can read the paper here).
I was a real latecomer to the project. Scott Madsen, a wonderfully skilled paleontologist and fossil preparator, found the fossil back in the late 1990s. This was on a National Geographic Society-funded expedition headed up by Rich Cifelli (Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History) and Des Maxwell (University of the Pacific). After Scott found the skull, he did the preparation on it, and passed it on to Des and Rich. They, in turn, set to work on the research and formal description. Life and work caught up with everyone, so the manuscript aestivated for a time. Matt Wedel (who was Rich’s graduate student) ended up moving to the same town as me, we became good friends (and babysitters of each other’s kids–thanks, Matt, for helping out last night!), and Matt thought he’d suggest bringing me on board for the project [read more of Matt’s side of the story here]. By that point, I had personally seen many of the Chinese ceratopsians that weren’t described at the time of the discovery of Aquilops, so I could genuinely contribute to the research and provide broader context. Des and Rich agreed to bring me on, so in the fall of 2010, Matt and I drove up to Des’s town to pick up the specimen, and we all got to work.
Thankfully, Des and Rich had done a bang-up job with the original manuscript–in fact, their diagnosis of Aquilops is largely unchanged from the original manuscript to the published paper, as are the basics of the description. Because the manuscript was originally formatted for a short-paper journal, we made the decision to expand it into a monograph-type treatment of the fossil. This would allow us to really do justice to an amazing fossil. Thus, we had to take the basics of the first manuscript and plunk in additional comparisons and figures, as well as add some detailed biogeographic analyses.
For me, this project was fun for several reasons. First, I got the opportunity to work on a cool fossil. There had been rumors and rumors of rumors of an Early Cretaceous ceratopsian skull from Montana, so it was rather awesome to hold the thing in my hands and be involved with the scientific research. Second, this paper stretched my writing abilities. I learned much from my co-authors, particularly Rich, about tightening prose and presenting a scientific story for a broad audience. Because Rich’s expertise is mainly in fossil mammals, he was constantly pushing me to make the tale of Aquilops and its biogeography accessible to non-dinosaur workers. Des Maxwell and Matt Wedel in turn added their own text and polish to my text. I also greatly enjoyed getting to see Scott Madsen’s handiwork up close. As a paleontologist usually removed from the prep lab, it is easy to forget how much we really owe to preparators. Without Scott, Aquilops would still just be some teeth sticking out of a lump of rock.
Another thing I greatly enjoyed was delving into the realm of biogeographic analysis. Although some of my previous papers have had a biogeographic slant, I’ve never really had cause to use some of the more advanced analytical techniques that are becoming the standard for paleontology. Thus, the Aquilops project pushed me into a new scientific realm. Along the same lines, I also did a lot of hard thinking about paleogeographic reconstructions–those pretty maps showing past connections between continents. As I delved into that literature, particularly for the Lower Cretaceous, I learned more and more just how much uncertainty there was. I had always had a rough feeling for this, but the Aquilops project really drove the point home.
To finish out this post, I thought I’d throw out a few random thoughts that are useful to share, but don’t really warrant their own post. Here goes!
- PhyloPic is awesome. This website hosts silhouettes of various organisms, all of which are explicitly licensed for reuse by other workers. A variety of CC-BY ceratopsians were already available, and I generated a few other images where necessary.
- Open source software was invaluable for this paper. All of the figures I produced were generated within GIMP or Inkscape, and then exported as TIF files. For the figure of the digital surface scans, the initial images were captured in Meshlab. All bibliographic work, except for the final polish, was completed in Zotero.
- It was nice to put multiple 3D formats of surface scans in as supplemental information with the paper. Although 3D PDFs are handy on some levels, they can be…quirky…within various browsers and operating systems, so OBJ and STL files are a little more universally guaranteed to work. Plus, if we were going to all the work of scanning the specimen, we might as well make it so people can easily find and use the darned scans.
- One nice use of the 3D scans was that we could produce color-free surface models that could then be annotated to produce a figure of the specimen. This removes discolorations in the specimen that obscure details, and is a trick I first learned from Joe Sertich on our Dahalokely paper. This was also done the “old fashioned way” for the teeth, by Rich and the folks at the OMNH. In that case, an ammonium chloride-coated cast showed the detail much better than the digital scan could (due to limits in scan resolution). See also this post on figuring fossils for more on why removing color is a good thing sometimes.
- I am really pleased that we had the space to document the specimen so completely, including multiple photographic views, interpretive drawings, and measurements. On the latter point, it all traces back to Matt Wedel’s classic post, “Measure Your Damned Dinosaur.” Although aspects of our interpretations and analyses will inevitably be superseded by future discoveries, the data will always stand.
- The folks in Oklahoma are working on a really, really nifty museum exhibit to highlight the fossil of Aquilops, which permanently resides in their collections. Digital artist and exhibit technician Garrett Stowe, in collaboration with preparator Kyle Davies, has been doing some amazing stuff to reconstruct the skull of Aquilops as well as the entire animal. Get a sneak peek at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History website!
That’s all for now! I highly recommend checking out any number of other posts related to this article, including Matt Wedel on the history of the project, Brian Engh on the artwork, and a nice web page from the folks in Oklahoma on their fossil specimen. You can also read the original paper at PLOS ONE.