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Favourite figures from papers

August 31 , 2016

by Andrew Cuff

My last few posts have been been a bit serious, so thought it was worth having a fun post to break it up again. I'm proud that most of my papers to date have figures I've made in them, and a few of them even have one's I've drawn. I do not claim to be an artist, but think they do a good job for explaining the science. As the cliche goes, a picture says a thousand words. The rest of the post will focus on some some of my favourite figures included in papers, normally because they are interesting, beautiful or just plain old fun. Without further ado:

1. Pandas falling into caves where their remains are preserved

This has been going around the web for a while due to its brilliance and what's not to love about it? Pandas, cartoon speed lines showing it falling and flood waters washing bones to their final resting place where they were discovered.

2. A thunder thighed dinosaur kicking a pesky theropod.

This amazing piece of art by Francisco Gascó shows the recently described Brontomerus mcintoshi kicking an Utahraptor whilst protecting its baby. Why kicking? Well the dinosaur had massive blade like thighs (hence the Brontomerus name which means thunder thighs) so it was suggested they had evolved these massive legs for kicking as a defence mechanism.

3. This random thing

The odd bulbous structure in the middle is the earliest known scientific figure of a dinosaur bone in the publication by Robert Plot. Plot thought it was from a giant human, and Richard Brookes was to name it Scrotum humanum in 1763 for somewhat entertaining reasons even though it is the end of the thigh bone. Officially that is the first name of a dinosaur ever (note the term dinosaur wouldn't arrive until 1842), but because the name fell out of common usage, the dinosaur it came from is now called Megalosaurus (a name that came about in 1824). There is talk that Megalosaurus is actually a bunch of different species and possibly genera, and if that is the case I am hoping that someone finds a reason to resurrect the original name for one of the new species.

4. Reptile in a tree just watching the world burn.

Painting of Hylonomus lyelli by Steve Greb showing the earliest known reptile sheltering in a tree trunk to avoid a fire. The hypothesis extends from the first finds of reptiles (dating back to 310 million years ago) remains in erect trees from Dawson (1882), although there is still discussion over whether the reptiles were sheltering or fell into the tree trunks and couldn't escape.

5. When hunting things from another realm, make sure you can actually eat it

The paper is a tale of fish eat pterosaur eat fish. They have the small Rhamphorhynchus with fish remains in its throat, but more spectacularly, 4 fossils of fish having their revenge by hunting these flying reptiles whilst the pterosaurs were probably catching fish at the water's surface. The problem comes from the fish having tiny teeth which get caught in the wing membranes causing the demise of both fish and flying reptile.

6. Mortichnium

First things first, a "mortichnium" is a fancy way of saying a trackway created by an animal that then died and is preserved at the end of it. In this case, a 9.7m long trackway was created by an ancient horseshoe crab, that for whatever reason died at the end of it (left side, little blob) with the whole harrowing march preserved for us to see. Trace fossils are the only fossils we have created from ancient organisms that show behavioural patterns, and the death traces are the rarest with most being created by horseshoe crabs and other invertebrates, but they do exist for fish as well (see Schweigert et al., 2016).

7. Land vs sea creature huddles

One of the figures from Hawkins (1854) that shows early reconstructions of the the first known dinosaurs (L-R: Iguanodon, Hylaeosaurus and Megalosaurus), and some marine reptiles including Plesiosaurus and Ichthyosaurus. Anyone who has ever studied dinosaurs has probably seen the famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs and the author was the sculptor himself. The paper describes the issues with reconstructing animals from limited evidence, and the designs as they are were to be the foundations of how dinosaurs were reconstructed for many years (down to the tail dragging).

8. Deinonychus

This famous drawing of Deinonychus by Bob Bakker in the Deinonychus monograph is probably the most important in regards to how we view dinosaur today. They were no longer those tail-draggers of old, they could now be fast and active hunters.

9. Fuzzy wuzzy was a dinosaur (not a bear)?

Sinosauropteryx was discovered and theropod dinosaurs were never to be the same again. Just like Deinonychus making dinosaurs active, Sinosauropteryx was to make them feathery. The first non-avian dinosaur to have feathers would lead the the discovery of hundreds of new specimens over the next 20 years, mainly from China's Jehol biota. The figured specimen was also to be one of the first to be tested for fossil pigmentation (in melanin) with the dark banded regions in the tail and along the back probably being orange, and the "gaps" being white.

10. Therizinosaur just hanging out

After a series of serious figures, I bookend the post with another funny one that is one of the best figures I've ever had the delight of seeing from a paper. I first saw it sat above a colleague's desk who was working on the group of dinosaurs - therizinosaurs (also known as segnosaurs). With their big claws, the author believed that they climbed trees like sloths. Looking at the drawing he also believed that they had a prehensile tail. Fossil wasp nests were found in trees of similar ages, and therizinosaurs had weak jaws and small teeth, so the logical jump was to propose therizinosaurs in trees were eating wasp nests. Work by many authors since suggests that they were plant eaters, and probably not climbing trees. It is shockingly difficult to see how 26 years after the Deinonychus paper, that dinosaur reconstructions had backtracked so far, but then if they hadn't I probably would not be posting this one.

Bonus 11. Dinosaur vomit

After I wrote my 10, I asked my lab colleagues if they could think of any other good ones and this one was suggested showing the potential impact from vomited material and the resulting trace. There are additional papers looking at urine/faecal material and their traces that have been identified in the fossil record (e.g. Fernandes et al., 2004) was suggested, but sadly there were no great images.

That wraps up this ten figures. Do let me know if you have any favourites that I've not included, whether they show ground breaking science, beautiful illustrations, or are just hilariously brilliant. Feel free to add links in the comments or tweet me (@AndrewRCuff). If I get enough I will do a part 2 (through however many).



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