The Fat Bears Of Katmai – And How They Got There

Guest Author: Sophie Pollard
Palaeobiology MSc Student

While citizens of the city of Bristol and the rest of the UK will remember the summer of 2022 for its record-breaking heatwave, records of a different kind have been set in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska, with sockeye salmon returning in higher numbers than any recorded before. This is great news for the fauna of Katmai National Park, and by extension, for fans of Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week, an annual event in which the bears of Katmai compete to see who best drags the competition, by how much their bellies drag along the ground.

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The brain of the Bristol dinosaur

Dinosaurs were famously stupid, but what about Theco, the Bristol dinosaur? In a new study, just published (October 2021), Bristol PhD students Antonio Ballel and Logan King, certainly don’t revise that view; there is no evidence (i’m afraid to say) that Thecodontosaurus was any more brainy (or any more stupid) than any other dinosaur of its size. However, their study does show two things: Theco held its head steady while moving, maintaining a steady gaze, and it had pretty good hearing.

The new study is based on CT scans and detailed digital reconstruction from the amazing Thecodontosaurus braincase in the collections at Yale University. In the image, you can see the braincase (top left), the reconstructed key bones (top right) and images showing the semi-circular canals, highlighted in pink (bottom left and right).

The steady gaze evidence comes from bumps on the side of the Theco brain called flocculi: in modern animals these assist the animals in keeping their head steady as they run and duck and dive, using two responses – one to keep the eyes fixed on any object in their field of view, and the other to keep the head steady. This new finding confirms that Thecodontosaurus was adept at moving bipedally, on its hind legs, and the fixed gaze adaptations would have helped it if it occasionally hunted prey. We’ve always said Theco was a herbivore, and it primarily was, but many early dinosaurs seem to have mixed and matched, and would have grabbed a juicy beetle or small lizard if they had a chance.

It might also seem amazing to be able to estimate the hearing ability of a dinosaur. This can be done using standard formulas based on measuring parts of the braincase and cochlear duct buried in the bone of the skull. It was specialized to hear low and middle frequencies of sounds, similar to other dinosaurs and early birds. These sounds could have included chirping and grunting from other Thecos, and so provides some evidence for group living and some social behaviour where they chattered to each other.

News story here and the new paper is here.

How Big Were My Dinosaurs? – Part One

One thing we palaeontology communicators repeatedly tell people is that not all dinosaurs were the giants most picture when they hear the name. Many dinosaurs were small, taking up the niches of the nippy little insectivores and seed eaters we see in their modern bird counterparts. However, there’s no denying that when it comes down to it, everyone loves a big dinosaur for the simple reason that they were big. No need to look for any deeper meaning. Big animals are cool. (more…)

How To Evolve Your Dragon: Dragons Under Natural Selection

Guest Author: Emily Green
Bristol Palaeontology MSci Graduate / PhD Student – University of Lincoln

Dragons seem a universal staple of global mythology. Large and fearsome beasts which are so often, in part, based on unexplainable fossil discoveries. Many mythical creatures began life this way, such as the cyclops of Ancient Greece from the skulls of extinct island elephants, or mythical giants found by Carthaginians during excavations which are more likely the limb bones of Mammoths. In creating these myths, these civilisations were trying to explain their amazing discoveries. Now, as palaeontologists, we have a plethora of tools to explain the history of these fantastical beasts, which are sadly far more mundane than the flying fire breathing fiends of popular fantasy.

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Does Jurassic World HAVE to be accurate? – Part Two

Guest Author: James Ormiston
Palaeontology MSci Graduate / Palaeoartist

This is Part Two of a double-post; to read part one click here.

Bridging the Gap

So far what I’ve done is over a thousand words of moaning, and excessive moaning adds fuel to the weird factionalism that’s appeared in the wake of this debate. So, what can actually be done about it? It was good to see Colin Trevorrow finally take on board peoples’ concerns over the lack of feathers, and getting the well-known dinosaur palaeontologist Prof Steve Brusatte (of the University of Edinburgh) on board for ‘JW: Dominion’ as an advisor is encouraging. For the most part however, the Jurassic franchise is something of a lost cause when it comes to accuracy as it’s already out there. It has its own extended universe, with spin-offs and video games, now cemented in modern culture – pronated hands and all. (more…)

Does Jurassic World HAVE to be accurate? – Part One

Guest Author: James Ormiston
Palaeontology & Evolution MSci Graduate / Palaeoartist

From Science to Sensation

A short while ago, dark blurry YouTube uploads began appearing of two big dinosaurs fighting in IMAX cinemas. These were covertly-filmed showings of the first few minutes of the next instalment in the biggest dino-franchise of all: Jurassic World Dominion. Though the official global reveal was some way away, these low-quality videos revealed some intriguing details. The online community immediately began picking it apart…and battle lines were drawn. A debate as old as the franchise itself was about to fire up again. (more…)

How The Bunyip Went Extinct

Guest Author: Dr Rachel Kruft Welton
Current Palaeobiology MSc Student

Australia has a wide variety of dangerous and venomous creatures. Half the wildlife, it seems, is out to get you. You would have thought, that with the spiders, scorpions, snakes, sharks, blue-ringed octopuses, hungry crocodiles and biting flies, it would be unnecessary to invent a mythological creature intent on devouring humans. However, Indigenous Australians have long described a deadly water-spirit called a ‘Bunyip’. This nocturnal creature resembles a large seal-like dog, about 2 metres long with a dark shaggy coat. It inhabits river margins and swampy areas, where it lays eggs in platypus nests. In some stories it likes to munch on crayfish, and in others, it prefers human children. (more…)

Red Pandas And The Fossil Record Of Cuteness

Guest Author: Jack Lovegrove
Current Palaeontology & Evolution MSci Student

Red pandas are undeniably cute. This has made them a rising star of pop culture; they have even starred in their own Netflix cartoon the adorable ‘Aggretsuko’. They seem to be increasingly stealing some of the spotlight from their giant namesake. Beyond just being cute however red pandas have a fascinating evolutionary history. These quirky bamboo eaters are the last survivors of an evolutionary dynasty whose domain once stretched from Spain to Tennessee. Consider this article both a dive into the niche subject of fossil red pandas and as an excuse to look at cute red panda photos online.

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Scotland’s Lady Of The Devonian

Guest Author: James Ormiston
Palaeontology MSci Graduate / Palaeoartist

You very likely know the rhyme “She sells sea shells on the sea shore”. You may also have heard that it was inspired by the famous Dorset fossil hunter Mary Anning. You may, or may not, know that it’s potentially unlikely that Anning was the real inspiration for the rhyme (the rhyme is much older than many people realise). It makes for a nice story though! (more…)

Training

The talks we have make on this web site may be used in many ways: school teachers can use them as direct presentations to their pupils; individual academics or students can to use the talks for one-off presentations.

We suggest that institutions consider organising an engagement/ outreach programme as a way to achieve greater impact.

Organisation of an outreach programme

The outreach coordinator might like to organise a team of final-year undergraduates or graduate students to deliver the talks. These students should be keen volunteers, ideally with reasonable to good presentation skills, and certainly with an appetite for enthusing people about science.

The coordinator might also use a departmental administrator or secretary to co-ordinate bookings for the talks. It will be necessary to contact schools, and encourage them to make bookings, so it’s a good idea to have one person to promote the service and take initial bookings. The local education authority can probably provide a list of schools and/ or names of relevant teachers so first contact can be made. Then it may be easiest to generate bookings and to keep in touch by using an emailing list.

There will be some modest costs in visiting schools. It’s important to have a small budget so students can at least claim their travel costs for school visits. You may be able to tap into local funding for “widening participation” or “outreach”.

Training

The students who are to give the presentations must be trained – there’s nothing worse than sending someone out who lacks experience and gives a dreadful science show.

Your college or institution may already offer suitable training sessions. Another option is to invite a trainer to come from one of the many Engagement training agencies. Failing these, your outreach coordinator can train the students, perhaps using the Powerpoint we offer here:

This brief training module contains the basics, so that a small team of student presenters may avoid some of the obvious pitfalls. It’s important to run through the key points with the group, and then to ask each student to present a short prepared section of a science show.

You should make students aware that they may be rejected at this point if they lack the ability to engage an audience and to speak confidently and conversationally.

We strongly recommend that each student volunteer goes out on the road at least twice with an experienced presenter. They can perhaps participate in the show, and take over a larger part each time before they are sent out on their own.