Saturday, July 15, 2006

‘Angloposeidon’, the unreported story, part III

[click for larger version]

This post follows on from the previous two (part I here and part II here). Given that, in June 2002, the MIWG.7306 manuscript had now come back from review, and had fared well during the review process, it was all systems go. But as usual, MIWG.7306 wasn’t the only thing I was working on during 2002. We were also working on the Mirischia project, the Leedsichthys dig at Whittlesey (Leedsichthys was a giant Jurassic filter-feeding fish, equivalent in size to a small whale), the palaeopathology project, and other stuff. So by September of that year, when I attended the 50th SVPCA meeting at the University of Cambridge to gave a talk on MIWG.7306, I still hadn’t resubmitted the post-review version of the manuscript.

For the duration of our work on MIWG.7306, Dave had been corresponding with Kent Stevens, best known for his dinomorph software and for his work on the neck posture of sauropods (his excellent website is here). Dave and Kent had become friends since meeting during the 1998 making of Walking With Dinosaurs, and Kent and I had gotten to know each other at SVPCA 1999, held at Edinburgh (SVPCA = Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy. Website here).

Kent was of course very interested in MIWG.7306, and when I met up with him again at SVPCA 2002, one of the things that he, I and Dave Martill discussed was progress with the MIWG.7306 manuscript. To my mild surprise, Dave suggested during conversation that Kent be made a co-author on the manuscript. Don’t get me wrong: I was of course very pleased to have Kent in on the project, but I think it was a poor decision of Dave’s to bring in another author this late in the day. Doing this would necessitate a major delay, as we'd now have to account for the views and input of another person.

Kent’s contribution was useful of course: not only did he produce an excellent, new-look figure of MIWG.7306, he also just happened to have excellent photos of the cervical vertebrae of the Brachiosaurus brancai specimen HM SII (originally taken by Chris McGowan, whom you’ll know of from my recent ichthyosaur post). Largely for comparative purposes, we included these figures in the final paper, and they occupy an entire glorious page. In between other projects, Kent and I worked to rehaul the manuscript during 2003 and 2004, and regularly sent lengthy emails to one another. Using various measurements taken off the specimen, we argued extensively over which vertebra it might be (viz, which position it occupied in the neck: brachiosaurids had 13 cervical vertebrae), and what the result might then mean for the total length of the whole animal. The latter sort of calculation is essentially speculative, as we don’t know whether proportional neck length was constant across brachiosaurids (Wedel et al. 2000). Long-necked Sauroposeidon, for example, may not necessarily have had a body that was, proportionally, as big for its neck as was that of Brachiosaurus [adjacent image, depicting various Wessex Formation dinosaurs including a giant brachiosaurid, is borrowed from my flickr site].

Anyway, even in June 2004, Kent and I were still talking things through, and we still hadn’t declared closure on the manuscript. We finally did just this on June 14th, and on June 23rd the final, post-review, updated, modified version of the article was finally submitted. Finally, the paper was in press. You might have noted, incidentally, that I keep fairly reasonable track of dates. I’ve been keeping diaries since 1997 or so.

Though based only on two vertebrae, only one of which is any good, there is little doubt that MIWG.7306 and IWCMS : 2003.28 represent the largest dinosaur we know of from Britain, and indeed from Europe. It follows then that Dinosaur Isle – the specimen’s home repository – hoped to get some nice juicy publicity from the publication of the Cretaceous Research paper, and during November 2004 the University of Portsmouth publicity department worked in conjunction with Dinosaur Isle on a planned press release. But here’s the problem: Cretaceous Research releases its papers when they’re still at proof stage, and it releases them as open access on its website (which you can visit here). The proofs arrived at the start of October 2004, and I was alerted to the fact that they were available online on 19th November (a Friday). I immediately contacted Dinosaur Isle to let them know, and only at this stage did we produce a press release. The plan was to hold a press conference or something the following week.

But on the morning of Monday 22th I received a phonecall from Paul Rincon, a science reporter for BBC News. He’d seen the on-line Cretaceous Research proof and wanted to run a story. I asked if he could wait, given that a press conference and official press release was planned, but, oooh no, that’s just not how it works once a story breaks. By 13:40 on that day, the full story, featuring quotes from me and Steve Hutt, was on the BBC News website, and this is where all hell broke loose. The press loved the story, and it was carried in just about every British newspaper, as well as quite a few international ones. I literally spent the entire day on the phone, and I lost track of how many journalists I spoke to. Greg Paul kindly let me use his (now dated) Tendaguru scene depicting a few Brachiosaurus individuals, and this was used all over the place in conjunction with photos of MIWG.7306 (though, as always, many publications produced their own god-awful in-house graphics, or used stock images of sauropods, dated c. 1957).

‘Britain’s biggest dinosaur roamed the Isle of Wight’, proclaimed The Times; ‘Scientists unearth biggest dinosaur to be found in UK’, announced The Scotsman; and ‘Experts bone idle’, explained the Daily Record. The Independent's article (reproduced at top) is one of my favourites for its use of hyperbole, as 'Dinosaur bones on Isle of Wight rewrite evolutionary history' seems, even to me, to be just a little over-enthusiastic.

While the specimen’s size and status proved to be of great interest, also of interest was the fact that the specimen had gone unpublicised for so long. The Daily Record title is a direct reference to this, and their article stated 'Scientists have [sic] not had enough time to look at the bone, found on the Isle of Wight in 1992. Darren said: “There are thousands of fossils waiting to be studied”’. The Daily Mirror quoted me as saying “We just hadn’t got round to studying it”. Even better, after discussing the specimen’s remarkable size, the Daily Telegraph’s Roger Highfield wrote ‘Just as remarkable, the neck bone languished in a box for more than a decade before anyone summoned up enough curiosity to study it, according to one of the team, Darren Naish of the University of Portsmouth’. Err, somehow I don’t think that those were my exact words. I also got on local TV, but I sort of lost out by doing the interviews from my house, rather than from Dinosaur Isle, where the specimen is.

More to come in part IV.

Refs - -

Wedel, M. J., Cifelli, R. L. & Sanders, R. K. 2000. Osteology, paleobiology, and relationships of the sauropod dinosaur Sauroposeidon. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 45, 343-388.

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