Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cowboying Up to Science

As I noted in an introductory post when I started this blog, I'm not an "armchair paleontologist," or even a "footstool paleontologist." I'm basically a dude whose childhood enthusiasm for dinosaurs never wore off. Rather, it metastasized into a love of natural history. I was lousy (or was it just lazy?) at math in school. Thus, I withered when it came time to really "cowboy up" and get into the nitty-gritty of science. I pity Mr. Cline, my poor chemistry teacher. And my lab partners, who shouldered the burden of presentations while I did the visual aids.

So I haven't read much in the way of scientific papers, the heavy sort that appear in journals. Until yesterday, when media accounts of the "climbing raptor" story left me feeling that there was something lacking. So I hopped over to The Anatomical Record online and dug into Biomechanics of Dromaeosaurid Dinosaur Claws: Application of X-Ray Microtomography, Nanoindentation, and Finite Element Analysis.

And you know what? Not so scary. Not at all. So much so, it kind of makes me even more angry that journalists - especially science journalists - so frequently get this stuff so wrong. I'm not sure how many of them actually read the papers they report on, once they figure out their angle and run the abstract through the cuisinart of their brain. These are people who are paid to do this stuff. Or in the case of freelancers, whose accuracy is important to their reputations, and therefore their future work.

The formulas used to describe the biomechanics of Velociraptor's claws are, I'll admit, opaque to me. But it certainly isn't my intent to offer a rebuttal on the fine points of the hypothesis. What interested me about this story was the way it took on a popular conception of an extinct animal and looked beyond it. Reading the abstract, discussion, and conclusions, my main difficulty was in vocabulary. But that is easy to learn. It's just a matter of looking it up, which takes mere seconds on the web.

I'm heartened by this little development. I feel more confident that I may be able to make a contribution to the Open Dinosaur Project, for example. We'll see if time permits.

And I hope that what I can do in the future is not just link to a cool story, or paraphrase it with a pithy comment or two of my own thrown in. My intention is to look at popular stories, look at the papers themselves, and maybe provide some extra meat to chew on, stuff other people may have left on the ground. I'll scavenge it, to stretch the metaphor further.

The image of a raptor using that fearsome claw to rip open a larger beast's guts and spill its viscera all over the dusty ground is a pretty picture, I'll admit. Tomorrow, I'll flesh out the newer idea Phil Manning introduces, and how something cool I learned about the feet of extant avian theropods (in fewer letters, "birds") may teach us something about the feet of Velociraptor and its kin.

Velociraptor mongoliensis
Image by Olli72, via flickr

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