Science Communication with Dinosaurs

Science Communication with Dinosaurs

Phillip L. Manning (University of Manchester, UK, & University of Pennsylvania, USA) and Peter L. Falkingham (University of Manchester, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-116-0.ch024


Dinosaurs successfully conjure images of lost worlds and forgotten lives. Our understanding of these iconic, extinct animals now comes from many disciplines, not just the science of palaeontology. In recent years palaeontology has benefited from the application of new and existing techniques from physics, biology, chemistry, engineering, but especially computational science. The application of computers in palaeontology is highlighted in this chapter as a key area of development in studying fossils. The advances in high performance computing (HPC) have greatly aided and abetted multiple disciplines and technologies that are now feeding paleontological research, especially when dealing with large and complex data sets. We also give examples of how such multidisciplinary research can be used to communicate not only specific discoveries in palaeontology, but also the methods and ideas, from interrelated disciplines to wider audiences. Dinosaurs represent a useful vehicle that can help enable wider public engagement, communicating complex science in digestible chunks.
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Dinosaurs are often hailed as a scientific communication breakthrough, but is this really the case? Does the ‘and finally’ news story, usually based upon a recent publication, give credit to the years of painstaking work from discovery to final interpretation? The same can be said for many areas of science, where the object of the science becomes the story but not the science itself. This, in part, is the fault of both media and the scientists, given we must be more aware of how our science is translated into digestible chunks that can be understood by non-specialist audiences. Dinosaurs, however, are in a unique position. These animals have the potential to unlock many new areas of research to the public, given they provide a unique vehicle to deliver often complex science. Whether it be particle physicists blasting fossils with high energy X-rays at a synchrotron (Bergmann et al, 2010) (Figure 1) or computational biologists making dinosaurs run in virtual environments (Sellers & Manning, 2007), it is clear these extinct giants have a role to play in engaging the public with more than just old fossil bones.

Figure 1.

The fossil of Archaeopteryx being scanned at the Stanford synchrotron, using the recently developed technique of synchrotron rapid scan X-ray fluorescence (SRS-XRF)


In the past ten years the science of palaeontology has been reinventing itself, looking to new disciplines to help solve very old questions. Now that palaeontology is such a diverse, interdisciplinary research area, it has successfully facilitated in the communication of multiple fields of science. Interdisciplinary work with engineers, physiologists, geneticists, computational scientists and many other disciplines provides avenues that might excite interest in what might be considered discrete or obscure areas of research. Indeed, computational palaeontology is a splendid example of how the digitisation of specimens and subsequent computational analyses are both eye-catching and easy to distribute though modern media. This chapter aims to present a number of case studies detailing the different ways to communicate research undertaken on dinosaurs that helps facilitate the wider understanding of science to a public audience, focussing, where possible, on the application of computational science. The use of museum displays, science festivals, television, and schools’ outreach programmes will be but a few examples discussed, to illustrate the application of past life to presenting 21st Century science.


Dusty Dinosaur Bones

The public perception of palaeontology, and particularly the study of dinosaurs, begins with excavations, usually in the desert with field teams digging up fossil bones. Whilst this image has been glamorised and perpetuated by television and film, there is some core of truth here. However, even the collection of specimens is beginning to change, as a function of the development and application of new technology. The use of laser scanning technology at dig sites (Manning, 2008) is now yielding important spatial data in the relationship between fossil bones and the sediments that entomb them (Figure 2). The collection of samples at a dig site for proteomic analyses (Manning et al, 2009a) is more akin to that of a crime scene than how many perceive a dinosaur dig. This changing face of palaeontology is possibly one of the more difficult aspects to communicate to the public. Encouraging volunteers to participate in digs can only reach a very small minority, while the rest must make do with pictures or media in order to understand the work that goes into excavating a dinosaur.

Figure 2.

The user of Light Detection and Range (LiDAR) surveying equipment (Z+F Imager 5006i) on excavation and fossil sites provides a rapid way of acquiring spatial data to construct digital out-crop models. Such models provide a powerful tool to aid in site interpretation and public engagement.


Key Terms in this Chapter

Multibody Dynamics: is used to model the dynamic behavior of interconnected rigid or flexible bodies, each of which may undergo large translational and rotational displacements (e.g. limb segments during a gait cycle).

Dinosauria: refers to a clade of reptiles that share a series of distinct characters that unite the group.

EPB (Extant Phylogentic Bracket): refers to the use of living (extant) descendant species that bracket extinct taxa or group, e.g. extant Crocodiles (primitive archosaurs) and extant birds (derived archosaurs) bracket dinosaurs (extinct archosaur).

Phylogeny: The evolutionary family tree based upon molecular and/or morphological data.

Extinct: A species that has completely died-out and has no living representatives that can fall within the same species (e.g. As dead as a Dodo).

Gait: is the pattern of limb movement, and relative position of limb segments, that animals produce during locomotion.

Theropod (Theropoda): The group of dinosaurs that includes all predators and their descendants, birds.

Palaeontology: The study of ancient life, preserved as fossil remains, usually applied to material older than 30,000 years.

Dromaeosaur: a bipedal group of small to medium sized predatory dinosaurs that include the well-known Velociraptor.

Extant: A species that is alive on the planet today.

Light Detection and Range (LiDAR): is a laser surveying technology that uses the time of flight principle for reflecting a laser off a surface to obtain spatial, multiple-point (x,y,z) data that can be reconstructed as a digital 3D point-cloud.

Clade: A group consisting of organisms that includes all its descendants.

Postcranial: refers to whole skeleton accept the skull, literally meaning ‘behind-skull’.

Synchrotron: A facility that generates very bright light (e.g. x-rays) when particles, such as electrons, are accelerated just below the speed of light in a curved path within a storage ring.

Nanoindentation: is a method by which an indenter (usually a metal pin) is pushed into a substrate and the resultant interaction provides data on the physical and mechanical properties of that substrate.

Sauropod (Sauropoda): The group of obligate quadrupedal dinosaurs with distinctively long tails and necks, that grew to huge size (up to 35m meters in length).

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