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Archive for the ‘outreach’ Category

The actual 1861, two-paragraph article with the single, controversial sentence pulled out that names Archaeopteryx lithographica.

It was 150 years ago today, on 30 September 1861, that Hermann von Meyer gave the name Archaeopteryx lithographica to the feathered animal that fluttered over the Solnhofen lagoon in Late Jurassic Bavaria. At right is the entire published article…a scant two paragraphs, only one of which is devoted to Archaeopteryx. In that one paragraph he announced the discovery of a feathered skeleton, to go along with the isolated feather that he had announced six weeks earlier. For decades later, scholars argued over his key statement: “For the denomination of the animal I consider the term Archaeopteryx lithographica as appropriate” (the original German sentence is pulled out in the illustration). He named the animal, but not a specimen. Modern rules dictate the designation of a “holotype” specimen that officially bears the name. Should it be the feather, the skeleton, or neither? I discussed this debate a little in my first Archaeopteryx sesquicentennial post, but the result has been that the skeleton—now known as the London Specimen (BMNH 37001)—is the holotype. Happy 150th Birthday, Archaeopteryx! To celebrate, WitmerLab is launching today a website with five sets of interactive 3D PDFs of skull or skull parts of three Archaeopteryx specimens, including the one von Meyer announced 150 years ago today. It’s all open access and freely downloadable!

The skull of the Eichstätt Archaeopteryx (JM 2257), based on microCT scanning of a high-resolution cast made by Peter Wellnhofer for Witmer.

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The Discovery Channels in the UK and the US recently have aired documentaries called “Dino Gangs” that follow dinosaur paleontologist Philip Currie around the globe (Alberta, Mongolia, Indonesia, South Africa, Great Britain), including little Athens, Ohio, the home of Ohio University. “Dino Gangs” addresses Currie’s theory that tyrannosaurs hunted as cooperative, social packs. Phil and the film crew from Atlantic Productions were here to talk with me about my work with Ryan Ridgely on tyrannosaur brains and sensory capabilities…basically whether tyrannosaurs had the mental wherewithal to pull off pack hunting. Phil Currie and his collaborators have published a few articles that have alluded to the possibility of coordinated, social, pack hunting, mostly notably his 1998 article in Gaia. My goal here is neither to evaluate the nuances of his arguments (e.g., the taphonomic issues) nor to address the media hoopla from the folks at Atlantic, the same folks who brought us Darwinius  and Predator X (check out Brian Switek’s thoughtful response). My goal is simply to relate what went on here in Athens and to clarify how I think tyrannosaur neuroanatomy fits into the argument.

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Alligators are everywhere. They’re team mascots, Transformer toys, actors in Lubriderm commercials (and CSI: Miami), unwanted golfing partners, and even expensive cowboy boots. What might be a surprise is that they’re also “model animals” for scientists, meaning that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of published technical articles on all things gatorly. They’re also commonly used in K-12 and undergraduate classrooms. WitmerLab has been working on American alligators for years, because crocodilians are one of just two living groups (birds are the other) of that great tribe known as archosaurs that includes dinosaurs and pterosaurs. Now, we’re joining with Casey Holliday’s lab at the University of Missouri to present the 3D Alligator, two parallel, complementary, and growing websites that present alligator anatomy in all its 3D digital glory. In both cases, we’re starting with the skull, although we include a few soft-tissue systems that are active areas of research for us (brain, inner ear, sinuses, etc.). Casey’s team presents an adult skull, and we present a wee gatorling, a “day-0” hatchling that was stillborn on its birthday. Sad perhaps, but this little guy is now immortal, because we’re releasing him to the tubes of the interwebz. We also present some of our 3D alligator work on an adult done “way back” in 2008. Check out the WitmerLab 3D Alligator site and the Holliday Lab 3D Alligator site. (more…)

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Okay, that title is a little grandiose, but it was the first appearance WitmerLab research has made on a Top-10-rated network television show. We get requests all the time from the cable science networks  for materials for documentaries, and we’ve even personally appeared in a number of them. But in October, I got a call from a producer at CBS’s hit show CSI: Miami, saying that they were doing a show in which an alligator necropsy figured in a couple of scenes (Spoiler Alert: the gator was used as a murder weapon). They had heard that we did high-tech-y stuff with alligators, and they needed some animations to run in the background, and, oh, could they have them…um…now? (more…)

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Hadrosaur multimedia exhibit at "Dinosaurs Unearthed" at the Dallas Museum of Nature & Science. Photo courtesy of Rissa Westerfield, Texas Tech University.

The WitmerLab has an ongoing collaboration on the duckbilled hadrosaur dinosaurs with David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Recently, we’ve received word that some of that work has found its way into the “Dinosaurs Unearthed” exhibit that has been circulating through the US. First, Ohio University grad student Haley O’Brien texted me a photo of the exhibit at Union Station in Kansas City, and then Texas Tech grad student Rissa Westerfield posted a photo on Facebook of the exhibit at the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas. Then just yesterday, WitmerLab alum Casey Holliday (now at Missouri) chimed in with his own sighting in KC. Presumably, it’s elsewhere, too. We’re thrilled to hear that the outcome of our research is reaching a broad audience!

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I had no intention of doing another “holiday post” so soon after our Halloween post, but there’s been surprising interest in one of our YouTube videos. Last year we came up with a CT-scan-based animation of a turkey head which showed the blood vessels; we then tagged the end with “Happy Thanksgiving from the Witmer Lab,” and put it up on our YouTube channel. It got a polite response from friends, racking up, ahem, just 266 views. Without giving it much thought, this year on the day before Thanksgiving I posted the YouTube vid to my Facebook wall and to the WitmerLab Facebook page. What a difference a year makes. In the succeeding four days, the video got over 6300 views, a 23-fold increase over the previous 365 days!


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In Part 1 of this series, we explored why a research lab should take time away from their normal scholarly activities to engage the public. This post, Part 2, will look at the mechanisms the WitmerLab has used to share our research findings and approaches beyond the specialist scientific community. We participate in four basic, often-overlapping arenas: the web, the science news media, broadcast media, and in-person engagements.

Television documentaries provide wide exposure for our research. Filming at O'Bleness Memorial Hospital, Athens, OH, with Heather Rockhold (right) for an upcoming Discovery Channel documentary with Philip Currie (center). Photo by Joy Miller Upton (OBMH).

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Not many research labs have an actual mission statement, but we kinda came up with one when we first launched our Facebook page: “WitmerLab: 21st century approaches to fleshing out the past. — Our mission is to use the structure of extinct and modern-day animals to interpret evolutionary history…and to share that history with the broader community.” This is the first of a two-part post devoted to the last part of that statement. Here we look at why we jumped into the public arena, and the next post will explore what we’ve been doing. We recently returned from the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology where we presented a poster entitled “Promoting a culture of outreach within an active university research lab setting: WitmerLab at Ohio University,” as part of the SVP Education & Outreach special poster session, and so the topic is fresh.

WitmerLab poster for the 2010 SVP Education and Outreach poster session. Larger JPG: http://bit.ly/bsTqvB . PDF: http://bit.ly/95fHSc .

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