Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Herald Sun vs. The Growling Grass Frog

The Herald Sun has offended us all in the past, but there comes a point where you have to say ‘enough is enough’. For me, that moment came most recently when the Sun started picking on the Growling Grass Frog (Litoria raniformis) for being a hindrance to Melbourne developers - Growling grass frog cost $2.6 billion, Herald Sun 29th Nov 2011.

The contention of the article is that these local amphibians are halting development in some of Melbourne’s growth corridors. 'Fair enough' you may say, the presence of these frogs can affect development due to their designation as an endangered species in Victoria. But the Sun isn’t interested in being fair. From the outset the article transparently supports development over endangered species, saying that land has been made ‘worthless’ and then, without any supporting evidence whatsoever, questioning whether the species really is endangered.

Can we assume that the sources they quote will shed some light on the issue? Nope. Here’s state planning minister Matthew Guy with his take on Litoria raniformis: “I don’t know if it is endangered,” That’s right - this man who can’t even be bothered to Google: “Growling Grass Frog endangered?” was deemed relevant enough to be the first source quoted in this article. For the record, the Growling Grass Frog is classified as ‘endangered’ in Victoria and is classified as ‘vulnerable’ at a federal level. Why is it classified as endangered? Because its population appears to be decreasing. Why is its population decreasing? A number of factors, but overwhelmingly because its habitat is being destroyed or degraded. That's why we have laws in place to limit development in the habitats of vulnerable species such as the Growling Grass Frog.

Although only a brief article, the story reaches a surreal level of breathtaking inanity in the final sentence. Urban Development Institute of Australia chief executive Tony De Domenico is quoted as saying how frustrated he is at being thwarted by endangered species in his development dealings. (Funny how the article only contains quotes from people sympathetic to development and not, you know, people who know things about ecology and frogs and stuff, isn’t it?) "Some of these so-called endangered species are so endemic they are found everywhere." says Tony. This statement is so astonishingly stupid that it almost defies belief. For those who don’t know - Mr. De Domenico for example - ‘endemic’, when referring to a particular species, means that it is restricted to a particular area. Tasmanian Devils are endemic to Tasmania, Dodos were endemic to Mauritius, and Growling Grass Frogs are endemic to parts of south-eastern Australia. Endemic is the exact opposite of ‘found everywhere’. Ignorance, it would seem, is endemic to the Herald Sun.

If the Sun is opposed to Growling Grass Frogs halting development, fine - write an opinion piece about it, instead of wasting everybody’s time with this sort if pseudo-journalism. Maybe if the Sun actually considered consulting experts who had some clue as to what they were talking about, we wouldn’t be assailed with ignorant scribble like this. But that’s not the Sun’s style; they have shown time and again that they’re not interested in hearing from scientists unless they can be used to reinforce their preexisting beliefs. Let’s hope that enough people see through this sort of nonsense and put their support behind species like the Growling Grass Frog to ensure the success of their populations in stressful habitats like the Melbourne area.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

This Rugged Coast is available on DVD!

This Rugged Coast, the mid-seventies ocean documentary series that I enthusiastically blogged about last year is now available on DVD. It has been out for a while but I only got around to purchasing the whole series a couple of weeks ago. It's a great series that feels like a real-life Australian 'The Life Aquatic'. It's so great that I'm working on creating a home-made soundtrack for this series in the absence of an official release. Just check out this clip above from the episode 'Castaway Coast'. The music is generally great - and when it's not great, it's highly amusing. When the crew starts feeding the potato cod, they inexplicably segue into a finger pickin' guitar-driven boogie with a strange, high-pitched keyboard melody. And it just keeps going! Narrator Leonard Teal chuckles that the potato cod are "so beautifully friendly and eager to play" - one could say the same thing about the soundtrack producers.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Spinosaur distribution extended to Australia thanks to single cervical vert.

It’s official; we had representatives of the Spinosaurs, a group containing some of the largest carnivorous dinosaurs ever found, living in Australia in the Cretaceous. We know this from the basis of a single fossilised neck vertebra found near Cape Otway by Mike Cleeland and George Casper in 2005. This has been reported quite widely, having come to my attention in The Age of my home town of Melbourne and countless Twitter links. It seems that the currency of big meat-eating dinosaurs still holds strong. (See, it was the first thing I referred to in the opening of this post!) But what does this really mean? Well, from the perspective of a digger who works on the excavations from which the vertebrae was found, it is extremely edifying to have these sorts of things written down in an official capacity. It announces to the scientific community, and the world, an aspect of what was really happening in the Victorian Cretaceous. People that work on this material and our immediate entourage are aware of this stuff already – but pretty much no else is. So every paper like this adds a little more information to the great global picture of dinosaurs and allows researchers everywhere to incorporate our fossils into an overall understanding of Mesozoic life.

The excavations going on in Victoria are constantly turning things up but due to the nature of the rocks we dig in, we generally only find isolated bones, which can tell us a lot, but are not good for identifying species. Scientists will typically only name a species after a partial or complete skeleton or at best a jawbone or a tooth. Other parts of the skeleton are simply not unique enough to use to define a species. But even though we can’t identify or name species, we can often tell which families these animals came from.

We have identified a number of traditionally northern hemisphere theropod groups from Victorian sites such as Ornithomimids, Dromaeosaurids and recently a Tyrannosaurid. Slowly we are building up a picture of the Victorian Cretaceous dinosaur community and also getting an idea of how cosmopolitan most dinosaur families were. Expect to hear more announcements like this one in the future! We’ve got boxes and boxes of unexamined and unprepared fossils left to sort through.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Walking With Dinosaurs Arena Spectacular: walking back in time (to the mid-nineties)

On Thursday 12th of May I went to see the Walking With Dinosaurs Arena Spectacular in Melbourne. I certainly didn't intend on writing about it, but after (and during) the experience I was filled with such a sense of ambiguity and weirdness to the whole thing that I thought it was worth articulating.
To set the scene WWD, based on the BBC documentary series of the same name, is a live arena show using puppets, robotics and theatrical devices to bring life-size dinosaurs to life. I saw the show in Melbourne and was overwhelmed by young families with small kids, generally primary school aged or younger. As an unaccompanied male in his late-twenties I felt about as out of place as an ammonite in the Cenozoic.

The human face of WWD is the narrator, 'Huxley' who, as he keeps reminding us, is a palaeontologist. Huxley, who is portrayed as a cross between Alan Grant and Indiana Jones, is in fact an actor best known for his star turns in the Australian soaps
Neighbours and A Country Practice. He also surely got paid more for his role in WWD than any actual palaeontologist in the world. There are plenty of great, well-spoken palaeontologists and science educators in Australia, why not get them on board and add some credibility and local knowledge? Huxley kept coming out with lines like 'I should know, I am a palaeontologist,' which really got grating after a while. It seemed odd that this character was being held up as a bit of a hero (maybe a role model for all the kids present?) yet he was a performer, a facsimile of a scientist who had never done any of the things he was describing during the show. There is a strange disconnect in society between the love and reverence that many people seem to have for the simplistic, pop-cultural ideal of the palaeontologist and the total lack of support that real paleontological research receives. (And of course the same applies for almost all sciences, not just palaeontology.)

The show is set up in a series of vignettes progressing from the Triassic through to the Cretaceous. Even bearing in mind that this show is adapted from the original television series, the stories felt familiar and clichéd. How many times have you heard the factoid 'Ankylosaurs even had armour on their eyelids'? Triceratops battling Tyrannosaurus? A conclusion reminding us of the dinosaurs’ glorious promotion to the bird family? Although it was all presented well, I felt like I had seen every scenario somewhere else before.
And more often than not, I had seen it before in the Jurassic Park movies and related media. It is truly remarkable how lasting a legacy that film franchise has had on pop-culture. Even the species used for the show mirrors the selection used in these movie(s), but with slight tweaks – a Liliensternus as a proxy Dilophosaur, a Torosaurus rather than a Triceratops (
which, as it turns out, may well be the same thing anyway), and to go one better than the J.P. team they use Utahraptor, a relative of Velociraptor but larger, about the same size as the super-sized raptors used in Jurassic Park.
The most striking bit of narrative recycling comes at the close of the Torosaurus section, when our intrepid ‘palaeontologist’ even uncovers a huge pile of dino dung and proceeds to sift through it à la Dr. Ellie Sattler. The team must have been aware that people would notice such a direct lifting of content. (And of all things, why would you steal this particular snippet of low-brow crowd pandering?) Has Jurassic Park entered our folklore and become a myth that can be interpreted again and again by subsequent generations? This movie was made 18 years ago! Apparently nothing has happened in the intervening two decades that his been able to topple it from its place in our collective paradigmatic consciousness.
The visual design of the dinosaurs too reflects the monolithic shadow not only of Jurassic Park, but of the general style of nineties dino design that it represents. In addition to the narrative elements being rehashed, the dinosaurs themselves look like they’ve walked in, not from 100 million years ago, but from 1993. The overall feeling I got from the combination of the thematic content and the dinosaurs themselves was, ‘popular culture needs to come up with a new story for what dinosaur life was like’. The material being presented to these hoards of impressionable children was not so different from stuff that I saw when I was a kid two decades ago. For all the pomp and spectacle, this representation of dinosaurs was stuck in the past*. In pop culture at least, we need a new dinosaur renaissance analogous to the revolutions of the late sixties and early nineties.

I’m being very negative about the experience, but there were some redeeming aspects. Although highly derivative, the content of the narration was fairly sound (if overly speculative, but that’s to be expected) and clearly written by people who wanted to educate as well as entertain. The opportunity these people have to communicate palaeontology to the masses is unparalleled and unobtainable to any science educator and ultimately should do more good than harm for dinosaur education.
I liked that the first scene contained a bit of harsh realism; an adorable hatchling is approached by a theropod (maybe its mother – we don’t know) which snatches it up and eats it. I thought this was brave and commendable given their dominant demographic of small children and their parents.
I was also glad to see constant references to evolution and a million year time scale. I know it’s not such an issue in Australia, but due to my own obsession with the evolution wars overseas I’m hypersensitive to how such things are dealt with. One wonders if there is any pressure to sanitise their message when they take the show to the United States.

Ultimately, I walked out of WWD with predominantly negative feelings. It is a truly strange piece of entertainment: a live animatronic puppet show based on a computer-generated fictional drama posing as a nature documentary. It seems to represent the pinnacle of the commodification of a ‘dinotainment’ thread that began in the nineties when I was a palaeo-obsessed child. But you can’t go back, and seeing this as an adult entrenched in the world of ‘real’ palaeontology it felt too kitsch to truly enjoy and little more than a spectacular novelty only loosely related to dinosaurs.

* Sorry.