Thursday, September 21, 2017

Cartorynchus Proposed as Analogous to Epaulette Sharks: An Exposed Reef Hunting Tidal Pool Specialist

This post will be rather short and straightforward, as the analogous ecology of the basal ichthyosauriforme Cartorynchus lenticarpus to epaulette sharks (Hemiscyllium ocellatum) I propose is rather short and straightforward. The hypothetical analogy I postulate here is really not hard to come to or realize the merits of  - that it did not require a PhD level of higher education - but still deserves  consideration and reference despite whatever contemporary cultural inscriptions denotes what constitutes true and real science communication.

What I hope will be elucidated is how an open science framework (here, take your time it's a doozy) could more quickly and efficiently produce results similar to the open discussion of peer reviewed papers, blogging, and informed speculation at all levels that is already happening.  What a truly liberal and inclusive open science paradigm shift would enact would be a citable reference for all research, thoughts, and critiques at all levels. The format we are currently beholden to, the published peer reviewed word of law, is a cultural inscription - it is not a law of nature, it was created by man. No researcher who performs "peer review" can actually describe a set rubric for what constitutes "peer review". There appears to be as many definitions of peer review as there are reviewers. In fact the history of "peer review" is as nebulous and shifting as the exact practice of it. It has changed. Culture changes but good ideas are still good ideas, no matter what format they come in.

Cartorynhcus and epaulette sharks: let's go down the checklist of what these two animals share. 

Large, flexible fins that allow movement analogous to "walking" across substrate, even when exposed. Check!!

Similar size, small enough that they both can move and scramble over tough coral outcrops and will not become "beached" when exposed due to heavy body mass. Ability to travel between exposed pools of water? Check!!

The tail of Cartorynchus is unknown but proximity to related species suggests a mobile, eel like or "anguiliform" tail also similar to epaulette sharks. Check!!

Convergent feeding strategy of suction feeding. Short oral region with an expandable buccal cavity allow small prey to be slurped up. Especially useful for getting hidden prey under substrate or in coral crevasses. Ability to exploit hidden, small prey? Check!!

Epaulette sharks are notorious for surviving for long periods of time exposed, Cartorynchus as an air breather already has that problem nixed. Ability to survive exposed out of water? Check!!

Similar habitats near shore, reef dominated - abundant limestone and invertebrate remains documented from Cartorynchus locale. Congruence in habitat? Check!!

credit Ryosku Motani. University of CA, Davis

Additionally heavy ribs and thick skeleton helped Cartorynchus maintain a low position in the water column in near shore, sometimes turbulent, habits.

This proposed analogous ecology between Cartorynchus and epaulette sharks is, as I mentioned at the start, pretty straightforward and common sense. A specialized patroller of isolated pools and crevasses exposed at low tide, able to handily move between these pools and exploit trapped isolated animals  - a niche that is restricted from other, larger marine predators.

What I think is more illuminating and which should be pretty straightforward to most knowledgeable readers is the dissemination of ideas, academia, questions, blogging, the media and how all of these avenues play into one another for sometimes fruitful but sometimes disadvantageous results. This interplay - a history of ideas in various formats - is especially easily observed and documented in the narrative of Cartorynchus because these events are fairly recent and easily seen in retrospect. What an open science format would enable is  an active curtailing of several of the two most stifling aspects of these scientific narratives; (1) the press - always problematic in science, but especially apt to hype certain aspects of a study - would be largely cut loose; and (2) the other problematic aspect incumbent upon modern science communication - the peer review system of academic press and all that it entails - impact factors, pay to play, citation indexes, non-specific rubric for peer review, pay-walls - that would be gutted. Instead researchers would upload their work in whatever stage of completion they deem appropriate and seek review and critique in real time, transparent to all. This allows an especially exciting and illuminating viewership of science in real time to emerge. It is my opinion that such a format would work to diminish the ego-based approach in modern academia; accelerate research exponentially increasing both the prospects for expansive review and collaboration; and enact a stronger and more inclusive citizenry of science at all levels.

Let's review some of the main points in the timeline of the Cartorynchus narrative:

Nature Magazine publishes A basal ichthyosauriform with a short snout from the middle Triassic of China. Unfortunately Nature is not open access. But it is a high impact journal. Good for the author's careers but not good for open access and certainly not good for open science. If you read the abstract you can see that it is pretty conservative, as should be expected for a scientific academic publication. Certainly the potential for an "amphibious" or even "transitional" species is given. But just from reading the abstract, that does not seem to be the primary thrust of the paper.

Enter the media. As should be expected and from what you should recall if you followed this saga - the media went right for the "missing link" aspect or question that the paper and authors raise in conservative terms: that Cartorynchus does indeed in size, anatomy, and temporal respects represent a transition from terrestrial to aquatic ichthyosaursiformes. That was the media slant and, even if the authors only tentatively and conservatively raised this possibility in the paper, it is not like Motani shot down such notions when commenting with the media.

From Sci-News

The fossil, named Cartorynchus lenticarpus, represents a missing stage in the evolution of ichthyosaurs. Until now there were no fossils marking their transition from land to sea.

"But now we have this fossil showing the transition. There's nothing that prevents it from coming onto land," said professor Motani, who is the first author in a paper published in the journal Nature.

From National Geographic:

With a short snout, heavy build, and unusually large flippers, the newfound Cartorynchus lenticarpus was built for both land and sea researchers report in the journal Nature.

"An amphibious animal was somehow missing from the ichthyosaur record, and this animal fits that picture very nicely," said study leader Ryosku Motani of the University of California, Davis, an expert on prehistoric marine reptiles.


Remember that was the take home message from the media flux surrounding this animal - a transitional species was needed for ichthyosaurs, the "proverbial missing link", and Cartorynchus fills this need. As I mentioned earlier, the paper seems to take a cautious approach but the media spin and Dr. Motani himself put a lot of emphasis on the "missing link" aspect of Cartorynchus.

Enter the ego. Discovering the transitional specimen is a vaunted holy grail in paleontology. The eternal quest for missing links in paleontology has a sort of dubious and I would say failing history. .One really can't fault Motani for maybe being a bit too happy on spreading the narrative of Cartorynchus as a "missing link" this pattern in paleontology is the exception not the rule. What career academic would resist such a claim?  We've seen this movie before. Archaeopteryx is looking more and more like just another Mesozoic birb at this point. Of course the quest into our own origins among paleoanthropology is rife with abuses of science and ego. Any clear cut "missing link" in our own pedigree is becoming more and more murkier and lost among the bushiness of our family. For me I would forgo treatment of "missing links" entirely in evolutionary science and cast much suspicions on claims explicitly documenting such transitions. Scientists should drop the term "missing link" in my opinion. I think it does more harm than good in discussions with the general public in terms of expressing evolutionary thought. I move we inform more about the bushiness of evolutionary families and the mess of it all. Biology is meant to be a little bit messy after all, creeping all over the place, like a Ctulhu monster.

Instead of looking at Cartorycnhus as a species on its way to something else I would say that it has already arrived at something. It already is a competent occupier of a niche that modern day epaulette sharks occupy. It's not half way on the transition to something more complete or whole or more useful. It has already arrived.

The tetrapod zoology article by Darren Naish, though it does not deal with the media spin on Cartorychus, does illuminate the possibility that ichthyosauriformes actually arose from a highly aquatic ancestral group - something close to thallatosaurs. I'm not going to try and speak with any knowledge on this but it does, according to Darren, raises the possibility that we might never find that "walking" ichthyosaur like we have for whales because they evolved from animals that were already aquatic!!

Mark Witton, in his piece on Cartorynchus, doubles down on this line of thinking and suggests that:

"…This surrounds Cartorynchus with lineages that had taken to water in a significant way and we should conclude that any amphibious adaptations of Cartorynchus do not represent an ichthyosaurian invasion of the sea , but ichthyosaurs returning to the land."

Notice that in this scenario - of primarily aquatic ichthyosaurs returning to the land - the picture I outline slots in nicely. Cartorynchus still forages in the water via suction feeding like epaulette sharks and the small size and large flexible fore-flippers advantageious to scramble from isolated tidal pool to pool on exposed reefs.

So hopefully in this delineation of intellectual transitions from Motani et. al.'s initial paper in Nature to the initial media hoopla, to both Darren's and Mark's pieces adding necessary context, nuance, and questions to the amphibious ichthyosaur hypothesis to mine own take on likely ecology of Cartorychus one can see how a transparent and inclusive open science paradigm would likely create the same results but in much more streamlined and citable format. Motani et. al. would upload his work onto an open science hub geared towards vertebrate paleontology. There peer review would be in the open and non-anonymous, transparently visible to all. The "blog posts" of Mark and Darren might more succinctly be linked to a general review of Motani's initial work made during this process. My idea, not even necessarily created by me because it is fundamentally a rather simple one that others could have come up with, could also get spliced into this general paper-blog-review-discussion hybrid viewable to all in open science. The two parties that get elbowed out in this format is the peer reviewed journal Nature and the media, ughhhhh who is gonna miss them anyways? Instead of the media butting in and hyping everything, interested parties can view and report and learn from the actual process of science - without the loooooong wait times of modern peer reviewed journal process - in an open science hub. With the curtains pulled back the process of science is viewable to all. The mess of it. The discussion and disagreement. What has taken several years to transpire in real time, remember Motani came out in 2014, from the initial paper to the various blog postings to my analogy of Cartorynchus comparable ecologically with epaulette sharks might be condensed into months or even weeks!! Open science not only encourages a citizenry of science, it is a research accelerator. It is a bazaar versus a cathedral…

Such a format might seem dizzyingly complex and worrisome at first, until we realize that spread across multiple formats, personalities, and time spans - that is how science is already playing out!! This would put the whole bazaar under one umbrella at least. It will be a more nebulous, shifting, and organic process. The concept of authorship or lead author will become more nebulous in long threads of research, review, critique, and expanding questions and connections. But one with fundamental benefits that even the most hardened career academic would find hard to dismiss.

credit What is open science?


"A Long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom". Thomas Paine

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Beetle Boy said...

What a neat and plausible idea, you’ve easily convinced me. I actually really enjoyed this post, focusing on a smaller theory, not quite as revolutionary, like your lipped Smilodon, etc. Very interesting, hope to see more like this in the future.

Duane Nash said...

Thanks Beetle Boy. There will be a mix of smaller ideas and bigger ideas in the future. Some more easily digested and some more far reaching and speculative.

Jeffrey Lu said...

This post really speaks to the misconceptions people have about evolution. Man, I tried explaining it the other day to a man who'd grownup with creationism. Try as I might, there was no breaking through the years of bad education America provided him with.

Duane Nash said...

Yes i really tried to ground it in the nebulous aspect of evolutionary thought. For me I think notions of identifying missing links are a bit like trying to locate the electron. Often times I think claims of missing links do more to serve the researchers stature and ego than really speak to the vagaries and "bushiness" of evolution.

On bad education in America: well I'm a product of the public school system. That being said I always felt my number one teacher was my curiosity. Even in college I felt most of the stuff was "review" and I was just doing it because that was what one was supposed to do. I mean, there are good public educators I just think a lot of their time and energy goes to stuff besides teaching. What I'm more worried about is not the teachers, it is the apathy of students. Why are young kids so curious and enthralled with the world but somewhere in grade school a good majority of them lose this? I don't get it.

Devin Myers said...

In my experience, school did nothing but crush kids' curiosity! You're so railroaded into learning a comparatively tiny and uninteresting body of information in a highly specific and limiting way that your ability to think outside that school-induced box is obliteratd. I watched it happen myself! By 5th grade almost all of my peers were anti-learning purely because school made it a chore. Learning is meant to be fun but school made it a stressful, frustrating mess. Lots of my elementary and middle school teachers even made fun of or discouraged their students from exploring topics outside the curriculum because it was "a waste of time" and "useless knowledge, we don't teach it for a reason". The few teachers I did have that genuinely tried to encourage curiosity came way too late; they were all high school instructors.

Duane Nash said...

@Devin Myers There probably is a lot of truth to your comment. School is in many ways more of a training ground for fitting into society than an active and participatory quest for knowledge. Yes, by 5th grade most kids are turned off by the drudgery of learning and those that remain curious about the world are labelled the "nerds" "outsiders" and "weirdos". So possibly both the school and peer groups collaborate in a sinister way to create a stony path for truth seekers.

"Lots of my elementary and middle school teachers even made fun of or discouraged their students from exploring topics outside the curriculum because it was "a waste of time" and "useless knowledge, we don't teach it for a reason".

That's so sad. If I was a principal I would consider such expressions from teachers grounds for dismissal!!

Devin Myers said...

I've also noticed that a lot of teachers in later stages of education don't really like the subject they teach. It becomes very difficult to get interested in a subject if you can see that the instructor doesn't even like it. Nothing contributes more to memorization and understanding of a topic than discussion and the way classrooms are usually run in the US treats open discussion like a gateway drug to anarchy. I can recall getting dozens of questions after giving a presentation of how dinosaur paleontology has progressed since Jurassic Park and the teacher was quick to put a stop to the back-and-forth discussions that were bouncing all over the room. I'd never seen a classroom so engaged and the teacher took that energy as a sign that things were getting out of control. That really says a lot.

That "useless knowledge" bit is a direct quote from a middle school math teacher who got mad at me for not understanding the week's lesson. It was in reference to the fact that I carried paleontology textbooks to read in my spare time but couldn't understand math, so apparently she thought I was just blowing off the classwork to read even though I only read when there was absolutely nothing left to do. I've since discovered that I have dyscalculia and my inability to learn math has nothing to do with my level of effort, but teachers instead preferred to blame it on being distracted or not trying hard enough or not paying attention. Nothing could be less motivating than hearing "you need to start paying closer attention, try harder" after funneling all of your energy into desperately trying to learn a topic, only to find out you failed the test because you just didn't get it.

On a related note, my junior year Earth Science teacher (who was an old earth creationist and highly religious, which often interfered with her teaching) routinely became furious at me when she taught a history of life on Earth. She claimed dinosaurs evolved in the Carboniferous, called all extinct reptiles and non-mammalian synapsids dinosaurs, said that mammals didn't evolve until the Cenozoic and are descended from dinosaurs, claimed that pterosaurs couldn't fly and dinosaurs were cold-blooded failures that only lived in swamps, etc. Her lessons were firmly rooted in a poor understanding of the 1950's view of paleontology and I made sure to correct misinformation as often as possible. She took offense to it but not in the way you'd expect. It wasn't that I was challenging her authority, rather, she thought it was absolutely ridiculous that a mere student would dare to know more than her. Her exact words to me after class one day was "I don't care if it's wrong, you need to stop being such a know-it-all." As though it was completely fine to misinform the poor students!

Duane Nash said...

@Devin Myers Maybe its because I'm in California and a little bit of a bubble compared to the rest of the country but your experience just ughh… from an earth science teacher to boot!! I didn't know it was that bad, I always thought it was from up above that such dreck was being pushed - not from the teachers themselves.

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