Insect fossils in the Late Jurassic lagoon of France - Interview with an Author

During the course of two field expeditions in 2012 and 2013, French researchers working with the help of two active teams of amateur scientists (Société des Naturalistes et Archéologues de l’Ain and the Group ‘Sympetrum Recherche et Protection des Libellules’) discovered the first Upper Jurassic insects from the Orbagnoux outcrop, together with traces of activities of these organisms on leaves and in the sediment. The newly discovered insect was described today, in PeerJ.

We were interested in learning more about this work, so we invited the first author, André Nel, to comment on his research and his experience publishing with us.

imagePJ: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

AN: I am a Professor at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, France. I study fossil insects, and I’ve been working on this subject since 1980.

PJ: Can you briefly explain the research you published in PeerJ

AN: We worked on the marine limestone in the area around Orbagnoux (France) and recorded the first Upper Jurassic insects and the traces of their activities. Although such fossils are well known in Siberia, China, and Germany, none had been identified in our country until now.

PJ: Do you have any anecdotes about this research?

AN: This area of the French Alps was well known for their fish and plant fossils, but no one had ever looked for insects around there. A friend of mine (Claire Griot) lives there, but I never had the opportunity to go and visit the site. She contacted me three years ago and invited me to explore the site, just in case there would be something. So this is really thanks to her that this discovery happened! It’s also through the great help of the very active local naturalists and citizen scientists in the field that we found this new material.

PJ: What surprised you the most with these results?

AN: To be honest, I didn’t believe we would find something on site! Not a single insect fossil has been recorded in this area since the first paleontological investigations in the 19th century!


Fossilized aquatic bug from the Orbagnoux outcrop of the Rhone valley: Gallomesovelia grioti (scale bar 1 mm) - Photo:André Nel

PJ: What kinds of lessons do you hope the public takes away from the research?

AN: A collaboration between scientific researchers and citizen scientists is an asset, and it helps towards finding extraordinary new data for science.

PJ: Where do you hope to go from here?

AN: We want to look for new material! Earlier this year, we went back to Orbagnoux and we found a new type of insect activity on plant fossils (and maybe new insects that we are currently studying).

PJ: If you had unlimited resources, what study would you run?

AN: There are many outcrops that are not well studied due to the lack of resources. I would hire a highly motivated research assistant, and I would encourage the search for fossil insects in France. Palaeoentomology is not an expensive science, and it can give quite important new data on the evolution of continents and life, as insects constitute about 60-70% of the world biodiversity.

PJ: Why did you choose to reproduce the complete peer-review history of your article?

AN: I am convinced that this manuscript is the result of an active interaction between citizen scientists, scientific researchers, and reviewers. We wanted to make the review process as transparent as possible, so everybody could have access to it.

PJ: How did you first hear about PeerJ, and what persuaded you to submit to us?

AN: A colleague in our lab, Philippe Grandcolas, is an Academic Editor for PeerJ and highly recommended us to submit our manuscript to PeerJ.

PJ: How would you describe your experience of our submission/review process?

AN: The process was quick and friendly.

PJ: In conclusion, how would you describe PeerJ in three words?

AN: Active promising journal

PJ: Many thanks for your time!

If you also like bigger fossils, check out some of our Paleontology publications in PeerJ. We have thousands of highly satisfied authors. If you would like to experience the PeerJ process for yourself, then submit your next article to us!


Cervical ribs in mammals - why it matters

Last month, we published “Extraordinary incidence of cervical ribs indicates vulnerable condition in Late Pleistocene mammoths”, which received quite a bit of attention in the press. In this article, Frietson Galis and her group describe the presence of a cervical rib in Woolly mammoths providing some clues about their decline and eventual extinction.

We felt it would be informative to ask Dr Galis how she became interested in cervical ribs in mammoths. She told us that she was in fact interested in cervical ribs in all mammals!

Such a rib is attached to the seventh vertebra and this signifies a change of the normally extremely constant number of neck vertebrae from 7 into 6. Giraffes with long necks have 7 neck vertebrae and the short-necked dolphins also. Ribs are normally only attached to thoracic vertebrae and the presence of a rib on the seventh vertebra indicates a change of identity of a neck vertebra into a thoracic one. Study of exceptional mammals with an aberrant number of neck vertebrae has taught us that this change almost unavoidably comes with side effects and congenital anomalies. Thus, finding cervical ribs is always interesting for me and in the case of the Woolly mammoth it is extra exciting, as it provides us with unexpected insights into their condition before getting extinct.”

Dr Andrew Farke (Academic Editor on this article) also thinks this study generates some cool ideas to test. “This work is interesting because it uncovers a neat potential line of future research—developmental anomalies in animals under environmental stress”, he said. “Although this type of work is still in its infancy, I am excited to see how it develops. I do wonder if these sorts of anomalies can be used in studies of contemporary animals, too—perhaps for species of strong conservation importance”.

We couldn’t agree more with Dr Farke, and also hope that in the near future more researchers will use fossils to study developmental pathologies.

We encourage you to check out some of our other paleontology publications in PeerJ.


Live Event - ‘Ask Me Anything Journal Club’ with the Dino Joe authors

We are pleased to announce that this Wednesday, 13th November, from 8 am – 10 am PST (4 pm – 6 pm UK time) two of the authors of the recent ‘baby hadrosaur’ (‘Dino Joe’) article will be online and fielding questions on any aspect of their article, or of their work in general. This is your chance to find out how paleontology is performed in the open science era, and to ask Andy Farke and Sarah Werning anything at all. Yes - anything!
For this live event visit https://www.peerj.com/ask/dinojoe/. Your questions can be left at any time - before, during or after the event - and the authors will be online and interacting on Wednesday. As the ‘questioner’ you are able to ‘accept’ any answer (indicating that it sufficiently answered your question) and any participant can vote answers up or down as they wish.


Fig 6 - Reconstruction of the skull of Parasaurolophus sp..
So mark your calendar, and visit https://www.peerj.com/ask/dinojoe/ from 8 am PST on Wednesday to interact with Andy Farke, Sarah Werning and Dino Joe.


The Reception to Dino Joe

On Tuesday, we published Ontogeny in the tube-crested dinosaur Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and heterochrony in hadrosaurids” by Dr. Andrew Farke et al.

This fascinating paper describes the most complete skeleton ever found of Parasaurolophus, a duck-billed and plant-eating dinosaur. It’s also the youngest: The fossil is a rare baby dinosaur, under a year old when it died 75 million years ago. It got a lot of great coverage including spots on NBC LA, CCTV, Utah Public RadioSlate, Nature Magazine, Science Magazine, The Guardian and many others.


With well over 20,000 views of the peer-reviewed paper (in the first 3 days alone), and over 100,000 visitors to the museum’s custom web-site, this is already the most read paper that PeerJ has published, and is clearly one of the most accessed (as well as accessible) paleontology discoveries ever. This publication is a testament to the power of open access, and so it was great timing to have published it in Open Access Week.

Given the broad attention the article generated, we asked Dr Farke to tell us in his own words about his incredible, but tiring, week.

AF: “What happens when you publish the world’s most open access dinosaur? Pure pandemonium!

On Tuesday, my co-authors (recently graduated high school students Derek Chok, Annisa Herrero, and Brandon Scolieri, along with paleontologist Sarah Werning) and I published a paper in PeerJ describing the nearly complete skeleton from a baby Parasaurolophus. Beyond the “gee-whiz” factor of a dinosaur fossil (found by another high school student!), the specimen nicknamed “Joe” tells us a whole bunch about how an iconic plant eating dinosaur grew some bizarre headgear. We also decided to make this the most open access dinosaur ever—not only was the paper published in an open access journal, but all of the digital scans and imagery were archived to Figshare. Although parts and pieces of digital scans had been made public for other fossils, this was the most comprehensive dataset yet available for any dinosaur. Because these sorts of scan files aren’t necessarily easily accessible to the general public, we set up a website (www.dinosaurjoe.org), so that anyone could view the fossil from all angles in 3D without the aid of specialized software.

Of course, we wanted to let people know that an open access dinosaur had arrived! We crafted a press release and sent it out the week before publication, and waited. And waited. I was a little worried that we had sent it out too soon, or that it had landed without a sound.

Fortunately, those worries were unfounded. By the time that the publication date rolled around, things were completely out of control! The phones at the museum were ringing off the hook, television trucks were lined up on the road outside the exhibit hall, and over 100,000 visitors saw the specimen on-line. It was a fantastic day for our museum, our school, and open science.

On a personal level, I am proud of the results of the efforts of everyone involved. Kevin Terris, the high school student from The Webb Schools who found the fossil, rightfully received global recognition for his incredible find. Brandon Scolieri, Derek Chok, and Annisa Herrero, the three Webb students who helped write the paper, did an incredible job on their specific research focuses. Sarah Werning's work on bone tissue allowed us to estimate the age of the dinosaur, adding critical context to the study. This all added up to a comprehensive paper. And most of all, I am proud of how open the study is! It is truly amazing to be able to share this fossil with the world, so completely. PeerJ helped this happen!

Two things really capped this experience for me. The first was seeing the well-deserved congratulations pour in for Kevin Terris on his discovery. This is not his last major find, and I am also excited that a paper he co-authored during his time at Webb will be published before the end of the year! The second highlight of this week was a set of comments from Ben Richmond, writing about the open access angle of the find for The Motherboard blog at Vice.com:

"It allows people like me who never get to touch dinosaur skeletons, even if we really want to, to spin Joe around and look at him up close from any angle we want…If this is the future of museums, museums [are] going to be awesome for a long time."

For those of us who want to share our fossils with the world, can it get any better than this?”

Dr. Andy Farke


The skeleton of “Joe” the baby Parasaurolophus ready to meet the public. CC-BY, by Andy Farke.


Guest Post – Dr. Andrew Farke and his Baby Dinosaur

Today, PeerJ is pleased to publish the work of Dr. Andrew Farke, and his group, in their article Ontogeny in the tube-crested dinosaur Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and heterochrony in hadrosaurids.

This article describes the most complete skeleton yet known from an iconic dinosaur (the hadrosaur, or “duckbilled dinosaur”, Parasaurolophus), with preserved rare skin and beak impressions. The fossil is a rare baby dinosaur, under a year old when it died 75 million years ago. Study of the skeleton revealed that the hadrosaur formed its unusual headgear by expanding its skull bones earlier and for a longer period of time than did its close relatives.

Because of the broad importance of the finding, researchers have made 3D digital scans of the entire skeleton accessible. It is the first time that virtually an entire skeleton has been made available via open access for anyone to use and reuse.

Dr. Farke, lead researcher on the study and corresponding author on the manuscript, received a B.Sc. in Geology from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in 2003, and completed his Ph.D. in Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University in 2008. He joined the staff at the Alf Museum in June 2008, as Augustyn Family Curator of Paleontology.

He wrote the following guest post, giving us some details concerning the study of the fossil and the reasons why he decided to submit the findings to PeerJ.


AF: “It’s a long road to travel when a spectacular fossil noses its way out of bedrock and into your museum. In this case, it was the nearly complete skeleton of a baby dinosaur, found by Kevin Terris, a high school student back in 2009. My museum— the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology—is on the campus of a high school (The Webb Schools), and we take students out in the field with us every year. The first question is, how do we get it back home? Following a flurry of excavation permits (from Bureau of Land Management, Utah, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, who manage the land the fossil was found on), two weeks of excavation, and a helicopter flight, the specimen was in a truck on its way to our museum. A year and a half of preparation painstakingly peeled the rock away from the fossil bones, and then it was time to begin the research.

A fantastic crew of researchers joined the project—Derek Chok, Annisa Herrero, and Brandon Scolieri (three high school students from The Webb Schools) as well as Sarah Werning, a paleontologist and bone biologist. We swiftly went to work, trying to extract as much data from the fossil as possible. Detailed study of its anatomy revealed that the six-foot long skeleton belonged to a baby Parasaurolophus—the iconic tube-crested plant-eater that lived throughout western North America around 75 million years ago. Even though the animal was less than a third of its full adult size, it had already sprouted the rudiments of the crest that makes the dinosaur famous. Medical CT scans revealed well-developed nasal passages, which may have been used to trumpet calls to other members of its species at a pitch far higher than the low, booming calls of adults. Perhaps most intriguingly, study of the bone microstructure revealed the animal was probably under a year old when it died. Together, all of these data showed that Parasaurolophus sprouted its crest at a smaller body size (and presumably younger age) than any of its known relatives, and grew its crest for a comparatively longer time. This developmental shift—described as heterochrony—explains in part the bizarre skull anatomy of the animal.


Silhouettes of adult and baby Parasaurolophus, relative to adult and baby humans. Credit: Copyright Scott Hartman (baby dinosaur), Matt Martyniuk (adult dinosaur), Andrew Farke (humans).


Reconstruction of the skeleton of a baby Parasaurolophus.Credit: Copyright Scott Hartman. Usage restrictions: This image is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


The whole package added up to something of broad scientific appeal—a baby dinosaur, scarcely a year old when it died, that offers groundbreaking new information on how an iconic prehistoric herbivore grew up. We were faced with the choice that many scientists face. Should we write a short paper—essentially an extended abstract a few pages long—and aim for a “high impact” journal, followed by a longer paper a few months or years or decades later? Based on past experience, this could mean months of shopping the manuscript around, with potentially little payoff in the end. And even if it did get published in that form, the paper would contain only a fraction of the information that other paleontologists wanted to know. Our research hit a topic of hot interest—growth changes in dinosaurs—and I felt a more complete paper would better serve the scientific community, as soon as possible.

So, as lead researcher on the study, I made a big decision. We were going to write the research up once, and we were going to write the most comprehensive, authoritative work possible. The work was a monster tome—46 pages single-spaced, with 11 tables and 28 figures. It covered virtually every aspect of the specimen, from skin to skull to microanatomy of the bones, along with extensive comparisons and interpretation. With this degree of detail, I knew that “conventional” academic publications could take months or years of review, editing and production (along with added charges for color figures). I also knew that I wanted the paper to be open access—every paleontologist, casual dinosaur fan, and even the proud parents, teachers, and classmates of my student co-authors should be able to access the paper with minimal hassle.

PeerJ emerged as the obvious home for our research. I was greatly impressed by the scientific quality of the papers previously published there, as well as the high production standards evidenced in attractive PDFs and a highly functional website. Plus, being a proponent of open access and a volunteer editor for the journal, I wanted to submit my best work to the journal. I wasn’t disappointed. The manuscript submission process was pretty painless, and the editor and reviewers who handled the manuscript gave it a thorough and fair critique. Scarcely 48 hours after submission of the revised manuscript, it was accepted and on the way to publication. The journal staff handling the paper have been responsive and professional—an excellent experience from start to finish.


Farke (top) and co-authors Annisa Herrero, Derek Chok, and Brandon Scolieri press the button to submit their manuscript to PeerJ. Credit: Andrew A. Farke.

Publishing in an open access journal like PeerJ is only one part of getting a fossil specimen out there. Those who make the trek to Claremont, California, can see the fossil on exhibit at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. But, not everyone has the ability to make such a journey. So, we’ve made this fossil the most digitally accessible dinosaur skeleton to date. All of the 3D digital data for the specimen are freely available, through supplementary information published with the article at PeerJ, data archives posted at Figshare, and high-resolution images on MorphoBank. Anyone who has an internet connection and the appropriate software can view the fossil from all angles, exploring the skeleton, plumbing the depths of the animal’s brain, and even testing our interpretations of internal anatomy. We’ve also set up a digital exhibit on the specimen, at www.dinosaurjoe.com. This fossil is part of our world’s biological heritage—and now the world can see it!”

 Dr. Andy Farke