Tetrapod Zoology

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Those of us who publish technical research papers like to see our work cited by our colleagues. Indeed, it’s integral to one’s success as a researcher (whatever ‘success’ means) that others cite your work, in whatever context. You might not like to see the publication of a stinging attack that demolishes your cherished hypothesis and shows how your approach and data analysis (and maybe overall philosophy, intellect and ability to write) are flawed, but the fact is that someone has at least read, and is citing, your work… and that’s still a sort of success. These days – sad to say – the ‘impact factor’ of your work (that is, the amount of times it gets cited and how quickly said research takes to win citations) is seen as an important measure of how ‘good’ your science is. Speaking as someone who works in a field where century-old monographs are still among the most-cited and most important works, where the accruing of tiny bits of data can sometimes (years later) enable someone to piece together evidence for a high-impact gee-whiz bit of science, and where ‘high-impact’ papers are all but useless and frequently contain hardly any information, I think we can question the notion that ‘impact factor culture’ helps our science… However, I’ll avoid that can of worms for the time being.

So, when you see a publication that’s very relevant to your own research, and find yourself not getting cited (or, perhaps, horrendously and obviously under-cited), what do you do? I have no idea, and – other than making sure that the offending party are aware of said research – I’m not sure what you can do, so I’m not about to provide an answer. Instead I’m going to ask a question: why do some authors or research groups fail to cite research that looks especially relevant? Having suffered from five six a few, separate recent cases of this sort of thing I think I have some answers.

Genuine oversight

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Authors do sometimes honestly fail to become aware of key papers. I was surprised when an author failed to cite a very relevant paper (by me) – one of only about three ever published on the subject in question. When asked about the oversight he apologised and said “would have cited your paper had I known about it”. My fault for publishing in an obscure journal with no online presence, perhaps. In another case the author was embarrassed as the paper he’d missed was essentially identical in layout, theme and conclusions to his own (and for complex reasons that I can’t discuss without giving too much away, there was no suspicion of plagiarism or malice or anything like that). Alas, none of us are omniscient, and even the most-informed, most cleverest and best-read person may still not be aware of every single paper and article relevant to their field of special interest. However, using such things as google and personal communication with other workers, one can generally get up to speed and ensure that nothing crucial has been missed. Furthermore, the excuse of oversight is becoming less believable/forgivable as pdf archives and online resources have become available, and as online communication and discussion have improved in general [adjacent: azhdarchid pterosaurs, by Mark Witton, not at all relevant to anything discussed here, and especially not to the 'Acts of laziness' section below].

Acts of laziness

Another conclusion I have reached is that some authors are just lazy. I was surprised to see that two recent papers on a given subject both failed to cite another, very relevant paper on that same given subject that was high-impact, open access, and had high visibility thanks to extensive coverage in the media and on blogs and discussion boards. I presume in these cases that the authors were lazy, and didn’t bother to read around on the subject. Not much we can do about that, though you’d expect that the reviewers or editors would have brought the attention of the authors to the missing citation in question. See below for more on ‘editor apathy’.

Choosing not to give credit

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Sometimes, things are a little less innocuous and I feel confident that authors deliberately choose not to cite relevant works, specifically because they don’t want to give credit to them. Let’s make one thing clear: there’s no need to cite all 171 published papers on the mechanics of alethinophidian snake feeding (or whatever); you can get by with citing the three recent, comprehensive reviews of the subject. But if you’re publishing a conclusion that matches that of a previous study, it seems only right to cite that study, rather than pretend that it doesn’t exist. Of course, if you disagree with the conclusions (often because the article in question is, in your opinion, poor and best ignored): that’s different, and it’s not what I’m talking about. I am specifically referring to cases where authors agree with, or even endorse, statements made by other authors [adjacent image: a dead cat on a railway].

Editor apathy

So, what to do about personal animosity and acts of malice? It’s well known that, within many fields of science, there are warring factions, and there are definitely some researchers and research groups that deliberately ignore the publications of other authors and research groups. There are also personal vendettas and so on. In such cases, one might argue that editors and reviewers should make an effort to get the offending party to at least credit the work of their ‘opponents’: given that editors and reviewers should (in theory) be familiar with the field in question, they certainly can’t use the excuse that they’re unaware of these areas of animosity. In my work as an editor I’ve occasionally suggested to group x that they cite the work of group y, and they’ve usually done so once the request has been made. Maybe more of this sort of thing should occur, and when it doesn’t happen do we have editor apathy or ignorance? If ‘editor apathy’ IS a problem – what the hell are those people doing working as editors? Not sure what to do about this – suggestions?

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It would be nice if we didn’t have to worry about the constant quest for citations. But we do. Like I said at the start, it does, unfortunately, make a difference as goes employability and ‘research impact’ assessment and so on. Failing to cite the appropriate work of your colleagues is also just not fair. Standard technical papers (i.e., not those destined for Nature, Science or PNAS) are not so constrained in length that a handful of extra references in the bibliography, or a few extra citations in the body of the text, make any difference, so – unless a good argument can be made that paper x was ignored because there’s something fundamentally wrong with it (this explains what Alan Feduccia recently termed ‘censorship by lack of citation’) – working scientists have an ethical obligation to accurately reflect the state of knowledge in their field [adjacent image: elephants].

Comments

  1. #1 Jerzy
    September 12, 2009

    Darren,

    You can try to post on Dinosaur mailing list, to make paleontologic community more aware of your work.

    But, honestly, you would do more good to the word to became science popularizer.

    You can also publish evil criticisms of important papers appearing, claiming outrageous alternative explanations. In fact this forces everybody to include you in the debate. Example is the anthropologist who claims that Homo floresiensis is a microcephalic human, and ornithologist who argues that a video of ivory-billed woodpecker is pileated woodpecker.

    cheers,

  2. #2 Dave Bridges
    September 12, 2009

    don’t forget reference limits. Some journals force you to use a limited number of references, so even if work is relevant it might not have space to get cited. For my 2c, like ‘data not shown’, this is ridiculous in the online age.

  3. #3 Jerzy
    September 12, 2009

    …good to the World, of course!

    Speaking as somebody who just left the academic career: You seem like a sane person from the blog, and academia is not a place for you.

  4. #4 John H
    September 12, 2009

    I interact a lot with two somewhat separate fields and find that this is generally *relatively* less of a problem with paleontologists, who tend to be quite literate (I did say tend!).

    It seems more of a problem with biomechanists/engineers, who tend to dislike reading papers and often only read from a few journals at best. In addition, they tend to be shocked by papers that are >10 pages long, and very likely to ignore them.

    Quite a few colleagues have said to me “I don’t read the literature” and tell their students to practice likewise. I find that… naughty.

    As an editor too, I have seen papers rejected/withdrawn because authors were unwilling to cover the literature more broadly. Naughty again!

  5. #5 Frank Norman
    September 12, 2009

    Speaking as a librarian, I have often been disappointed to be told by researchers that they are not interested in learning about better ways or alternative places to search for articles, saying that they can find what they need and they don’t need to find everything.

    Perhaps the apparent ease of online searching tools means that people are overconfident in the breadth of their literature awareness.

  6. #6 Oll
    September 12, 2009

    I once wrote a report on a new theory I had formulated on a certain deformed skull that was claimed to be of alien origin. The theory was simple plausible and completely explained all the ‘anomalies’ of the skull through natural processes rather than having to resort to anything weird at all. However the fellow who popularised the theory of the skull’s alien origins skull did not agree with my theory. Something which he is perfectly within his rights to do of course as it is still only a theory, despite being the most likely explanation. One of the things he tried to pull me up on was that I had, in his opinion given a completely inaccurate account of where the skull was found.

    This account was actually a quote of his account of the discovery, I had even sited it but my editor had chopped the corresponding reference off the bottom of the page by accident.

  7. #7 Ben S-R
    September 12, 2009

    Great post, Darren. A few observations…

    An old mentor of mine suggested to always personally send a copy of your paper to the main researcher(s) of each paper in your reference list (with certain exceptions, e.g. perhaps a citation of a widely used method) to make sure they are aware of your paper. This was obviously more important in the days before electronic publishing, but given the copious output today, it’s still a good idea.

    Researchers definitely get lazy and some apparently do not carefully or widely follow the literature, probably because it is time consuming. Reviewing the weekly pour-in of eTOCs of all the journals within one’s direct field plus the eTOCs of all the journals outside of one’s direct field but with relevance can be very time consuming.

    I think approaching other researchers and ensuring they know about your paper is key. If they don’t cite it next time, well then maybe they’re really lazy or just jerks or just clueless! One way to ‘catch’ researchers before they write the paper is to attend lots of conferences, if possible, and ensure that anyone that is doing research related to yours knows about your stuff.

    Finally, a common reviewer comment in my experience is to “shorten the reference list, this is not a review etc”. Personally, I like to be thorough (but not oppressively so!) and end up with long citation lists but others are more of the ‘find one paper, preferably a review, and be done with it’.

  8. #8 Lars
    September 12, 2009

    Perhaps I missed it, but I think that you forgot the case of the paper (authored by another) which reviews all of your publications on a subject and is henceforth cited by everyone rather than the original papers that you published.

  9. #9 Brian Beatty
    September 12, 2009

    I really appreciate this post, Darren. You touch on an important, but often ignored aspect of publishing and citing that is really prevalent. I have several friends that have been the victim of this, particularly the “choosing not to give credit” part. I think it is terrible and something that can be very demoralizing. I wish people would not do that, especially because they are usually people with plenty of power, funding, and support, that don’t need to keep undermining the work of others in less powerful positions. I can only suppose that they got there by suppressing others in their weird, insecure ways.

    I got involved with PalArch for many reasons, including this, especially when becoming aware that these sorts of politics and editor apathy are sometimes (but certainly not always) found in even journals like JVP. There are plenty of great editors out there, especially at JVP, but not all make an effort to learn about those politics to try to push people to cite broadly enough.

    Perhaps more annoying, as a scientist, is when people avoid citing papers that contradict or duplicate the findings they are attempting to promote as uniquely their own. I guess they are trying not to let others “steal their thunder” or question their results, but I think they are just demonstrating a selfishness and dishonesty that scientists should avoid at all costs. It only strengthens the work if an author leaves the reader aware of doubts and future questions to ask. If, at the end, we felt like all answers were figured out, what more is left to do? The need some have for being conclusive and certain in the meaning of their results is just contradictory to the purpose of science, and incredibly sad.

  10. #10 Nick Gardner
    September 12, 2009

    If I may interject on a completely different note, if it’s not too late, but the poster on your screen… text on top of background images is a pet peeve of mine… :(

  11. #11 David Marjanović
    September 12, 2009

    As soon as a paper of his appears, my thesis supervisor, Michel Laurin, always sends a pdf of it to about 20 people. If one of them then fails to cite him, chances are good it’s deliberate (…as happened recently). And when he’s asked to peer-review a paper, he lists missing citations in his review…

    You can also publish evil criticisms of important papers appearing, claiming outrageous alternative explanations. In fact this forces everybody to include you in the debate. [An] Example is the anthropologist who claims that Homo floresiensis is a microcephalic human, and [the] ornithologist who argues that a video of [an] ivory-billed woodpecker is [a] pileated woodpecker.

    And the vertebrate paleontologist who claims that Tyrannosaurus was a scavenger.

    the poster on your screen… text on top of background images is a pet peeve of mine… :(

    What’s up with it?

  12. #12 MRW
    September 12, 2009

    I just thought I’d chime in and agree that it’s aggravating.

    A paper earlier this year basically repeated something I had already published, only in less detail, and claimed it was the first time it had been done. What made it even more aggravating was that they did cite a paper (that I was also an author on) that referred back to heavily my original paper.

    To add insult to injury, they published a second paper that does present new and interesting results – the annoying thing is that I suggested the exact experiment in the paper they apparently haven’t read.

    My problem is I’m not sure what the appropriate way to deal with this is. I ended up sending them an email with my original paper and another very relevant paper that I feel they should have cited. I did not mention anything about citations. Instead, I said that I liked their research, and I suggested that those two papers might be helpful in moving it forward.

  13. #13 Nick Gardner
    September 12, 2009

    What’s up with it?

    Putting text on top of background images without anything to easily segregate them from each other visually makes it difficult to read the text. It should never be a struggle to read text on a poster. That’s all I’m saying.

  14. #14 unmannedanimal
    September 12, 2009

    i’ve read a few review articles which level scathing criticism at authors who commit the omissions MRW (#12) describes. review articles focused on methodology are particularly suited for “setting the record straight”.

  15. #15 Sven DiMilo
    September 12, 2009

    All kinds of shit happens. When I published my very first paper, condensed from an undergraduate honors thesis, I was mortified to receive in the mail a copy of a well-known (though decades-old) review, from its author, with several pages indicated in RED that I had failed to cite (no cover letter, just the annotated reprint).
    Of course, I had cited it in my thesis, but cut out the citation in the trimming process. I explained and apologized; he dumped all of his reprints on me; all ended well.

  16. #16 John Scanlon, FCD
    September 13, 2009

    There’s another effect that’s possibly as significant as antagonism in leading to neglect of relevant publications. It happens when you read a paper on a subject you’re working on (that itself may fail to cite your own prior work, but that’s not what counts here) and you actually agree with most of what they say (so there’s nothing critical to take issue with in response) but you find it frustrating and annoying that they didn’t go one step further and discuss the point you’re most interested in. When these conditions are met and as long as the data presented in the paper are not actually critical to your own case (you already got that far without it, thanks very much) I’ve noticed it’s easy to simply forget it exists, even though it’s relevant and supportive of your own views. Papers that cite and challenge your own work are far more salient than ones that disappoint (however slightly) without disagreeing.
    So being aware of such psychological foibles, when you see such a case, rather than worrying whether there is malice involved (is it ever possible to accurately identify motive? – does it mean anything?) or blaming oneself for failure to promote ones own ideas and publications, just put it down to a sholarship FAIL. There’s enough FAIL for authors and editors to have some each, and nobody’s immune.
    Then there are cases where malice and dishonesty can be proven beyond reasonable doubt, and conform to a recurrent pattern in an individual. Avoid!! Warn!! (But you could be mistaken…)

  17. #17 Matt Wedel
    September 13, 2009

    Good post…this is one of those things that is very worth blogging about simply because there is so little open discussion of it anywhere else.

    I agree, it is horribly frustrating when you see papers come out which don’t cite your relevant work, especially when you know for certain the authors are aware of your work because you went to the trouble of sending them reprints/PDFs. Fortunately or not, in my experience, the crappier the scientific ethics, the crappier the science, so these people are digging their own graves even as they’re slighting us.

    Not entirely off topic: I assume that the elephant phylogeny shown at the bottom of your post is no longer a going concern now that Mammuthus primigenius has been found to nest among extant elephants. A whole post on elephant and mammoth phylogeny would be most interesting, since you’ve got so much spare time to play with these days. ;-)

  18. #18 djlactin
    September 13, 2009

    I’m wondering about personal bias in assessment of papers’ importance. I say this because we all have personal favorites among our publications. I am astonished that one of my papers, which I regarded as a relative light-weight has been cited more than 6 times as often as the one that I considered my magnum opus. In this case, the difference is due to the papers’ degree of focus: the light-weight has a fairly wide set of applications, whereas the MO is rather more specialized. But in either case, I am happy to see any of my work get noticed.

    As for citing ‘all’ relevant papers; this is usually neither possible nor necessary. In my experience, citing a few papers to support assertions is sufficient. In this, I tended to cite papers by colleagues, or (yes) reviews.

    On another tack: after the magnum opus was accepted, the journal editor sent me several of his own papers that dealt tangentially (in my assessment) with my subject. My reaction was pleasure: the editor is demonstrating interest in my work and helping to broaden my understanding! But after reading this post, I am wondering whether he was hinting that I should have cited his papers.

    I think my point here is that all research fields are composed of numerous partially overlapping subfields that also overlap with numerous other fields. Keeping track of all “related” publications is simply not possible.

  19. #19 David Marjanović
    September 13, 2009

    I assume that the elephant phylogeny shown at the bottom of your post is no longer a going concern now that Mammuthus primigenius has been found to nest among extant elephants.

    Mammuthus is indeed part of Elephantidae. Were you confused by Mammutidae (basalmost in the tree), typified by Mammut americanum, the American mastodon?

    (Didn’t know Mammutidae was that far away from Elephantidae. Increases the pity of it being extinct.)

  20. #20 Dr Marc E H Jones
    September 13, 2009

    I agree that their is a serious lack off conscientious when it comes to literature surveys at the moment. I also agree that its getting worse. The literature search should be a major part of research as it allows your data to be view in its correct context and helps to demonstrate where to go next. There is simply no excuse for not citing key historical papers or rival hypotheses when there are tools such as Google Scholar available.

    A major set of offenders are those that publish molecular data and refer to fossil data by citing text books rather than the original work. Often these text books can be as much as 10 or 15 years out of date and worse still may not even contain information that support the statements that they are cited after.

  21. #21 Dave H
    September 13, 2009

    I’ve had this experience too. About 15 years ago I wrote a paper on the ecological distribution and evolutionary origins of polymorphism in a major group of colonial invertebrates and got it published in one of the top-ranked journals in eveolutionary biology. Imagine my surprise about 5 years later when another author published a general review of the evolution of polymorphism in colonial inverts and didn’t cite my paper at all. I couldn’t believe it. Even if the other author thought everything I’d said was hogwash, I couldn’t see how it could just be ignored.

    There seems to be no accounting for taste in citation frequency. The two papers I’ve published (including the above one) that I consider to be my most original and interesting work seem to have gone completely unnoticed, whereas stuff I consider much more routine and mundane have been cited far more often. I comfort myself with the thought that History will vindicate me, and I’ll one day be regarded as the Gregor Mendel of my era. (Yeah, right!!)

  22. #22 Jorge Velez-Juarbe
    September 13, 2009

    Great topic Darren!! I always thought that the right way of doing research and writing about your results/hypothesis was to get (and cite) as many relevant publications as possible (that’s how I was taught). Apparently some people don’t think that way. This should not be as hard to do now as it was in the age before internet. I have seen a paper I co-authored not been cited or go unnoticed, it kind of sucks (and hurts), specially when it is even available as a free PDF.

  23. #23 Alan Kellogg
    September 13, 2009

    I was cited once. Paid a fifteen dollar fine.

  24. #24 A Nonny Moose
    September 13, 2009

    Great post. Yes indeed, often papers go uncited as an intentional act of malice toward the author of the paper. Even I am guilty of it, as I know I would never cite anything by Tracy L. Ford, due to the fact that he is a dispicable, unpleasent human being who treats me like crap in emails simply because I disagree with him on an issue of dinosaur anatomy. Most of his articles are badly written junk anyway, and fall right into the catagory of “the article in question is, in your opinion, poor and best ignored”.

  25. #25 Daniel Lemire
    September 13, 2009

    The two papers I’ve published (including the above one) that I consider to be my most original and interesting work seem to have gone completely unnoticed, whereas stuff I consider much more routine and mundane have been cited far more often.

    Same experience here. There definitively is no correlation (in my case) between the importance of the work, as perceive it, and the citations. My most important work went totally unnoticed when considering citations alone.

    In some instances, there was a long delay (say 2 years) before work that I found somewhat important go some citations.

    But maybe it is idiotic to think that citations are a measure of worth. I certainly don’t have much faith in that.

  26. #26 Tim Morris
    September 13, 2009

    Ah, this is EXACTLY why I decided to not become a scientist.

    This really isnt that uncommon, I’m not a scientist and I already know how hard all these rivalries are.
    Here in Australia, to anyone interested in science and the media, it’s painfully obvious.

    For example, it’s become very clear that the Ediacaran fauna is not the paradox we initially thought. Ideas of communal algae or “dead ends” dont hold up anymore. The truth is, it’s just the first step in complex life, leading up the the “Cambrian Explosion”. Why doesnt this get more widely acknowledged? Because reams of scientists who have never handled or examined the fossils just plain ignore the new science going on.

  27. #27 Nathan Myers
    September 13, 2009

    At least we can cite ourselves. And one another.

    I have to admit I’ve lost all respect for Paul Sereno since the fiasco. Has there been any positive development since then, that hasn’t been explained in print?

  28. #28 M. O. Erickson
    September 13, 2009

    “I have to admit I’ve lost all respect for Paul Sereno since the fiasco.”

    Being a total ignoranamus here, which fiasco would that be?

  29. #29 William Miller
    September 14, 2009

    I assume the Aerosteon mess is being referred to: check the October 2008 archives of Tet Zoo (post title “Unhappy with Aerosteon”) and SV-POW.

  30. #30 M. O. Erickson
    September 14, 2009

    Oh, yeah, I remember that. Thanks.

  31. #31 Mark Witton
    September 14, 2009

    “adjacent: azhdarchid pterosaurs, by Mark Witton, not at all relevant to anything discussed here, and especially not to the ‘Acts of laziness’ section below”

    So, it won’t be related to a recent paper discussing azhdarchid neck arthrology that ignored a comprehensive, totally open-access, widely publicised and critically acclaimed overview of azhdarchid functional morphology, then. Tell you what, if I were one of the authors of the latter study, I’d be really ticked off, and especially since their paper dominates the first page of Google hits for ‘azhdarchid’ and appears on the second page of a Google Scholar search for the same thing. Maybe the authors were too ambiguous with their title: “A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology”: not clear at all, really.

  32. #32 Scicurious
    September 14, 2009

    I would say that most cases where someone has been under-cited in my field are attributable to reference limits. I know many journals that want a substantial body of work and context of the field, as well as building on what previous studies have found, but they only want 30 references. I think we can all agree that in the online era, this is completely ridiculous, and something that clearly needs to be fixed, especially as citations of your work ARE taken as evidence of how good it is. But when I don’t get cited, I just chalk it up to reference limits.

  33. #33 Nathan Myers
    September 14, 2009

    Ah, but Mark, you are neglecting to consider the ironclad rule that any paper which has been widely covered in the popular media need not — indeed, must not — be cited, because doing so might encourage its authors, and others, to seek publicity and attention for their future work.

  34. #34 Martin R
    September 14, 2009

    I have a hard-working colleague who produces a lot of solid grey literature. He’s never done me any harm and I’ve never met him. Yet still the mere sight of his name in print raises my hackles. The thing is, I look for references to my own work. And if I don’t find any in the reference lists of new journal papers and monographs, I can still be pretty damn sure to find this guy’s name in place of mine — because his surname begins with the same three letters as mine!

  35. #35 Monador
    September 14, 2009

    I would definitely drop people a note before or after they publish, whenever I became aware of them, to say that they might find something useful in my paper (attached or linked). People are busy… they simply might not have found your paper or thought of you at the right moment. Also, do post occasionally in whatever discussion lists are most active and respected. Aim for once or twice a week with something cogent, not just “Me, too!” although deserved congratulations are always in order.

    Find your local science writers’ or science editors’ or technical writers’ association and offer them a talk on the finer points of communicating in your field. They will talk you up to other scientists that they run across in any related work or ask you about new discovers. In fact, team up with someone to help them write about the finer points of tetrapods in popular science articles, crediting you and your work of course. Scientific American didn’t advertise military jets because they thought the average reader would buy one; they were raising the awareness of their expertise with the reading, science-oriented public.

    Average payback time on these activities may be around 18 months; but the positive ripples can benefit you for years. So keep doing them or similar activities.

  36. #36 Zach Miller
    September 14, 2009

    You know, science would be a lot better if it weren’t run by humans. People can’t get over shit, and it bleeds into their work, which is supposed to be unbiased. We need more vulcans, ultimately.

  37. #37 David Marjanović
    September 14, 2009

    Systematic Biology, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and Contributions to Zoology don’t impose reference limits (pers. obs.). Evolutionary Biology does for “Brief Commentaries”, which is not surprising; I don’t know about other papers.

    APP and Cont. Zool. are free online… <nudge> <nudge>

  38. #38 Sven DiMilo
    September 14, 2009

    Copeia limits references per citation string to 3. This can be hard!

  39. #39 llewelly
    September 14, 2009

    Off topic, but does anyone here have any remarks about this “snake with foot”?
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/6187320/Snake-with-foot-found-in-China.html

  40. #40 Zach Miller
    September 14, 2009

    Holy SHIT!

  41. #41 M. O. Erickson
    September 15, 2009

    Eat it creationists, EAT IT!

  42. #42 John Scanlon FCD
    September 15, 2009

    Move along, nothing to see here. Or rather, a snake that had an unfortunate accident while eating what appears to be a toad (certainly an anuran of some kind). If we ever get the results of the ‘autopsy’, the limb will be shown to belong to the large prey item inside, not to the snake outside. Topological relations are not necessarily constant at important life events!

  43. #43 Tim Morris
    September 15, 2009

    On that snake, that’s begging for a caption.

    “Atavism, I has it.”

  44. #44 Tim Morris
    September 15, 2009

    John Scanlon:

    I’m sorry, but no. The “limb” clearly has the same patterning as the rest of the snake, unless that bulge is the body wall bunching up. Also, I doubt that an anuran could thrash it’s way out of a snake’s stomach.

  45. #45 John Scanlon FCD
    September 15, 2009

    ‘clearly has the same patterning’ – no, not really, though the actual transition from snake to frog skin is lost in the pixels.
    ‘that bulge’ has the scale-level pattern of the snake on part but not all of it; the bulge is where the frog’s body protrudes between the snake’s ribs (having torn through the intercostal musculature), and only some of it is visible through the tear in the snake’s skin (which appears to be horizontal, between the second and third scale row above the ventrals).

    That’s the left forelimb of the frog, which lies belly-up inside the snake; you can see the bulge of its eye to the lower right (yes! really!), and bends in the snake’s body at the frog’s hip and knee joints.

    It is a very large prey item relative to the snake, and many frogs that indulge in male-male combat have sharp (sometimes lethal) spurs on the hand, and nearly all male frogs in breeding condition have some kind of cornified structure there to help in amplexus. However, there is no reason to assume the frog ruptured the snake’s body wall all by itself, though these things certainly do happen (google image search for “Python Alligator Everglades” or something like that).
    The part of the news story that can be readily believed is “she grabbed a shoe and beat the snake to death”. POP!!

  46. #46 David Marjanović
    September 15, 2009

    However, there is no reason to assume the frog ruptured the snake’s body wall all by itself, though these things certainly do happen (google image search for “Python Alligator Everglades” or something like that).

    No, that Burmese python probably collided with a speedboat that ripped it open. These sorts of snakes do kill their prey before eating it.

  47. #47 MRW
    September 15, 2009

    @ Nathan Myers

    Ah, but Mark, you are neglecting to consider the ironclad rule that any paper which has been widely covered in the popular media need not — indeed, must not — be cited

    A paper (I think it was the NY Times) did a pretty convincing analysis showing that papers they covered got more citations. They made a strong case for causality based on comparison to a period when they continued to select papers to write about but did not actually publish the articles.

  48. #48 M. O. Erickson
    September 15, 2009

    “No, that Burmese python probably collided with a speedboat that ripped it open.”

    I heard it was done in by another, bigger alligator. But either way, it certainly didn’t “explode” from its huge meal like the media has claimed.

    And about that “snake with foot”, how could it be the protruding foot of anuran meal when the foot has talons (or it does according to the news story, we can’t actually tell from the photo) and the snake was climbing the wall of the woman’s house with it?

  49. #49 Matt Wedel
    September 15, 2009

    Mammuthus is indeed part of Elephantidae. Were you confused by Mammutidae (basalmost in the tree), typified by Mammut americanum, the American mastodon?

    Dammit. Yes, you are correct. I will diminish, and go into the West.

  50. #50 Tim Morris
    September 15, 2009

    Darren, who’s hand is that? Seeing as that’s your office, it could be almost anyone, Mark Witton maybe?

  51. #51 John Scanlon, FCD
    September 16, 2009

    Sorry to hijack the thread, but you know, SIWOTI.

    In one case it’s me: David M’s probably right about the speedboat, because hey, it’s Amerika. The pythons I know would never start swallowing something that was still breathing, and with crocodilians’ limited lactate tolerance it probably wouldn’t have even one big ‘thrash’ left in it by the time it was swallowed. But frogs are very often swallowed alive by colubroid snakes, so I think it’s plausible a large breeding male could do this to the small colubroid snake (I don’t know the species, it looks a bit like Oligodon but might be something else).

    The ‘talons’ are just the four strong fingers of a ground frog or toad hand, like you can see here. According to the story the woman who killed the snake saw it as she woke up, probably without much ambient light, and I imagine it was pretty clumsy and noisy, but I do not think we should take her word for it that the snake was actually using the hand to climb. As I suggested above, most likely the limb did not protrude until she split the snake open.

    Hey, I took a close look because nobody would like to see an atavistic snake foot more than I would. So far we only have ‘femur+claw’ in extant pythons and boas, and several Cretaceous fossils with femur, tib+fib, tarsals and few or no (preserved) phalanges. An atavistic hindlimb would probably be located in the pelvic (cloacal) region, not the middle of the body. I’d like to be proved wrong, but I don’t see it happening in this case.

  52. #52 David Marjanović
    September 16, 2009

    crocodilians’ limited lactate tolerance

    I’ve read they can tolerate insanely high lactate levels in the blood, but still sometimes exceed those limits.

  53. #53 llewelly
    September 16, 2009

    Thank you, everyone, for your answers.

  54. #54 Dartian
    September 17, 2009

    I agree with John Scanlon; that snake definitely looks like it’s just swallowed a large prey item, and the limb looks like it belongs to a frog or a toad. ‘Prey rupture’ seems to be the most parsimonious explanation (assuming, of course, that the image is genuine).

    Perhaps the specific identity of both the snake and the anuran could be pinned down? The Telegraph says that this incident took place in ‘Suining, southwest China’. That would be in Sichuan province, to be more precise. Are there any Tet Zoo readers who are familiar with the herp fauna of Sichuan? John suggested that the snake could be a one of the kukri snakes Oligodon sp. – does anyone know which one? As for the anuran, casual googling suggests that various ‘brown frog’ species*, e.g., Rana chensinensis, are common in that general area. These frogs can be quite variable in colouration.

    * I.e., Rana sensu stricto.

  55. #55 Darren Naish
    September 17, 2009

    Wow, talk about thread drift.

    Tim Morris (comment 50) asks…

    Darren, who’s hand is that? Seeing as that’s your office, it could be almost anyone, Mark Witton maybe?

    Yup, Mark ‘zero state’ Witton.

  56. #56 John Scanlon, FCD
    September 17, 2009

    Darren, are you saying that’s Mark Witton’s hand protruding from the snake’s stomach?

    Oh sorry, wrong sub-thread. :)

  57. #57 Horwood Beer-Master
    September 24, 2009

    Darren, by clicking on the ‘category’ at the top of this post it appears that this is only your fourth “hate-filled rant” on this site.
    Surely this must be some kind of record for scienceblogs?

  58. #58 Andrew B
    November 20, 2009

    What about a “But Real Research Is So Boring” category? That has been our justification for not citing any references over the last three years.

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