T-Rex lips and dating tips

Also, should we call time on daylight savings, and why has the UK government moved to ban nitrous oxide
31 March 2023
Presented by Chris Smith


T-Rex Running


Coming up this week, why we might need to re-draw dinosaur faces: it turns out T Rex had lips - how did we miss that? Also, as the government moves to make laughing gas illegal we look at how it works and why they’re doing this, and is it time to call time on changing the clocks?

In this episode

T-Rex Running

00:54 - T-Rex had lips

New research into dinosaur teeth has concluded that they might have had lips to protect them

T-Rex had lips
Thomas Cullen, Auburn University

Dinosaurs exist in movies, books, museums and computer games. And we’ve interpreted what we think they looked and sounded like based on their fossilised remains, which inevitably means that a lot of guesswork has been involved. And if you picture a stereotypical T Rex, you probably end up imaging a fearsome-looking array of exposed teeth projecting from both jaws. But we might have missed a crucial detail about the faces of these animals: they probably had lips that would have hidden those teeth! When teeth are covered by lips they stay wet, and this protects the enamel. And by looking at fossilised teeth from T Rex type dinosaurs, Auburn University’s Thomas Cullen has found that they don’t have the characteristic external wear you see in animals with exposed teeth, like alligators. So it looks like it’s time to redraw the text book depiction of T Rex - with lips!

Thomas - We're all really interested in the way that people publicly perceive dinosaurs and when people are building up reconstructions, what these animals look like, they will often need to make sort of guesses or estimations about things we don't have direct fossil evidence of. And in this case, lips or soft tissues around the mouth that could cover the teeth or their absence was the area of interest here. And in the past people have reconstructed a lot of dinosaurs to look sort of like crocodiles with no lips. And we were curious if there was any actual evidence to support that and so we decided to try and investigate it.

Chris - Yes indeed. Because when one watches, for example, and this is by no means a scientific <laugh> authority, Jurassic Park, your T-Rex type animal has a mouth full of teeth, all more of them outside than inside. Is that what you're getting at? The lips seem to have been forgotten in the mix.

Thomas - Yes, exactly. And Jurassic Park is itself kind of funny because at the time it came out they tried to do their best to make things very accurate and that was sort of the way people portrayed T-Rex at that time. But it's funny in that they made the T-Rex have no lips in that film, but all the other dinosaurs do, including things like the Velociraptors.

Chris - Yeah, I was thinking of precisely that. So why did this come about? Was this just because people wanted to create a fearsome image for dinosaurs and that fitted the bill or did they really have reason to suspect that because crocodiles have their teeth on show, that's probably what T-Rex did.

Thomas - I do think that making them sort of look superficially more fearsome must have played some kind of a role, even if it was unconscious. But on the scientific side, that question has been batted around a little bit over the years. And at the time they were making the film, yes, there had been some sort of brief discussion that, well, the closest living relative dinosaurs that actually have teeth are crocodilians. So that may be the most likely thing. And it wasn't interrogated much more than that. There was also the sort of related issue that some people had suggested things like T-Rex in particular, which had very, very large teeth, that the teeth simply might be too large to be covered by lips.

Chris - Why, when it comes to teeth, do lips matter?

Thomas - Well one of the things that lips do is not only does it protect the teeth from things banging into them, or help constrain their movement during feeding and whatnot, but it also keeps the teeth and the tooth enamel specifically, it keeps them protected and healthy because when they're hydrated they break down less quickly, the enamel. And so if it's exposed to air all the time, it becomes more brittle and it's more easy to crack and break.

Chris - And that's what you see in Crocodilians is it, if you look at your average big croc, their teeth are falling apart because they're exposed all the time?

Thomas - Yes and no. They definitely do break at a higher rate. But crocodilians are also interesting in that as an aquatic animal, as an animal that's specialized for living especially in the water while they're on land, their teeth will be exposed to air. But of course when they're in the water, they don't really have to worry about that quite as much.

Chris - So they get hydrated via a different mechanism. How did you try and probe what was going on with these ancient dinosaurs then? Because the difference is of course we can look at a crocodile today and get some insights, but we can't look at T-rex in the flesh.

Thomas - Right, exactly. And so we needed to use a mixture of sort of slightly more direct and then other indirect sources of evidence to try and get at testing those. One of those was a comparison, like I said, between looking at the teeth of crocodilians, in this case alligator, where we looked at how the enamel wears down on their teeth on the outside that faces the air outside of the mouth and the inside facing the inside of the mouth where they're actually still getting hydrated from their breath. And we saw that the enamel wears down very, very differently. On the outside it's way more worn down than the inside. And we did the same thing with the tyrannosaur and we saw that very unlike the alligator, the enamel is equal thickness on the inside and the outside. And that's much more consistent with what you would see in like a lizard or another animal that has lips covering its teeth when its mouth is closed.

Chris - So you actually went and got some fossil teeth remains of this dinosaur that had that detail preserved?

Thomas - That's right. Our primary samples was actually teeth that are called functional teeth, which means teeth that were found in the jaw of a specimen and were of sort of the right stage of development to have been actively being used by the animal at the time that it died, before it was fossilized. Another part that we looked at to get at that earlier sort of question of whether these teeth were simply too large to be fully covered by lips, we looked at some living animals today that also have very large teeth, and these are the monitor lizards. And so some of these actually have teeth that are proportional to the size of their skulls. They're larger than the teeth of something like a T-Rex, proportional to the size of its skull. And we looked at the way the teeth scale with skull size and all of these lizards, which we know for sure have lips. And then we saw that theropods, the sort of bipedal, often predatory dinosaurs like T-Rex, have a similar relationship between tooth and skull size as these lizards did, which also sort of provide some evidence that it was at least possible for them to have lips.

Chris - So your hypothesis then is that animals like T-Rex and its relatives would've had their teeth covered. So we're going to have to redraw these dinosaurs, presumably they're going to sort of break the mold, aren't they? People are going to have a job imagining them or at least recognizing them to start with?

Thomas - Yeah, I mean I think this evidence will certainly push things in that direction. There's been a number of different artistic reconstructions of things like T-Rex actually with lips in recent years. So I think it was sort of going that way a little bit already. But I think the evidence will certainly help push it more in that direction.


07:10 - Nitrous oxide ownership to be illegal in UK

The new law being passed aims to make possession of nitrous oxide illegal

Nitrous oxide ownership to be illegal in UK
David Nutt, Imperial College London

A new law has been proposed by the government this week to criminalise the possession of the painkilling anaesthetic nitrous oxide - or laughing gas. The agent is used safely worldwide, including in delivery units, but in recent years it’s become increasingly popular among young people who use it recreationally, inhaling it from balloons and small metal canisters called “whippets”. A recent study suggests that up to 10% of teenagers have used it. This new legislation is part of the government’s plans to clamp down on anti-social behaviour, with Home Secretary Suella Braverman calling for an end to ‘hordes of youths loitering in and littering parks with empty canisters.’ Critics of the ban say pressing criminal charges against users of nitrous oxide would be disproportionate, won’t stop people using it, and would fly in the face of effective ways of reducing harm from drugs. James Tytko spoke with David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and a former UK government “drug tsar”...

David - Nitrous oxide is one of the great British inventions popularized by Humphrey Davy, the president of the Royal Society. He thought it was an amazing tool for exploring the brain. In fact, he went from being a chemist to being a philosopher overnight after having experienced nitrous oxide. He decided to set up a whole new branch of science called chemical philosophy. And then it was renamed laughing gas because it disinhibited people. And actually the most beautiful description of nitrous oxide came from the poet Southey who took it. And he said, wow. Well, he may not have said wow, but he said, this is the atmosphere of heaven.

James - That was gonna be my next question. I suppose that's a poetic description of its effects. But if we were to put our scientific hats on a bit more, how would you describe what laughing gas or nitrous oxide actually does to the consumer?

David - Well, it produces a very rapid and very transient alteration and consciousness with a lifting of tension, a lifting of inhibitions. The reason it's called laughing gas is because people laugh because they suddenly discover they can be free from all the burdens that their mind has been churning through over the previous hours, days, decades. We don't know exactly how it works in the brain. It produces very profound changes in blood flow. My own belief is that it changes blood flow, particularly in the default mode network, particularly in the posterior cingulate cortex, which is the area of the brain which coordinates all your appropriate perception, your senses, your vision, your taste, your hearing, et cetera. And that's where your sense of self is encoded. But it is very short lasting and within a minute of inhaling a balloon, you're back to normal. I mean, I think we should also point out that between nitrous oxide being used to explore consciousness, it also turned out to be a rather useful anesthetic. It's widely used around the world. Most women have experienced nitrous oxide cuz it's used to help them deal with the pain of childbirth. And I've certainly had it when I broke my wrist to help the bones be reset. So it's a really useful anesthetic because it's so short acting. And that's why we know it's safe. I mean it wouldn't have been in medicine for nearly 200 years if it wasn't safe.

James - So in what circumstances can laughing gas actually be harmful?

David - Well, the biggest danger I always say using gas from a balloon is you inhale the balloon and choke. In terms of death, it's extraordinarily rare. I mean maybe one death in the last 20 years from nitrous oxide, which you compare with hundreds of thousands of deaths through alcohol. So it's way, way, way less harmful. But it does have harms. The harms are dose related. And actually the current policy on controlling nitrous oxide actually enhanced the harm because originally nitrous oxide was taken from little canisters called whippets. The instigation of this law. And in fact an attempt to stop people using whippets was brought in when nitrous oxide was controlled under the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act. And what happened was that people switched from the whippets, which clink around in your pockets, so that the police know you had them, to canisters, which are much easier to hide. They don't make a noise, it's just one of them. And the problem is canisters contain so much more nitrous oxide than whippets. So we've actually increased the amount of nitrous oxide that people are taking. And that is leading to this increased frequency of people getting nerve paralysis. We know it's due to a deficiency of vitamin b12, we know it's transient, but it is obviously very disturbing when it happens. But we didn't have it in the old days when people were using just one or two balloons.

James - Yeah, it's interesting to think when you were giving us that brief history before, there was once this mind expanding substance useful in philosophical and academic pursuits and now it's known as a drug of choice for antisocial use that the banning of which might be a vote winner. Is that your take?

David - Absolutely. This is just politically driven. This is just part of the hate model of this current government. Find people that you can get the voters to hate and then they'll hate them and vote for you. It's just a little, a kind of minor low, level repetition of the Nixon war on drugs which got him elected.

James - They'll probably push back on that and say there are people who are actually quite sick and tired of their neighborhoods littered with these canisters.

David - So what happens if the policeman comes along and sees someone in a park and there are whippets on the floor? They say, are those your whippets? And the person will say 'of course not.' And they cannot test if the gas has been used because it disappears in a minute. So I can't see how they could prosecute anyone for use. If they found a whippet in your pocket, yes they could prosecute you, but what an utter waste of police time and money. And let's be clear about this. Most antisocial behavior is driven by alcohol. Most waste in parks is bottles and cans. People are focusing on nitrous oxide simply because they don't understand it.



13:38 - Time to call time on daylight saving?

Are the original benefits of DST still relevant to us today?

Time to call time on daylight saving?

£344. That's the cost in financial terms to your happiness of the clocks changing this week. That's according to a study from researchers at the London School of Economics, who've been looking at the lifestyle impacts of putting the clocks for and back each spring and autumn. But why do we do this at all?

Chris - We can actually blame our friends in Canada. Two towns there began to shift their clocks in 1908 to increase available light during the working day for residents. Hence daylight saving. Other countries saw what they were doing, liked the idea, and the practice then caught on worldwide. Subsequently becoming very much de rigueur in France and other European countries, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. In the UK it was conceived as a way to save coal during World War I. Not everyone leapt aboard though, and most Asian, African and Latin American countries don't alter their clocks twice a year. Moreover, an increasing number of countries are now stepping back from the practice. Russia abandoned daylight saving in 2014. Mexico ditched the idea in 2022 and the EU voted to end it in 2019, although they haven't moved on the motion yet. Maybe because they haven't had time. Surprisingly even clock change stallwarts America dabbled in dumping DST back in the 1970s, but reports of morning road accidents involving children unfortunately put paid to the idea and they rapidly reverted to the status quo, even when it's subsequently emerged that there'd been a compensatory drop in accidents in the afternoon. It's now back on the cards there though with some US states already sticking to a single time zone, another adjacent states talking about linking up into a single time zone that they'll use all year round. So what's prompting people worldwide to rethink and even reverse the 1908 logic of seasonal clock changes now? It's because a growing body of evidence is accumulating that these timing shifts are playing havoc with our health. In the week after clocks advance in spring, heart attack rates go up by nearly a quarter, and a study from Finland showed that strokes also surge over the same period while another recent report showed a 6% increase in road accidents. At the same time, a study in Europe and Australia, that asked school children to wear activity monitors, found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the children were much more physically active when the evenings were lighter. Time has a profound effect on our bodies. Morning sunshine sets our body clock by sending signals into the brain from specialized detectors in our eyes. The brain master clock then uses hormonal and other signals to entrain every cell in the body to the same time. So we are effectively operating our own internal time zone. And this means that the metabolism and the activity of every one of our 37 trillion cells is singing in time from the same biochemical song sheet. Our energy supplies gear up before we wake up in readiness for the day ahead. Under the control of these internal clock processes, signals that enliven the brain and throw our thoughts into gear are already beginning to surge, ready for when the alarm goes off. And before the boiled egg is even on the table, our intestines are getting ready to digest our breakfast and send the calories we consume into the bloodstream to power our essential organs. But this well oiled machine goes out of sync if we play with our timekeeping, even by a small amount. Changing time zones, which is what daylight saving effectively does, makes the biochemical song miss a beat. It's a bit like preparing a meal a bit too early or a bit too late for a dinner party. Either the food goes to pot or the guests are in a foul mood. Or both. And what scientists increasingly agree on is that it's not so much the time we keep as the change in time that causes the mischief causing a jolt to the system, which in some susceptible people makes other health problems much more likely to manifest. So it probably is high time that we did call time on these sorts of time changes. Watch this space. The clock is certainly ticking.

The hands of an elderly couple.

What's the secret to finding your soulmate?
Viren Swami, Anglia Ruskin University

We know it takes chemistry for a relationship to flourish (literally - a healthy dose of oxytocin is essential) but how important is locality when it comes to settling down with that special someone? Viren Swami is a Professor of social psychology at ARU giving a talk as part of the Cambridge festival this week: ‘The Geography of Romance: How space determines whom you fall in love with.’

Viren - That's a huge question in its own right. So if you were a neuroscientist, you might say that love is basically oxytocin. Probably dopamine and serotonin. If you're a cognitive psychologist, you might talk about love being a compendium of intimacy and commitment, and sometimes even passion. But if you're a social psychologist like myself, it's probably better to think of love as something that we do rather than something that we feel. So it's how we treat other people. It's the kindness, the care, the knowledge and respect that we show for other people.

Chris - Do we have it because it is the glue that binds society together. Is that why we have evolved to love? And are we alone? Do other animals love or is it uniquely human?

Viren - Well, this is an important debate within psychology about whether love is unique to humans, and most psychologists will say that we experience love in ways that are different to how other animals experience it. So the experience of love in human beings is much more intimate. It's much more based on feelings of commitment and intimacy which don't really occur in other animals.

Chris - Even those animals that appear to mate for life swans, for example, rooks apparently have pair bonding that lasts a lifetime?

Viren - Absolutely. So they would certainly have pair bonding, but it's not necessarily the same thing as love. And love I think is, for example, an artist or a philosopher might say it's something even beyond the realm of science, scientific understanding. So really what we're talking about here is a human feeling that goes beyond what most other animals would experience.

Chris - And what factors to your mind are the most crucial when we are falling in love. What really determines the person we go for?

Viren - So this is a really interesting question. When you think about what is your ideal partner, most people would think of things like kindness, physical appearance, whether they have a good sense of humour - and they are really important - things like similarity of values, similarity of personality types. And there's also something called reciprocity, which is basically when we exchange intimacy with each other, we exchange things like information and how intimate we are with each other. But the thing that most psychologists and most people don't really think about is geography. And it turns out that geography and more precisely how close we are in space to one another is a really important predictor of attraction.

Chris - So not just your mother-in-law saying you're not going out with him or her because they come from the wrong side of the tracks. It's more how likely the relationship is to flourish because you get to physically see each other?

Viren - Well, that's one thing. So a psychologist would say, for example, that the more likely you are in close proximity, the more likely you are to form what we call a social unit. And we like people who are in our social units and we dislike people who are outside our social units. Also, people who we see more frequently tend to be more familiar and our brains process familiar things more positively in a language that is known as cognitive fluency. So when something's perceived as more familiar, because we see that thing more frequently, we come to perceive it as likable and nice.

Chris - So is it, with repeated exposure, you learn to fall in love with someone? I'm just minded of when Covid happened. I'm sorry to bring that horrible memory back, but I remember our Deputy Chief Medical Officer, as she was at the time, Jenny Harries being asked by somebody when they had to go into a lockdown. They're saying, what if I don't live with my partner? And she said, well, now's the time to test the strength of your relationship. You either move in and test the strength that way, or you move out and test the strength that way. Either way you're going to test the strength of your relationship.

Viren - That was probably very bad advice. But anyway, leaving the pandemic behind, there is something called mere exposure. And mere exposure is simply this idea that the more times you see a novel stimulus, the more you come to like it. It was discovered by an American-Polish psychologist, Robert Zajonc in the 1960s. There's a lot of evidence to support mere exposure, but one of the weird things about mere exposure is that if the first time you see something, you come to dislike it, mere exposure isn't going to overturn that, you'll end up disliking it anyway.

Chris - What about the reverse though, Viren? Is there love at first sight? Because if you really think, well, I really like that person, does that stick or do you then quite rapidly reevaluate your relationship with that person if you change your mind?

Viren - So this goes back to this idea of what is love. I mean, if you agree with me that love is something that we do and something that we show to other people, then I would problematise this idea that love at first sight is even possible. We can be infatuated at first sight, but to love someone requires knowledge of that person and respect and care for that person, which is very difficult to show and to engender at a first sight.

Chris - We are told that there's someone special for all of us out there, aren't we? Is that true, are there any things we can do - if we haven't found the special person or the one, or we're wondering if the one we've got is the one - that we can do to optimise our chances and maximise our positive decision making?

Viren - So I don't really like this idea that there is the one out there waiting for you because that makes it really difficult to find that one person. I think there are lots of people out there who we might be compatible with and who we could form meaningful and happy and positive relationships with. Now, if you want some advice, the general advice from a psychologist is to be nice and to be kind and to do nice things and treat other people with kindness. But in terms of geography specifically, one of the nice things we know is that people who are single are often moving closer and closer together across their lifetimes before that first time that they meet. So, in theory, if you are single right now and you're looking for a relationship, the person that you will end up in a relationship with is probably moving closer and closer in space, up to the point at which you meet.

Ice breaking off a large ice shelf.

23:57 - Studying 150 year old arctic algae samples

All thanks to the endeavour of brave Victorian scientists...

Studying 150 year old arctic algae samples
Anne Jungblut, Natural History Museum

An insight into how the waters around the Arctic have changed over the last century and a half has been hiding on a shelf in London’s Natural History Museum. Samples of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, were taken by naturalists on an expedition aboard the HMS Challenger 150 years ago, brought back to London and stored. Now scientists are reading the genetic makeup of these samples and comparing them with their modern-day counterparts to see how they have changed. Telling Will Tingle what they’ve found so far, the Natural History Museum’s Anne Jungblut…

Anne - The samples were collected as part of the British Arctic expedition. That was in the late 19th century. So it was the expedition led by Captain George Nares and they were the first recorded Europeans that reached the Norse end of Ellesmere Island. So they were trying to find the North Pole. However, then it became winter and they had to stay in winter at one of the shores along Ellesmere Island. And I think the conditions were pretty bleak. It was pretty cold. They probably didn't have the right clothing and food and they had scurvy. But them being keen Victorians and natural historians, they spent their time doing a lot of historical collections. And as part of this, they also documented the microscopic life they found. And as part of this, they collected samples of cyanobacteria that were brought back to the Natural History Museum and have been stored at the Natural History Museum since the 19th century.

Will - Did the samples manage to stay sufficiently preserved over this period of time?

Anne - So that was one of the first big questions we had for our research project. So we have these specimens, which really look like dried slime, kind of like slime maybe if there is a puddle somewhere and there are green things growing and then it dries. And then you have this soft dried slime. And so one of our first questions was, can we get DNA out of these samples because, now they're dried, it's really hard to see anything if we used a microscope. And so we were really lucky we got DNA out of the samples and sufficient DNA to get the genome of the samples.

Will - And when you compared the genome of those samples against samples from nowadays, what differences are you looking for that implies that there's been a change in the conditions in the Arctic?

Anne - Microorganisms. We can't see flowers and fish. And so we need to use the DNA as our visual lens to see what they might have looked like and what they could have done. The species that we found in our collections are still present in modern samples and we also found that some of these species seem to more commonly occur in the polar regions rather than in other climatic zones. So that means if it gets warmer in the Arctic or we lose the ice shelves, we might lose these species. And in the genomes we found that they were able to contribute to fixing nutrients, we found that the Arctic samples and also the ones we had in our collections had lots of compounds that are of potential interest for developing new medical drugs. And so going forward we really want to unlock the information that is in these cyanobacteria collections.

Anne - We also want to find out if there are other organisms in the old samples that might be diseases or a threat to these ice shelf communities. So potentially, if it's getting warmer, there might be more diseases coming to the Arctic. We also want to find out if there are any invasive species. So having looked at the old samples and the new samples and seeing if we find any potentially invasive species that might have been brought there through human activity like Europeans travelling there, or just the transport through on wings of birds who might have transported organisms from other climatic zones.

Will - So yet more good reasons to try and stop the Arctic from melting then?

Anne - Yeah, exactly. So the era we are working in, it's called the Last Ice Area. So there have been international researchers, local communities, NGOs have got together and they've calculated what areas of the arctic ice are going to melt last, so what is the ice that's going to be there the longest? And they've found out that actually these ice shelf systems are part of the area that's going to be there the longest. And now there is increased international effort to really document what's living there and find out what is there and if we can protect it or see how the life living there is is related to other parts of the globe.


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