Featured Blog: Tetrapod Zoology

I thought I knew what a tetrapod was: a creature with four feet, right? So why was Darren Naish blogging about snakes and boobies? Read on, and all will be revealed …

Darren Naish is a palaeontologist specializing in dinosaurs and other fossil reptiles. He currently works as a freelance author and consultant, writes books on dinosaurs and other fossil animals, and is affiliated with the University of Portsmouth, England. Darren is an avid watcher of living animals including local wildlife, as he’s active in local conservation and is on the committee of his local natural history society. Darren started blogging while in the last year of his PhD studies – pretty much the worse time to do it – and rapidly become a big fan of blogging and of the blogosphere. Darren also blogs at SV-POW! (Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week).

Darren, tell us about the name of your blog.

I’m interested in all animals, and indeed in all of nature, but I’m only interested in the academic sense in tetrapods: the vertebrate animals that possess four limbs with distinct digits (or descend from ancestors that had these features). {editor’s note: aha!} I’d already decided a long time ago that if I was to start a website, it would be called Tetrapod Zoology.

Why do you blog and why did you start at such an inopportune time?

I started blogging for no reason whatsoever other than that it looked fun. I’d been planning for years to produce a website that covered all of my interests, but I lacked the know-how to do this. Blogging provided an answer, and I realized immediately that here was the opportunity to produce articles that were not all that different from the sorts of articles I’d been writing and publishing. I also realized that I could use blogging to talk about my own research and adventures in the field.

What do you like best about blogging?

I suppose my favorite point is that you can generate a complete article – filled with illustrations, references and even some very heavy, technical data – within a short time, and then see it published online without any of the months or even years of ‘in press’ time required for conventional published material. This all appeals to me in particular because I see my blogging experience as an extension of my total output in the world of technical zoology.

What’s unique about your blog?

That’s difficult to answer, for – as time goes by – Tet Zoo is becoming less and less ‘unique’. We’re eventually going to be at the stage where it’s just one of many, very similar blogs. I’m always paranoid about sounding arrogant, but Tet Zoo was one of the first, if not the first, of these ‘uber-nerd’ zoology blogs. While Tet Zoo does include a fair amount of personal content (that is, I talk a bit about my own personal experiences and observations), it mostly consists of lengthy, semi-academic articles. This is not for everyone, and I fully expect a lot of blog readers to avoid it like the plague, but my readership demonstrates that there is substantial interest in this sort of thing.

Yours is among the most read blogs on NBN. To what do you attribute your popularity?

I put Tet Zoo’s popularity down to several things. Firstly, it is not concerned with what people are increasingly calling ‘fluff’ – the boring dross that can you find anywhere on the internet. It is devoted to hardcore zoology. Secondly, it is not superficial or light on the details. All too often, detailed information on animals is restricted to the technical literature: it’s ‘secret information’, available only to those few who own this material. Tet Zoo often aims to bring this information to all: it’s the only publicly-accessible source of detailed information on such things as borhyaenoids, rhynchosaurs, extinct giant eagles, the frog family tree, caecilians and so on. Thirdly, while I’m a paleontologist, I don’t only ‘do’ paleontology. I also regularly cover stuff that, I hope, is of interest to people with a passion for herpetology, mammalogy, ornithology, cryptozoology, speculative zoology, or conservation. So, it isn’t just ‘dinosaur people’ that check Tet Zoo on a regular basis; on the contrary, I have a diverse readership.

How do you promote your blog and attract readers? Do you use other social networking tools such as StumbleUpon and Twitter?

Silly old me, I have never used any of these things. I did try and register with one of them (can’t remember which), but I’m such a dumbass I couldn’t figure it out and gave up. I suppose I’ve simply sat back and relied on the hope that people might simply bump into my stuff during research. Of course, being on ScienceBlogs helps – they do a ton of hard work for you :)

Any comments on being part of the nature blogger community?

On the positive side, I love what you guys are going and think this is an excellent resource: I’ve been introduced to loads of blogs that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. On the negative side, seeing a rank attached to your blog makes you more competitive, and I kind of dislike the fact that I now find myself worrying about my position in the top 10. Inevitably, people are going to feel it’s ‘unfair’ or ‘annoying’ when other blogs are doing better than they are in terms of readership. I try and live with the pain of ranking 5th or so.

Has blogging changed how you think or write about nature?

When I read something that I find very cool, or when I see something that I find interesting or amazing, I find myself thinking about blogging it. Still, this is normal for bloggers. Blogging hasn’t changed ‘how’ I write: it has just meant that I write a lot more! In fact I generate a phenomenal amount of content thanks to my addiction to blogging – mostly this does fit in with the rest of my life, but it does mean that I’m on the computer more than I would be otherwise, and that’s not a good thing.

Any words of wisdom for new nature bloggers?

I have a few bits of advice, but I have no idea how useful they might be. If you find something interesting, no matter how bizarre or weird it is, other people will be interested in it too. Are you obsessed with slime-moulds, lichens, the shapes of streams, dead leaves? If yes, and if you can share your thoughts and experiences via blogging (and share them well via good writing and good images), then do it. Other people will be interested.

Blogging is a visual experience. The best blogs not only read well, but also look good. Use pictures, and use lots of them. No huge, boring blocks of text. Generate your own images, and note that there are HUGE subject areas where there is no, or virtually no, available imagery on the internet. You can see it as your job to bring an otherwise neglected or ignored subject to wide attention.

Write in a friendly, personable style, but do not hesitate to talk technical if you can explain it to your readers. And blogging is fun, so only do what you want to do.

Above all, don’t be boring!

Anything else you’d like me to ask you, or that you’d like to volunteer without being asked?

I think that’s about it.

Thank you, Darren.

A few of his favorite posts from Tetrapod Zoology:

6 Comments

  1. May 5, 2009 at 7:50 AM | Permalink

    Good profile! I’ve been reading, or at least skimming, Darren’s blog since he started it. Most of the academic side is too technical for me, but I like to see what he’s up to.

    One of his favourite posts is mine, too: “How to rot down dead bodies.” He says there, “In fact I’m of the opinion that if you’re interested in animals and are not interested in dead bodies, there’s something wrong with you.” Works for me.

  2. May 5, 2009 at 12:52 PM | Permalink

    I used to have the (volunteer) responsibility of picking up road kill. I had a state and a federal permit so there were no limits as to what I could legally collect. I kept a kit in the car (gloves, plastic bags, notebook, even a mammal guide just in case).

    Although I have personally processed many dozens of verts (mainly mammals in Africa) when I was doing the road kill work here I did not process the remains …. there is quite a system set up here at UMN for that.

    That was a long time ago in a faraway place (sort of) and many aspects of my life have changed since then. Almost no regrets over the changes. But that is one regret … I wish I could still be a ghoul….

  3. May 5, 2009 at 3:11 PM | Permalink

    Tetrapod Zoology is one of my favourite blogs. It’s really inspiring in so many ways.

    Keep it up Darren!

  4. David Marjanović
    May 6, 2009 at 9:33 AM | Permalink

    Anyone who thinks that Tet Zoo does not belong on NBN because it’s not outdoorsy enough, or that the diversity of life can be understood without understanding its history, should read the comments here.

  5. May 7, 2009 at 3:29 PM | Permalink

    Glad you enjoyed, and thanks for the comments.

    Greg, it’s hard for me to imagine missing roadkill…

  6. May 18, 2009 at 5:11 PM | Permalink

    Wren,
    Surely, by definition, roadkill is that which has not been missed?

    (Sorry!)

    I’m delighted to see Tet Zoo featured here. As to Darren’s ideas why his blog is so popular.. Yes, I definitely agree!