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Dinosaurs: how our understanding of what they looked like keeps changing

Artist illustration of a microraptor.
Microraptor: fossils show it had feathers on each limb. Michael Rosskothen via Shutterstock

This is a transcript of episode 11 of The Conversation Weekly podcast Dinosaurs: from giant reptiles to warm-blooded, feathered creatures, how our understanding of what they looked like has changed. In this episode, how new discoveries have changed our understanding of what dinosaurs looked like – and helped shed light on bigger questions about evolution. And after Israel’s fourth election in two years ended in another political stalemate, we speak to a foreign policy expert on what this could mean for the Middle East.

Gemma Ware: Hello and welcome to The Conversation Weekly!

Maria McNamara: We’re starting to build up a picture of dinosaurs piece by piece.

Dan: This week, some new discoveries are changing our understanding of what dinosaurs looked like.

Amnon Aran: The result of those elections are at the moment entirely unpredictable.

Gemma: And after Israel’s fourth election in two years ended in another political stalemate, we speak to a foreign policy expert on what this could mean for the Middle East.

Gemma: I’m Gemma Ware in London.

Dan: And I’m Dan Merino in San Francisco. You’re listening to The Conversation Weekly, the world explained by experts.

Dan: Gemma, I had a tonne of fun the other week commissioning and editing a story about the new Godzilla versus Kong monster movie, and it was written by a palaeo-morphologist, someone who studies how animals are built, and she was making a prediction: who would win in a fight between those two monsters.

Gemma: And what did she predict?

Dan: So, I haven’t seen the movie but she was on team Godzilla, and she was basing this mostly on the way Hollywood was portraying these monsters. That got me thinking, Hollywood and the media we consume really shapes how we imagine monsters, but also dinosaurs.

Gemma: Yeah, my brain when it thinks of dinosaurs goes straight to Jurassic Park. That little glass of water shaking on the back of the truck, the raptors in that warehouse bit, terrifying. What about you Dan? What’s your Hollywood dinosaur moment in your head?

Dan: I think I was just a bit too young to catch the original Jurassic Parks. For me, mine was actually a little more cute, it was animated dinosaurs in The Land Before Time. And then once I got a little bit older, definitely Jurassic Park, velicoraptors and T Rex and all that stuff.

Artists have been looking the bones of dinosaurs to imagine what they’d look like ever since the early 19th century.

Gemma: And I guess some of them did it really badly. In London, there’s this enormous park called Crystal Palace, which was actually the site of a big exhibition in the 1850s. The Victorians were really proud of themselves and they created these sculptures of some dinosaurs, and they are so wrong. They look like these giant reptile lizard things. You can still go and see them today, they’re sitting around a little lake thing. It’s so strange.

Dan: And it’s funny how you just see something old and just know it’s wrong. But I guess it helps to see how much our knowledge of dinosaurs has really changed. Though, we’re still a long way off to having all the answers about what dinosaurs did actually look like. So to find out more about what new evidence is emerging and how our dinosaur imaginings have changed, I spoke to two palaeontologists who spend their time studying dinosaur fossils and bones.

For Maria McNamara, as a kid in the 1980s, her dinosaur knowledge didn’t come from TV or Hollywood like Gemma and I, but rather, from her grandma.

Maria McNamara: She was a big reader, was always buying books. She had a library at home, but she also was a hoarder. She kept everything. So I had books that were up to date, but I also had access to books going right back to the 60s and even the 50s when her kids were growing up.

Dan: Today, Maria is a professor of palaebiology at University College Cork in Ireland, and there are probably very few people on earth who know more about what dinosaurs looked like. And that’s why I wanted to know about the first dinosaurs she ever saw, the ones lurking in her grandma’s old books.

Maria: They were green, usually, scaly, big. They didn’t quite look like the ferocious predators that we know many of them were and we certainly didn’t see any small dinosaurs, so I suppose my concept of dinosaurs was pretty exclusively of large green, scaly creatures, with very little of the nuance that we have today.

Dan: That nuance started to emerge in the 1960s, during a period of time known as the dinosaur renaissance. New fossil discoveries and new research turned the scientific notion of dinosaurs on its head, from large, slow-moving, cold-blooded reptiles into warm blooded creatures of all sizes living in a diverse ecosystem with reptiles, and eventually birds and mammals too.

But the surge in research had created as many new questions as it answered and even stirred up some old debates. One debate was particularly hot around that time and it had to do with the relationship between dinosaurs and birds.

Maria: Were they sister groups? Did they share a common ancestor? What exactly was the nature of the relationship between those two groups?

Dan: A lot of these questions hinged on feathers. Feathers had been pretty rare in the fossil record up until then and for the most part, any fossil that had some feather was considered an ancient early bird. But then, soon after Jurassic Park first aired in 1993, a series of new findings from China changed everything.

Maria: In the mid-1990s, there were some literally quite spectacular discoveries of feathered dinosaurs, of dinosaurs from China. It’s called the Jehal biota.

Dan: These fossils all came from a volcanic region of China with a lot of lakes. And there are thousands of these fossils – birds, dinosaurs, early mammals, all excellently preserved.

Maria: The first paper that was published was on this dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx and it preserves some kind of brown, furry stuff associated with the head and the back and the tail. And when you look closely at it, it just looks like hairs, short little hairs, about a centimetre long. And they were interpreted, quite controversially back then, as primitive feathers. There was fairly intense debate for at least ten years about what those features were.

What that paper did was really quite remarkable because by demonstrating evidence for feathers in the dinosaur, they were effectively providing direct link of the avian-dinosaur relationship. And also they were showing that feathers aren’t unique to birds, they actually evolved much earlier.

Dan: The discovery of feathered dinosaurs certainly changes what I imagine in my mind’s eye. But feathers offer so much more to palaeontologists that just a costume change.

Maria: Sinosauropteryx is a good example, actually. It was a small theropod dinosaur. So it’s part of this lineage of dinosaurs that is most closely related to birds. And it was only about at most, a metre long. It was completely terrestrial, it was a runner and we know that its feathers could not have functioned in flight because they were too short.

So what was it using these feathers for? Well, if you look at the distribution of these structures over the body, they’re everywhere. They’re on the head. They’re on the back, they’re on the tail. And so because of this it actually is much more consistent with functions in thermoregulation, in maintaining your body temperature. And it was a new line of evidence for when dinosaurs started evolving more bird-like metabolisms.

And so we’re starting to build up a picture of dinosaurs acquiring bird-like characteristics piece by piece. We call this mosaic evolution because they don’t just evolve all of the pieces at once they come bit by bit.

Dan: And some of the pieces of that mosaic were really wild. Take the Microraptor, discovered in 1998, for example.

Maria: It caused a real stir because it had feathers not only on the forelimbs, but also on the legs. So it’s effectively a four winged dinosaur. And still there’s ongoing debate about how this creature flew. It has long feathers. And what’s really interesting is that its feathers have the full complexity that we see in modern birds.

About half of the specimens that have been recovered have a weird tuft of feathers at the end of the tail. It’s thought that maybe this is a feature used for signalling, potentially by males, we don’t know. It’s really hard to actually sex these specimens because the bones are frequently fractured and compacted during compression, as they’re buried. But there are dinosaurs where we’re pretty sure that feathers were being used for communication.

Dan: One of the dinosaurs that used feathers, probably for communication, was that Sinosauropteryx, the small terrestrial dinosaur found in China that first sparked that feather frenzy. In 2010, a team of researchers based in Bristol and Dublin managed to reconstruct the colours of its feathers.

Maria: They did this for Sinosauropteryx using traces of the pigment melanin, the same stuff that colours our hair and makes our freckles. So they, they’ve recovered evidence of this pigment in the feathers of Sinosauropteryx and what they found was it had almost certainly colour banding along the tail. And when you compare with modern birds and you look at things like the zipper finch, they’ve got a fabulous striped tail and they use it for display, showing off fitness, advertising their quality to potential mates. So it’s fairly likely that Sinosauropteryx was doing something similar.

Dan: Skin colour in dinosaurs is, at least for now, almost impossible to discern. But using melanosomes – granules of melanin pigment – researchers can paint a remarkably accurate colour picture of the feathers at least.

Maria: We know that Microraptor, for instance, had a glossy, iridescent sheen in its feathers. We know that Anchiornis, a Jurassic dinosaur, it had feathers that were largely grey with some black and white stripes on the wings and a big red head crest.

Artist's impression of an _Anchiornis_ dinosaur, illustrating feather arrangement and life coloration.
Artists impression of an Anchiornis dinosaur. Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Dan: But while melanin is a useful hint, it’s only part of the colour puzzle. Modern birds of every colour have melanin in their feathers. It’s other pigments that really flesh out the colours.

Maria: In the fossils, these other pigments decay away and all we get left with is the melanin. So, you know, it’s like looking at a black and white, you know, TV programme. The colours you see, it’s not like real life was all grey – you’re missing that technicolor side of things.

Dan: I’d personally give Maria and her colleagues more credit than to say they are still stuck in the black and white world. But even if the colours they’re getting aren’t perfect, our knowledge of dinosaurs has certainly changed. Not only do we know that they’re feathered, we know what they used them for, probably body temperature and also for communication.

So initially, most of the discoveries of feathers were found in the ancient ancestors of modern birds. And this is in a group of dinosaurs called theropods. Theropods are two-legged, hollow-boned predators like Velociraptors and T Rex. A lot of the iconic dinosaurs. For a while, all finds of fossilised feathers came from theropods that existed late in the dinosaur era.

Maria: So it really seems that feathers were an innovation that happened very late during dinosaur evolution. But then in 2014, myself and some colleagues, we reported complex feathers in a type of ornithischian dinosaur, let’s say a distant relative of a Triceratops. It’s a dinosaur that has more ancestral features, it sits closer to the base of the dinosaur tree. It’s called Kulindadromeus it’s from a site in Siberia and it has three types of feathers. It has the simple filaments which we’ve seen before in Sinosauropteryx. It has some weird ribbon-like filaments, which have been reported in theropods. And it has clusters of filaments. And these clusters of filaments really look like what we recognise as something like stage two in feather evolution.

Dan: What they’d found was that this dinosaur, with some really old characteristics of the dinosaur family tree, had the genetic ability to produce feathers. This means that the feather gene, so to speak, must have been old. So to see how old, and where it fit into the whole feather-dinosaur puzzle, Maria and her colleagues looked at an even older branch of the dinosaur family tree – pterosaurs.

Maria: Many people think pterosaurs were dinosaurs because they were big reptiles that were around at the same time, but actually they’re a completely different family of reptiles and they share a common ancestor with dinosaurs. So they branched off during the early Triassic. They had wings of up to 15 to 20 metres – huge flying creatures. And, I suppose just like with dinosaurs, we had thought that they were all just, you know, dry and scaly. And we actually reported preservation of branched feathers in pterosaurs. And to be honest, that completely blew everyone’s minds. It blew our minds!

Read more: The mystery of feather origins: how fluffy pterosaurs have reignited debate

Dan: If both pterosaurs and dinosaurs have evidence of feathers, that means that the genetic ability to produce feathers started way, way back in a common ancestor. Feathers, says Maria:

Maria: They actually are a feature that evolved before birds, before dinosaurs, that they’re a very ancient feature of this group of reptiles.

Dan: And because the feathers on these little baby pterosaurs were really tiny, Maria says that they couldn’t have been used for flying. So the next best guess is that these reptiles used these little proto-feathers to were used to regulate their temperature.

Maria: People think feathers are all about flight, but you know feather evolution is about your physiology, it’s about your behaviour, it’s about where you can live. So you’re looking at these different groups of organisms, evolving feathers to keep warm. And that’s telling us about reptiles transitioning in terms of their metabolisms. And once you change your metabolism and become warm-blooded, that opens up a lot of new habitats to you, it opens up a lot of much more active lifestyles.

Dan: I don’t know about you, but the idea of even a few fuzzy, feathered, warm-blooded dinosaurs running or flying around the ancient world using colours for communication, well, that’s certainly not the land of dinosaurs that I used to imagine. At this point, I’m starting to question all of the dinosaur movies I’ve ever seen. In those movies, all the dinosaurs are huge and all the iconic ones, they all kind of lived at the same time. But, both of those assumptions it turns out, are wrong.

Nic: Most of those dinosaurs did not live together as one community and so Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex never lived together, they’re separated by, you know, a hundred million years of evolution.

Dan: This is Nicolas Campione.

Nic: I am a senior lecturer at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia.

Dan: Nic’s done a lot of work how big dinosaurs are and specifically how much they weigh.

Nic: The body size of an organism will dictate how it interacts with the world around it, its metabolism and so we can use body size to explore the evolution of dinosaurs.

Dan: He told me that traditional understandings about the size of dinosaurs, as these large, cold-blooded reptiles goes back to the 19th century. And it kind of has to do with human nature in a way. Who doesn’t love to go find some cool, dramatic and then show it off to the world.

Nic: The first discoveries of dinosaurs were very much focused on the sensational. They were focused on, “Let’s find the biggest thing, let’s find the big skulls, let’s find things that, you know, are museum pieces.” And that very much framed our way of discovering fossils really early on.

Dan: The technique researchers used in the 19th century to estimate the size of these dinosaurs was pretty rudimentary.

Nic: So traditionally the first methods for estimating size in dinosaurs focused on reconstructing the animal in some sort of live, I guess, a sculpture effectively.

Dan: One famous 19th palaeontologist – and I should note controversial eugenicist – named Henry Fairfield Osborn was a really big proponent of this method. He worked at the American Museum of Natural History with Charles Knight a paleoartist. Together, they would make a little model of, say, a Brontosaurus, and then use that to estimate weight and volume.

Nic: And once you have that reconstruction, you dunk it in water, find out how much volume is displaced and that gives you the volume of a model. You scale that up to the size of the dinosaur and, voila, you have the volume of that dinosaur. And once you have the volume, you multiply it by some assumption for body density and you have a body mass. It was crude for sure, but the funny thing is that I’ve gone on to make a lot of comparisons between the estimates and some of the bones of these animals. And actually I find that some of these original estimates were not so far off. They’re definitely within the plausible range of mass estimates.

Dan: This reconstruction technique has evolved quite a bit since then. Now, palaentologists use digital models rather than creating sculptures but the principle is kind of the same. But in the last 150 years, a second approach has also been developed. This one estimates dinosaur size and weight by measuring their limbs.

Nic: It really just comes down to measuring bones and then testing to see how well they predict body mass in living things. And then making an argument about whether or not you think dinosaurs would have followed those same patterns. So in the mid- 80s, there was a paper written by Anderson, Dale Russell, and they were the first ones to propose looking at living mammals, a relationship between the circumference of the humerus and the femur.

Dan: This approach was at first criticised. This was because the sample of living animals that they used to build the formula was originally pretty small.

Nic: So the work that I did, going back now to early 2000s was to try to test that. And so I compiled a giant dataset of living animals and each one of those skeletons was associated with a body mass.

Dan: Nic built a huge database of a tonne of different animals. It included rhinos, giraffes, elephants, turtles – even an orangutan. He then calculated the ratio between the humerus, an arm bone, and the femur, a leg bone, for each of these different animals to see if it could be used to predict mass.

Nic: And I found that they were remarkably consistent. And I guess our assumption is that somewhere along the spectrum of living animals, dinosaurs are likely to fall within that.

Dan: Nic recently published a paper comparing these two methods: reconstruction and the limb measurement method.

Read more: How do you weigh a dinosaur? There are two ways, and it turns out they're both right

Nic: Although the two methods for a long time were sort of pitted against each other, we’ve sort of come to find that for the most part actually they agree. Most mass estimates of the two approaches converge on very similar results.

Dan: The research that palaeontologists like Maria and Nic are doing today is certainly helping us get a better image of the ancient world. But a lot of their work also helps answer questions about deeper ecological processes. Nic’s research, for instance, is helping to shed light on the evolutionary history of dinosaurs.

Nic: The first dinosaurs start off at one body size, kind of the size a large dog and then they radiate very quickly so that within, you know, the first 10 or so million years you’ve already reached most of the size range that dinosaurs would continue to have the rest of their evolution history. It wasn’t a gradual thing. It was very explosive.

Dan: This kind of quick change is called adaptive radiation. And uncovering more about how it happened to dinosaurs isn’t just about the ancient world. It can also teach us things about animals today – for example, how they might adapt to changes or shocks to the environment.

In a similar way, Maria McNamara’s work on melanin – that type of pigment left behind in fossils - has also led to some surprising insights about the modern world. She found that melanin it turns out, isn’t just found in skin and feathers, it’s also present inside the bodies of different animals, from birds, to fish and even mammals.

Maria: In some species, we’ve up to 10 times more melanin inside our body than in the skin, than in our skin and feathers. And we’re coming to suspect that what it’s doing internally is actually really vital in terms of metabolising toxins, especially metals derived from the environment. Because we’ve found that the melanin in different organs has a different metal signature. There’s no clear reason for this, except that the melanin in different organs is good at detoxifying different metals.

Read more: Prehistoric pigments reveal how melanin has shaped bird and mammal evolution

It’s mind blowing really. You know, we’re learning about aspects of how our bodies work that we never could have predicted ten years ago – and it was stimulated by this work on fossil colour.

Dan: At least for me, I think it’s super cool that studying animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago can help answer some of today’s questions. But fundamentally, I still kinda wanna know what dinosaurs looked like. So, I asked Maria, if she were to redo all those old dinosaur books that she found at her grandma’s house, what would she change?

Maria: Number one, we would be incorporating dinosaurs of many different sizes. We would be including birds, because we now know that birds are just a type of dinosaur. They simply are the only group of dinosaurs that survived the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. We would be showing dinosaurs flying, and we would certainly have dinosaurs with with some evidence of what they looked like and not just artists’ flights of fancy. And we’d be talking about warm-blooded dinosaurs and also other things. You know, we preserve dinosaur eggs now, we know that they took care of their young. I think it would really help bring them to life, actually, and make them much more tangible. Not these weird unknown ferocious beasts but, actually in many ways, a lot more familiar to what we see today.

Gemma: So this is what we think dinosaurs look like in 2021, but I guess in a hundred years from now it could all be different again?

Dan: One of things that was really interesting to me that both Maria and Nic mentioned, was that a lot of this stuff really depends on finding more fossils. You can only do so much with what you’ve got and you just need more stuff to work with. So hopefully they all have some good luck digging in the future.

Dan: If you’d like to read more about Maria and Nic’s dinosaur discoveries, and also a Conversation article about some new research just published this week about pterosaurs, you can find links in the episode show notes.


Dan: OK and now onto our next story. And we’re headed to Israel.

Gemma: For the last two years, Israel has been in the grip of a slow-moving political crisis. With multiple elections failing to produce a stable government, Israelis voted in their fourth election in two years on March 23.

Dan: This time, the election was dominated by two main issues – coronavirus, and the corruption trial of prime minister Benjamin Netanyanhu, which actually began a few days after the election.

Gemma: The result was once again deadlock with no obvious majority. Now Netanyahu has been invited by the Israeli president Reuven Rivlin to try and form a government by early May. What happens next will have wide-reaching implications for the Palestinians, and the wider Middle East. I’ve been speaking to an expert in Israeli foreign policy to understand what’s at stake.

Amnon: My name is Dr Amnon Aran, I’m a senior lecturer at City, University of London. And my main areas of interest in research really lie in foreign policy analysis and the foreign policy of Middle Eastern States.

Gemma: It’s been three weeks since Israelis went to the polls on March 23. What is the situation as we’re talking today? And are we any nearer to having a new government?

Read more: Stark choice for Israel as voters head to polls for fourth time in two years

Amnon: So this is the fourth election in two years in Israel, which really reflects a very profound, political crisis that has engulfed the country. In this fourth election in two years, we have effectively reached another political impasse. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been leading what is defined in Israel as the centre-right group of political parties. But together those parties have only reached 59 seats, which in the Israeli Knesset, the Israeli parliament, does not amount to the 61 majority, that is necessary out of 120 seats.

Benjamin Netanyahu.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been invited by the Israeli president, Reuvin Rivlin, to try and forge a coalition government. Debbie Hill//EPA

The opposing side, a group primarily of centre-left parties with some parties from the right who refuse to sit with Mr Netanyahu have not been able either to amass the necessary majority to create a coalition of 61 or more members of Knesset. So where we are at now is that Mr Netanyahu, the prime minister, received the mandate from the president – the first go, if you like, to form a coalition government. He will have the opportunity to try and do that and somehow cross the line of 61 members of Knesset or members of parliament. And initially he has 28 days to do that.

Gemma: So these coalition talks are still going on. We’ve we’ve got nearly a month to go. Where does the balance of power lie now and with who, which politicians?

Amnon: So interestingly, um, the balance of power in the negotiations of a government, if you like, lies I would say within three key politicians. First and foremost, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has the largest party in the parliament – his party Likud, consisting of 30 seats, and by far the largest party in parliament. The other important politician in this story is Mr Yair Lapid.

He is the leader of Yesh Atid, which in Hebrew means “there is a future”. He is the unanointed, if you like, leader of the centre-left group of parties in Israeli politics. And were Mr Netanyahu to fail to form a government, there is a strong possibility, although not a conclusive one, that Mr Lapid would get the second chance. The third politician who is very important in this story is Mr Naftali Bennett.

He is the head of the Yamina party, which in Hebrew means to the right. And he is one of the few politicians who did not commit before the elections, who he would be willing to actually share the government with. So therefore at this point, he is really at the point of kingmaker in these elections and much lies on the decisions that he will make. In his orientation, he and his party are positioned squarely in the right of the Israeli political spectrum.

However, if it is shown that Mr Netanyahu cannot under any circumstances form a government, Mr Bennett will face a serious dilemma. Does he join the centre-left and go against much of the grain of his ideology and his supporters to avoid a fifth election, as he promised in the campaign? Or, another possibility that we might see is that prolonged negotiations do not produce a government, which leads as route straight into a fifth elections within just over two years.

Gemma: Obviously, what happens in Israeli politics is closely watched in the wider region and the world. Your research has actually looked into this relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy historically in Israel. Are there any things that we can learn from what’s happened before with that interaction about what might happen next?

Amnon: Yeah, so you’re right Gemma, in a recent book that I published, which is titled Israeli Foreign Policy since the End of the Cold War, I re-examined the interlinks between domestic factors and Israeli foreign policy. And I think looking back there is one perhaps clear message, clear lesson that we can draw. Mr Netanyhau, has over the last 12 years led a series of governments, consecutive governments, that I describe in the book as adopting a foreign policy of entrenchment. And what that means in a nutshell is that Israel can make peace with the Arab world, but this peace will be peace in exchange for peace, as opposed as peace in exchange for territories that Israel occupied or seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The second policy is that any peace process, or even peace agreement, would rest not on ideas of reconciliation, but rather on a convergence of interests and on keeping Israel’s military might intact. And the third pillar really is that peace with the Arab world, especially it does not necessarily involve resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, Mr Netanyahu’s government and certain Likud governments before him purported the argument and indeed pursued a foreign policy, whereby Israel would forge peace agreements with the Arab world, not in exchange for land, but just peace for peace. And this is really what we have seen during Mr Netanyhau’s reign in the Abraham Accords and something that Mr Netanyhau spoke about repeatedly.

Amnon: The Abraham Accords are resting on the assumption that peace would be signed in exchange for peace, not territory, and that the Palestinians would not necessarily have to be part of that peace cycle. The jewel in the crown of the foreign policy of entrenchment would be to sign a fully normalised peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia without resolving first the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My anticipation would be that that would be the foreign policy effort towards the Arab world should Mr Netanyhau continue in power. He would, of course have to reckon with the fact that the Saudis have mentioned time and time again, that until the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved, they will not sign a fully normalised peace agreement with Israel.

Gemma: That policy of entrenchment, if Netanyahu does come out on top in these coalition talks, you see that continuing, but it’s not the only foreign policy stance that Israel has had over the past 30 or 40 years. So what other options might be available if it decides to move away from that entrenchment policy?

Amnon: So a second foreign policy stance that is available to an Israeli government is what I call Israel’s foreign policy of engagement. The idea that really Israel’s foreign policy of engagement rests on, has if you like three components. The first is that the Israeli occupation is against the Israeli national interest and therefore peace agreement with Arab countries, or with the Palestinians, should rest on an exchange of land for peace.

The second component was that actually Israel would put a premium on diplomacy in its interaction with the Middle East, rather than put premium on the use of force. And then, the third really component is the assumption that the occupation of Arab lands by Israel is not necessarily serving Israel’s national interest. And that again was the background of rethinking the Israeli occupation/presence in South Lebanon, which of course began in 1982 and then ended subsequently in 2000. And Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and until 2005, the Gaza Strip. So this foreign policy of engagement really starkly contrasted with Mr Netanyahu’s and Mr Shamir’s foreign policy of entrenchment.

Gemma: What do you think will be the three key foreign policy issues for the next government whichever it may be.

Amnon: So I think the first issue for the next government will be the relationship with the United States. Mr Netanyahu and his government were seen as very closely associated with Mr Trump’s administration.

There is, of course, a question about whether Mr Biden’s administration will prioritise the Middle East and Israel in the same way that Mr Trump’s administration has done and will continue to provide the stalwart support that the US traditionally has done.

The second item will be the conflict with Iran. There’s still existing escalation.

We’ve seen that only yesterday, if the reports that suggest Israel was behind the attack of the Natanz facility are correct. You know, this diad, this bilateral relationship between Israel and Iran will certainly be high on the agenda of any Israeli government.

Read more: Iran: how attack on nuclear facility will affect negotiations with US

And then the third one is really the relationship with the Arab world. And there are two elements for that. One is whether it is possible indeed to expand the framework that was adopted with the Abraham Accords and to roll it out to other Arab countries. But of course the other element that contrasted that is Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and the most immediate issue that will concern any Israeli government or the upcoming elections in the Palestinian occupied territories. And of course the result of those elections are at the moment entirely unpredictable.

Gemma: Thank you very much Amnon for being our guide through all that, and it’s been great to talk to you about that and your research, thank you.

Amnon: Yeah. Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

Gemma: You can find a link to Amnon’s research, plus some other recent expert analysis of the aftermath of the Israeli election in the show notes and keep following The Conversation for more on the political situation in the region.

Gemma: To end the show, we’ve got a message from Eva Catalán, culture editor at The Conversation in Spain, with some recommended reads.

Eva: Hi, this is Eva Catalán. I’m the editor of the culture section based in Madrid, Spain. One of the articles that we have this week takes a look at vaccines from a mathematical perspective. The article has been written by two researchers from the field of statistics, Virgilio Rubio from University Castilla-La Mancha, and Anabel Forte Deltell from the University of Valencia. It’s a very straightforward explanation of what it is that we talk about when we talk about the risks associated with vaccination.

First, they show the numbers, then they show what they mean in statistical terms and then they put them in the context of the pandemic and the secondary effects of COVID itself. I think understanding what it is that we call a rare or a very rare secondary effect is an excellent tool right now to make sense of everything.

The second article I would love to recommend has to do with linguistics and social media. It’s an article I’ve been working on with a linguistics professor, María Nayra Rodríguez night out from the University of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. Professor Rodriguez has been exploring the relationship between the use of the language and the amount of followers on social media. For this, she has been analysing the idiolect of a group of online celebrities. An idiolect is the particular way of using the language that is different to each person. And she has found some interesting clues into what maybe could be considered to be part of the key to the success of these influencers.

For example, they tend to use a lot of abstract nouns that relate to emotions and feelings. It seems that whether intuitively or knowingly, influencers have learned to use language to their advantage and it’s not all about the stunning photos or cute videos. That’s all. Thanks for listening.

Dan: Eva Catalán there in Madrid. So that’s it for this week. Thanks to all the academics who’ve spoken to us for this episode. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram @theconversationdotcom or email us on

And if you want to learn more about any of the things we talked about on the show today, there are links to further reading in the show notes where you can also find a link to sign up to our free daily email.

Gemma: Thanks to the Conversation editors Abby Beall, Jonathan Este, Eva Catalán and Stephen Khan for their help with this episode. And thanks to Alice Mason, Imriel Morgan and Sharai White for our social media promotion.

Gemma: The Conversation Weekly is co-produced by Mend Mariwany and me, Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

Dan: And I’m Dan Merino. Thanks so much for listening.

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