Thursday, March 23, 2017

Gaslighting the Dinosaur: Just How Weird Can Dinosaurs Get?

Gaslight: Manipulate (someone) into questioning their own sanity by psychological means.

I've been wanting to write this post for a while but it was the revelation of two recent significant works that have crested into the perfect wave substantiating some undercurrent of sentiment I've been trying to crystalize in my brain cells.

Dinosaurs  might be getting a lot more unstable, contentious, and freakishly weird and unpredictable   before any type of normalcy and "consensus" view gains traction. Can you feel the instability under your feet?Are we in a post-fact dinosaur era?  What I have referred to as the dinosaur "weirdening" might also be understood as sort of a post-modern enlightening of dinosaur studies or even paleontology as a whole. For those that like to see things in black and white it might not be an especially pleasant road ahead for you. However for those that are willing to admit and forego their own biases; become comfortable with not knowing or better yet unknowing things; and have the audacity and humility to push forward regardless of nit-pickers, naysayers, and general haters these are indeed golden times in dinosaur studies.

What do I mean when I say we should have humility and audacity? Are not those two traits somewhat contradicting?

We should have humility in recognizing that the errors, oversights, and dogma in modern dinosaur paleontology occur just the same way that they did before the dinosaur renaissance. We might not be making the same errors, just a whole different batch of errors. What do I mean by this? Has not dinosaurs paleontology become a much more concrete science in the last couple of decades? Have we not dispensed with the ol' storytellers and "just so" charlatans of yesteryear? Paleontologists don't tell stories anymore - they measure stuff, compile data, and matrix things. Science the shit out of dinosaurs. Paleontology, and especially dinosaur paleontology, has evolved radically - one need only visit and talk to the presenters at the annual SVP conference to see the rigor and abstinence of speculating beyond the data, from telling stories.

The more evocative, dynamic Robert Bakker school of dinosaur paleontology has been supplanted by the more measured, rigorous "testable" prototype - what I refer to as the Lawrence Witmore protege  that dominates modern dinosaur paleontology. In fact I would trace this transition to a cover story in National Geographic magazine from March 2003 that documented the hardening of the arteries in dinosaur paleontology. Dinosaur science was no longer the place for story telling and whimsical notions.

"This is a good thing though. We need paleontology, and especially dinosaurs paleontology, to be a rigorous science. Good riddance to the Bakkerian notions that have plagued dinosaur paleontology"

Yes, but in eschewing the more story telling, fantastical, out there, "speculative" branch of dinosaur paleontology dinosaur science has lost it's soul. The arteries of paleontology have hardened and a plaque has formed limiting the flow of the true life's blood of dinosaur paleontology - imagination.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand." - Albert Einstein

In the dispensing of story telling in dinosaur paleontology the science has lost something that it desperately needs to regain - something that the "All Yesterdays" movement addressed but must go even further with. All Yesterdays asked "what is the role of speculation in paleontology", however it was an open ended question and no concrete answer was given. The answer is two-fold I will suggest; imagination, new ideas, and concepts till the ground for new hypotheses, theories, and paradigms to emerge and; paleontology has changed - but people have not. As I said earlier many (not all) of the crop of top thinkers, paleontologists - teh luminaries if you will - are doomed to follow in the footsteps of the people that the dinosaur renaissance made look so foolish - not because they are foolish or stupid - they most certainly are not just as the people who were made obsolete by the dinosaur renaissance were not actually stupid. But there will be casualties along the way because people have not changed - even as the science has - because people are and always have been full of shit to various degrees. I'm full of shit, so are you reading this full of shit - we are full of shit because we have egos, biases, and groupthink is a thing that social primates do for good reasons until the bag of shit becomes soooo stinky someone has to ask what is that smell? What is that smell in dinosaur paleontology?

The Loss of the Narrative in Modern Dinosaur Paleontology and Why We Are Worse Off For It

Dinosaurs paleontology has largely forgot how to tell stories. How to narrate, how to blend science, art, and imagination into something truly uplifting, captivating, and mystical. The ability to take the mind and stop it. Not stop the mind in the sense of stop thinking - but simply hit it so hard you get a little stunned.

Ask yourself what got you into dinosaurs - was it a character matrix - or was it an evocative scene, picture, or vignette that hooked you? Paleontologists need to embrace storytelling and narratives once again. One doesn't need ignore or eschew the foundational science while also embracing the more mythical narrative ethos of paleontology.

As paleontology - especially dinosaur paleontology has shifted from the narrative - from "what might be" to "what we know for sure" it has left a void. Who tells the stories? If paleontologists don't create the stories that people hear about dinosaurs guess who does? The screenwriters of Jurassic World get to create the stories that people hear about dinosaurs that's who. And paleontologists have no one to blame for that but themselves for this predicament. Because say what you will about Bakkerian ideas - he sold them well enough - and those ideas, somewhat dated, still inform the Jurassic Park franchise to this day because of his craftsmanship.

I speak with the audacity that I do because I guarantee that my arch scavenger/hunter vulturine dromies would mop the floor with both those JP reptoid freaks & dapper ground hawks and absolutely traumatize audiences ; that a slow, creeping, silent assassin, super-senses endowed, night staking T. rex would send more shivers down the spine of movie goers than anything Hollywood or modern paleontology has came up with; that a bottom punting, water hunting Spinosaurus is the coolest damn thing you could have laid eyes on in the Cenomanian or in the local movie theatre; Allosaurs massing on a sauropod carcass, necks pistoning back and forth, rendering muscle, sinew, and bone, like some macabre gaggle of vultures on steroids. My dinosaurs would kick Spielberg's, Bakker's, Paul's, and Horner's dinosaurs asses combined. Fact. No freaking contest.

I mentioned earlier we should have the audacity to posit what dinosaurs were like. Now I might be wrong in some of my interpretations above, time may tell. But I have the audacity to posit such non-standard interpretations and defend them and create the wiggle room from which further studies may confirm or deny such ideas. More so than that a piece of evidence in favor of non-standard ideas might be overlooked without a framework for understanding new data in a different context. Saying nothing would be the greater wrong-doing than saying something that is later disproven.

Sauropods and Theropods Kissing Cousins No More….

Diplos for Allo Brunch by Duane Nash
Theropods and sauropods (evolutionary) friends to the end, or, maybe not? Sauropods decoupled from theropods while ornithischians and theropods linked into Ornithoscelida (Baron et. al. 2017). A good summary.

This work really is a game changer. For me the most interesting aspect of this - if it pans out and I have seen or heard of no strong counters to it as of yet - is the alarming amount of time the faulty saurischian/ornithischian split went on basically unquestioned.

I mean really guys? 

Now I buy a lot of technical dinosaur books. In these books I usually have to sift through like a ton of cladistic stuff before I can get to the snippet of mention of stuff  I am into like soft tissue, diet, behavior, ecology. The message I get is that phylogeny & cladistics is the "harder" aspect of dinosaur science and therefore gets more attention and pages. While diet, ecology, behavior, soft tissue falls under a more subjective and less rigorous banner presumably. Except now that I learn that the foundational dividing line separating ornithischians and saurischians might be hogwash, simply unquestioned dogma. Do you see where I am coming from? Teacher teaches without question student accepts blindly repeat ad nauseum…

That so many researchers focus on phylogeny and for this foundational aspect of the dinosaur family tree to go on seemingly unchallenged for so long, it does beg the question… are new thinkers being challenging enough? You need to be absolutely challenging and even somewhat combative against what your teacher is teaching you. And these same teachers need to love you for it.

Kaiju Dinosaur

Interestingly enough it is the revitalization of the kaiju film that offers more inspiration and hope for stoking the flames of dinosaur inspiration/lore than the dinosaur theme park movies at this point. Ironic that an explicitly fictional movie genre - kaiju films, literally meaning "strange beast" - is arguably offering more insight into dinosaurs than a film saga explicitly starring purportedly actual dinosaurs. Duane what the hell are you talking about?!?

Let us break down some commonalities between kaiju and macro-dinosaurs.

Kaiju lived for millennia and grew through multiple ontogenetic sequences. Dinosaurs lived for decades and occupied multiple ontogenetic ecological spaces. Jurassic franchise does not touch upon this concept. In fact in the Jurassic franchise fully grown dinosaurs seem to just inexplicably appear over night.

Kaiju can be seen as hoarders and harvesters of great mineral and energy wealth, they literally transform their ecosystem and form it to their will. Macro-dinosaurs likewise harvested caloric and mineral wealth from their ecosystem at vast scales in the process transforming the landscape. The Jurassic franchise does not touch upon this aspect.

Kaiju have two main reproductive strategies. Some, such as the Cloverfield monster, literally shed off replicating chunks of DNA in large batches. This closely matches the lay 'em and leave 'em strategy of sauropods. However most Kaiju have especially slow and low reproductive potential - seemingly at odds with how dinosaurs are now traditionally thought of as fecund r-strategists.

Or were dinosaurs such R-strategy specialists?

Indeed it is a stance that we need to constantly test and challenge. A recent paper illuminating the tremendous incubation time for the eggs of several dinosaur species  directly calls into question dinosaur fecundity and reproductive strategy(Erickson, 2016). Now this paper measured the incubation period of just two dinosaur species - Protoceratopos andrewsi & Hypacrosaurus stebegeri - which were revealed through careful analysis of incremental growth lines of embryonic teeth to have incubation periods of from 3 to 6 months!!   From this the authors speculated that such long incubation inhibited repopulation after cataclysmic events and that the bird off-branch of theropods (pennaraptora maybe?) was potentially unique in evolving relatively short incubation periods. That is their take home speculation, we will see how it pans out over time and if other dinosaurs indeed had such long incubation periods. Keep in mind if the unification of theropods and ornithischians solidifies then theropods having crocodile length incubatory periods may become a very tenable position.

My take home speculation is something else entirely, that if such long incubation periods were the norm for most dinosaurs - we will see - that potentially this shuffles the cards in favor of:

More intense pair bonding between male and female dinosaurs. It seems unreasonable that high metabolic females would do all of the nest guarding as modern female crocodiles do. After all 3-6 months is a long time to watch over eggs and taking turns over clutch guarding duties seems like a better solution. This also opens up a pandoras box of question in terms of mating fidelity, long term bonding, social cohesion, and perhaps given the stresses of a 3-6 month wait period perhaps females - or mated couples - only reproduced every other year, like some albatross species?!?

The nest as the foci for social, ecologic, and reproductive space. Keeping animals around a nesting space for 3 to 6 months is going to impose some pretty harsh consequences on the local landscape. Big dinosaurs could not fly or swim away to feed as nesting sea birds and marine mammal rookeries do. They were somewhat limited in how far they could travel and would experience diminishing returns as the immediate environment got depleted and longer foraging trips became cost prohibitive. Did they fast? Did mates bring back or regurgitate food stuffs for their partners? Some interesting questions there…

It is worth reminding ourselves that dinosaurs - if they did have crocodile length incubation periods - were not crocodiles. They were not slow metabolism, aquatic ambush predators that could simply lounge around and guard a clutch of eggs for 6 months eating very little or nothing. They also did not live for the 60 to 100 years like crocodiles, but had a much more restricted reproductive window. The clutches for dinosaurs were on the whole smaller than the clutch size of crocodiles. In short dinosaurs potentially had the long incubation span of crocodiles, further burdened with a smaller clutch size, shorter reproductive life span, higher metabolism and food/territory considerations, and exposure to predators/competitors/detrimental environment that caring for a nest for 3-6 months would entail.

Much of the reaction to the long incubation period has been skepticism or negating it on the premise that it covers only two species. Remember two species with long incubation periods is two more species than we have evidence for that exhibit short, avian length incubation periods... As I have already discussed with the dinosaur phylogeny situation, people are complacent with what they know or what they think they know. And what people have been shifting towards in the last couple of decades is that dinosaur nesting & reproduction was largely a lay 'em and leave 'em state of affairs with post hatchling parental care and investment limited at best. Sometimes even antagonistic especially with theropods. But this thinking might be due for a reboot.

How can you forget the M.U.T.O. (s) from the  2014 Godzilla reboot - the true stars of the movie? And it is in their reproductive ecology narrative that we can get some inspiration for dinosaur reproduction. A long trajectory into adulthood akin to the ontogenetic evolution of dinosaurs. Sequestering of tremendous resources - radiation for the MUTO - parallels the conquest for caloric and mineral resources dinosaurs sought. An epic, prolonged, and ritualized courtship. MUTOS had to call via echolocation for each other across continents - dinosaurs had to locate one another across long distances via low frequency calls. The choice of nesting grounds was not without its own burdens. MUTOS needed  their progeny to have a ready supply of radiation to feast upon. And dinosaurs needed to nest at a location that offered abundant resources for their own young. Even when a suitable partner was met, nesting site was located, abundant food in the vicinity, and eggs deposited things could go wrong. Godzilla could show up. Remember the heart-breaking emotive cries of the big momma MUTO when her clutch was destroyed? Epic battles ensued for both kaiju and dinosaurs because the reproductive stakes are that high.

In short I think that this work on egg length incubation is potentially as groundbreaking as the dinosaur taxonomy shake-up. Strangely, and I can only speculate on this, the egg length incubation paper did not receive nary the coverage or amazement as the ornithoscelida paper. Maybe we lack the framework for understanding just how much long incubation implies for dinosaur reproductive ecology. Personally I think it reshuffles the deck on many of the foundational conceits we make on many aspects of dinosaur behavior we take a little for granted. It really is that important in my opinion.

I also think that the small window of reproductive years, long incubation period, and intense competition for territory, mineral, and caloric resources at nesting locations compels us to look more and more at the possible prevalence of vocal, behavioral, and visual display structures in dinosaurs. Moods, intentions, and capabilities had to be conveyed clearly and explicitly at distance or in proximity. We already know of lots of evidence of display structures via skeletal structures but the scope and ubiquity of soft tissue structures across all dinosaurs is likely higher than generally assumed. Especially those soft tissues that can be inflated, engorged, and/or changed in color. Again, I and some others have long argued this, but the incubation work and its potential implications really crystalizes the high stakes nature of dinosaur social and reproductive ecology. It was a wild and wooly world - finite reproductive windows combined with finite resources created an anarchy of display forms and behaviors that we are just scratching the surface at.

The hedging in towards the safe and conservative becomes counterproductive if what you are studying - dinosaurs - are not actually safe and conservative. I think we are getting to that tipping point in dinosaur paleontology, where the outlandish and speculative is becoming more and more tenable, because we are in fact finally starting to concede that dinosaurs by their very nature were outlandish and not conservative.

Revelations by Duane Nash


Baron MG, Norman DB, Barret PM (2017) A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution. Nature March 23, 2017

Erickson GM, Zelenitsky DK, Kay DI, Norell MA (2016) Dinosaur incubation periods directly determined from growth-line counts in embryonic teeth show reptilian grade development. Proceeding National Academy of Sciences vol. 114 no. 3 December 1, 2016

"A Long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom". Thomas Paine

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Bk Jeong said...

Good points, but I still have to say:

Speculation is good only as long as it's reasonable. Most of your ideas are based off paleoecology, fossil evidence, and common sense, so you don't have any issues. Same with All Yesterday's.

But most people aren't like that. Look at just how many errors happened in WWD because they went with unreasonable sizes or just went against established evidence.

Beetle Boy said...

Excellent post as always Duane, possibly one of your best yet in my opinion. More speculation is required I agree, and more soft tissue! Despite the age of shrink wrapping being pretty much over, we still see a lot of reconstructions which seem very unspeculative. A prime example for me is that just because it has always been reconstructed as thus, Parasaurolophus is always shown with a crest that is just bone and skin - which doesn't make sense. For example, I think that Majungasaurus had some kind of unfossilized structure on its skull, fleshy or maybe a keratinous horn like a rhino.

khalil beiting said...

Amazing post Duane. One of my personal favorites so far.

I hadn't the chance to live in those Bakkerian times, but from reading books from the time I truly miss those ways of thinking. They truly felt like living, breathing animals. Animals that are believable yet so odd and alien they were beautifully here we are...a time of boring papers, conservative ideas and the labeling as any form of speculation as dogma or heresy...God I actually hate much of what is the foundation of this field. And because of this, the public buys along with either JP monstrosities, or the new yet conservative values expressed or shown by many. Like how feathered Dromaeosaurs are all the rage, yet they look like flamboyant domestic Pigeons and Peacocks in the eyes of many. You know, how like a realistic Predator WOULDN'T ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE! Most everything in Paleoart is boring and bland, and even some that try to "speculate" barely do so. "Oh yes, I put feathers on my Allosaurus, but only a sparse covering on the body. Oh what's that, add other forms of integument? ARE YOU MAD"!? This is the kind of reasoning that MANY have. That a little tid bit of non flashy speculation is somehow the wildest they can get. I'm REALLY sick of this. And if you say anything about this then you're ridiculed or laughed at. "Oh, you think adding stuff that we don't know for sure about in this animal we barely have any information on is a good idea? Well you're wrong. We should only restore it with the 10% of data we have for it!" The paper on Ornithoscelida alone is enough to show how god awful and laughable this Dogma is.

Well, rant aside, you also bring up a VERY important aspect of Dinosaur ecology, though in itself it brings up WAAAAY more questions than answers. If Dinosaurs did take care of their young so well, then why are juvenile Dinosaurs so darn precocial? They could take care of themselves right out of the egg. Dinosaurs are also known to be segregated by age throughout the family tree, unlike mammals that take care of their young. Coupled with relatively fast sexual maturity (though of course, they likely bred before being mature) and an inherent low population size of Adults, this is quite frankly fucking weird. Great parental care with a long incubation time with not too many young, coupled with heightened precociality, vast difference in ontogenetic ecology and physiology, and a fast "coming of age" (aka when they first start breeding)? This doesn't make any sense. It's like a jumbled mix of Mammalian and Reptilian behaviors and features. It's like evolution just stuck all the options in a bag, shook it up, and picked a few features out of it randomly! Please prove me wrong when it comes to some of this.

And I have a feeling that this sort of behavior and physiology just depended on which group of animals we're talking about. Maybe many Theropods were highly K-strategist, along with many Ornithoschians, while Sauropods were highly R-strategist? That'd be a site to see on the Jurassic Serengeti; A band of mother Allosaurus taking their offspring on a stroll to a watering hole to take care of them, whilst a mated pair of Camptosaurus hide their offspring in the fern bushes away from sight. All the while a loosely organized "gaggle" of juvenile Camarasaurus wander around. For the most part they are all the same age, whilst a small herd of far larger sub-adults migrate in the background. A single lone Bull canters to the watering hole to drink. He is scared and alone because he has had no one to protect or care for him all his life. These are near polar opposites yet this might hold true for Dinosauria.

Duane Nash said...

Thanks Khalil and excellent comments, questions, and thoughts

I do like the idea you give - sort of a mixed bag of reptilian and mammalian features. My current thinking of dinosaur parental care or if you will the sociality of segregated age groups is that parent dinosaur and their offspring had *parallel but intersecting lives* What do I mean by this?

Long Incubation period with potentially both parents engaging in nest guarding duties.

Precocial hatchlings that formed fairly stable clutch groups and that even may have merged with other clutches to form stable large groupings that fed, moved, and grew together *But still lived somewhat in tandem with parents*. Predators hatchlings and may have tolerated their mooching off of carcasses or even loosely fed them. Herbivorous dinosaurs may have provided loose protection as well or even pulled off high vegetation for feeding. But the clutch mates also had an independent streak - like renegade teenagers - and would commonly go off on adventures independent of adults. But - like a teenage not fully independent and knowing the ways of the world - their lives would intersect for food/protection/social needs on occasion as well.

As of now I quite like the renegade bands of teenager analogy. Groups of precocial dinosaurs banding together, getting into mischief, maybe even grouping up with other species in multiple species groupings, but then - when the shit hits the fan - running back to momma as teens are apt to do.

Another social aspect to think about is how crocodile clutch mates band together based on size and form fairly cohesive groups. But they still have lives that intersect with their Mommy and I suspect that this bond might be more nuanced and long lasting that we currently appreciate. Sort of take the crocodile clutch mate idea but put it in a more active land based paradigm.

So I don't think that the parenting was as intensive as say a mother bear and her cubs, In fact by mammalian standards I would call dinosaur parents more like delinquent parents sort of an attitude of "I'm here, I'm gonna do my own thing, If you wanna hang around so be it. If you want go out and explore good luck."

khalil beiting said...

Makes a lot of sense Duane. I really like that idea and ties in perfectly with their known behavior and anatomy. But when does the "bond" stop? When do the parents kick them out of the nest for good? I would personally say when the offspring have offspring themselves. No time to flock around mom and dad when you have to spend a lot of time and energy on your own young, though I suspect this would vary from species to species. Maybe even forming multi-generational gangs in some carnivores and many herbivores. I especially find this likely in highly social, herding Hadrosaurus.

Another thing to bring up is the paper from the past year on Theropod nesting sites in Portugal. It was shown that a single nest was arranged just like an Ostrich in that each mating pair would lay a few eggs alongside a few from other members of the species. This ties in perfectly with what we just mentioned. Ostriches are similar to this in that the young are taken care of by a pair of parents, but the offspring can forage for themselves. They often walk away from the parents and come back only for protection. It turns out there are even more similarities with modern ratites than we thought!

And what of Sauropods? I still imagine them as sea turtle like "parents" in that they lay their many eggs in a shoddy nest and then leave, though for basal Sauropodomorphs I see them doing the same as most Ornithoscelidans. I'd even go as far as saying that many of the "smaller" Sauropods like Nigersaurus, Europasaurus, etc. actually took more care of their young. It would be far easier after all. Another thing to mention is the possibility that parental care also depends on age. If we're talking about a 100+ ft. behemoth Barosaurus then I can't see it taking care of it's young. But a juvenile/sub-adult Camarasaurus that just started reproducing and is in the Rhino to Elephant size range? That's a possibility.

Bk Jeong said...

I personally see crocs or gamebirds as good analogies for parental care in non-avian dinosaurs: independent offspring capable of feeding themselves, but protected by their parents for up to years at a time.

Snakehead fish might also be worth looking into. They produce thousands of young in one spawn but they guard them all.

Duane Nash said...

@Khalil Beiting On the portugal nest sight showing evidence of shared occupation… I have never heard that? How can it be substantiated that multiple females laid eggs in the same nest? Do you have any reference to that idea?

As for "when does the bond stop" Good question but I don't think we need to think of the bond in that concrete of terms. For large dinosaurs that need 10-15 years to reach sexual maturity Mommy might already be dead by the time of sexual maturity. Males probably a lot more antagonistic right off the bat and would probably fit the mold of a Daddy who is never home!! Again I think there was roves of troublemaking teenage dines probably tearing up the neighborhood and having lots of premarital sex (with little actual reproductive success) - generally delinquent parents, lots of bad daddies - and by the time offspring really get into the swing of things reproductively i.e. good size, good calcium/mineral reserves, able to establish a nest in a good neighborhood - by that time Daddy is long gone out of the picture and Mommy is likely dead. Dinosaurs likely only had a couple of good solid reproductive years - not decades like sea turtles and crocs do.

Nick said...

" Paleontologists don't tell stories anymore - they measure stuff, compile data, and matrix things. Science the shit out of dinosaurs. Paleontology, and especially dinosaur paleontology, has evolved radically - one need only visit and talk to the presenters at the annual SVP conference to see the rigor and abstinence of speculating beyond the data, from telling stories."

Paleontologists have always measured stuff and compiled data. They often didn't have the tools in the past to do more rigorous work or had to restrict how many variables they could consider due to computational limits.

You went to a professional conference where academics present their research to each other and you were upset because they were presenting research to each other.

"The more evocative, dynamic Robert Bakker school of dinosaur paleontology has been supplanted by the more measured, rigorous "testable" prototype - what I refer to as the Lawrence Witmore protege that dominates modern dinosaur paleontology."

Stop putting all this science in my science.

OK, I see!

khalil beiting said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
khalil beiting said...

No one is going to take you seriously if you have the attitude of a rude child. And the phrase "stop putting all this science in my science" just shows how not only did you not understand what Duane was saying, but that you didn't even bother trying to understand it.

khalil beiting said...

@Duane I can't find the name of the study (will delve deeper into another time), but I specifically remember that a nest site of a dozen or so eggs belonging to large sized Theropods (I think Lourinhanosaurus) showed that each pair of eggs belonged to different individuals due to the percentage of Calcium in the shell. Per clutch, the amount of calcium is always the same, unlike in communal nesting animals like Ostriches due to obvious reasons. The same thing was found in a late Jurassic Theropod from (I think) Portugal. Regardless of specific taxonomy, this gives a tremendous insight into the behaviour, ontogeny and ecology of Dinosaurs.

And why do you say there would be little success in reproduction? I know that because they aren't mature yet, neither are their sperm or eggs, but I'd still assume that there was a lot of early in life mating and successful nesting going on. I mean, by the looks of it their overall growth and sexual maturity is surprisingly similar to that of large bodied Mammals and Humans, and just look how high reproductive rates are in Humans. Combine that with the larger quantities of offspring per clutch of Dinosaurs and we have some serious baby boomers here.

Duane Nash said...

@Nick You clearly misinterpreted me. No where did I say or betray a thought "don't do science" - what I advocated, but which I did not explicitly spell out as wrongly assuming a tacit intelligence on the part of my usually perceptive readership - is that a marriage of rigorous science and a more intuitively speculative approach not beholden to dogma is a marriage that can yield results. Storytelling - explicitly going beyond what the data actually tells you - is in fact needed because without presenting new vistas, alternatives, and horizons new evidence and data might be overlooked or explained away without the framework or mindset to see it in.

Example: Gregory S. Paul is usually given a lot of homage in circles for being the first artist to aggressively (at the time) feather theropods. He was vindicated, in fact shown to be too conservative, in his feather coatings by the Chinese revolution of the late 90's. GSP was explicitly storytelling - he was speculating in his renderings. Defensible as his position was before it was proven right other notable artists at the time did not jump on board with his style, indeed many spoke against him. However should we really presume that the Chinese fossils actually represent the first evidence people have came across proving feathered dinosaurs? Its very possible evidence of feathered dinosaurs has been found before China, was overlooked, was prepared away, or was simply dismissed because the mental framework was not there to recognize it for what it was.

You know Nick I work 50-60 hours a week and try to give people a thought provoking, interesting blog in my time off. I shouldn't have to waste time explaining myself when the point of the piece is so simple and easy to grasp. Science and imagination are both needed!! One does not in fact supersede the other. People like you are just annoying and can go fuck off I'm tired of playing games with internet "gotcha" artists.

Let me say it again Nick, cuz I am tired and cranky right now and probably need a snickers bar
but this is how I feel. FUck off.

I'm done playing nice with shits like you.

@khalil My reasoning for teenage dinosaurs not having >as equal< of success as more mature, experienced adults are fairly intuitive and not without comparison to the mistakes young parents of many species (including our own) make; in a large colony they might be pushed to the edge where more nest predation occurs; they don't have quite the fat and calcium stores so there brood size is smaller; chooses a bad neighborhood with not enough resources and/or too many predators; improper nest construction (too hot, too cold).

Momma crocs actually are very competitive in terms of getting the best nest site - it matters a lot.

And it is not so much that teenage dinosaurs did not add a lot to the population and most likely were mating and rearing like crazy. It is more like a death by a thousand cuts idea. The infants that stand the bleakest prospects, that are taking the hardest hits are the ones borne to teenage mommas.

If you are still there Nick I told you to fuck off.

khalil beiting said...

Ah yes that what I was thinking over to myself between replies Duane. That sure, the young might be reproducing, but they have no clue what they're doing so their young rarely survive.

So you know how you've talked on this blog about how Dinosaurian ecosystems were dominated by rampant young that were usually more common than adults? Does this still hold true, or was it far more like Mammalian ecosystems?

"If you are still there Nick I told you to fuck off". That made me chuckle for a good couple minutes ;)

khalil beiting said...

Btw I looked around at known and possible times for Theropod incubation times and I found out that Gigantoraptor took around 57 days to hatch. A study showed it to be 80, but the same test was applied to Ostriches and it came out to 59 days, even though they actually take 42 days. I did some simple math and compared it so I came up with 57 days for Gigantoraptor. 45 to 65 days for Troodon formosus and 45 for Oviraptor as well, though possibly less. With this in mind, this is generally comparable with Ostriches, and not the 3-6 months of Protoceratops and Hypacrosaurus. This is a large difference. I suspect that depending on different families and clades, it varied a lot. After all, we have a 6 month, semi-altricial Hypacrosauus and a nearly 2 month, precocial or superprecocial Troodon. I'm thinking that derived sauropodomorphs were rather like sea turtles and highly precocial. Basal Sauropodomorphs like Massospondylus that brooded their eggs were semi-altricial or semi-precocial at the most. Ornithischians were probably, for the most part, altricial (though I suspect some exceptions). And Theropods were probably semi-precocial to super-precocial with likely exceptions.

Duane Nash said...

Good sleuthing. I mentioned in the post that shorter incubation times might coincide with pennaraptorans along the more "birdy" theropods. I have to look at the incubation times you mentioned and how concrete they are. Interestingly if some theropods nested in trees this would in my estimation push them more towards smaller clutch size and more intensive care. Size of the nest being a more limiting factor in trees after all...

I still think that infant, young, teenage dinosaurs formed the bulk of the ecosystem this has not changed. But these longer incubation times might hedge things a bit towards more elaborate care on the part of the parents. And with incubation periods of approaching and exceeding 2 months you really have to start and wonder if both male and females guarded the nest.

And even among mammals there are some types that trend more into a grey area between K and R strategist. Look at pigs they breed prolifically and it seems a lot of animals go after piglets. Incidentally I was watching Planet Earth II this morning and the episode was on cities. There is a large population or urban leopards in some large city in India (I forget the name) and the bulk of their food seems to be piglets culled from the large population of wild pigs in the city. In the footage the leopards just sneak right up to sleeping pig families, grab a piglet, and run off with momma pig chasing after the leopard.

I could see a lot of dinosaurs reproductive ecology having some commonality with pigs or opossums for that matter although likely less "bonded" or strong. The renegade bands of youngsters I mentioned.

Nick said...

Your post doesn't leave much to be misinterpreted.

First, you write: "The more evocative, dynamic Robert Bakker school of dinosaur paleontology has been supplanted by the more measured, rigorous "testable" prototype - what I refer to as the Lawrence Witmore protege that dominates modern dinosaur paleontology."

Then you write: "While diet, ecology, behavior, soft tissue falls under a more subjective and less rigorous banner presumably."

I feel you must be doing this ironically. Otherwise, I'm inclined to think you just don't know what you're talking about.

Irony or ignorance? You tell me.

Jason Silviria said...

You mention that paleontology has forgotten how to tell stories. I'd argue the opposite is true. I think paleontology (and a lot of frequently popularized sciences in general) are suffering from the fact that they are too beholden to narratives, to just-so stories. Adaptationism is a particularly annoying and counterproductive paradigm that is grossly mythologized. It tells us that organisms are merely codes of 1's and 0's when it comes to evolution, that every genetic mutation leads to a morphological adaptation with a specific purpose. And the passing of those genes requires a cisheterosexual life cycle with hulking bachelor males duking it out like its a game of Mortal Kombat, then planting their seed in a female repository. A kind of quasi-Lamarckism to justify social Darwinism (a contradictory combo, but then again Darwin reverted to Lamarckist pseudo-logic late in his lifetime).

It's a narrative recycled in countless Western natural history productions exemplifying "the primordial world", the Earth "untouched by man". It's unscientific, it's disgustingly sexist, and it's toxic ideology, no less fictional than Bambi or The Lion King. A mode of creative journalism used as a barrier to any popular discussion of historiography, and to any opposing data. Stephen J. Gould was right to trash it back in the 70s.

(ICYI, my analysis of how this kind of storytelling has made Walking with Dinosaurs hard to swallow nowadays, despite its gorgeous cinematography:

While Bakker himself occasionally succumbed to adaptationist reasoning (as did most paleobiologists during the early Dinosaur Renaissance), he had the guts (and the data) to challenge poorly founded and often damaging dogma. He's even said so in his writing: he's a classical "Bucklandian", someone who employs a "CSI" examination of clues, of "empirical evidence". He may not always be right (sometimes he admits his pet theories were wrong, sometimes he doesn't, e.g. Nanotyrannus), but he at least gets academics and laypeople alike to stop and think about how to test hypotheses concerning prehistory, without resorting to just-so stories just because.

Also, thanks for the link to the PNAS article about prolonged dinosaur incubation periods. Incidentally, I was thinking about how we have gotten around Bakker's "frog problem" with the meteorite model for the K-T extinction (i.e. the supposed low extinction rates among semiaquatic turtles and amphibians, which 1) turned out to be a result of poor fossil sampling at the time, and 2) neglected the dormancy mechanisms of these animals, e.g. hibernation, antifreeze, etc.), yet we still had a "dinosaur problem". Non-avian dinosaurs had relatively large clutches of eggs, and most clades had precocial young that required little parental care after hatching. With that kind of r-strategy, the smaller species should have been to survive the extinction and continue coexisting alongside the mammals. But a lengthy incubation period requiring months of parental devotion (analogous to brooding in ratites, albatrosses, and penguins, and perhaps lengthy gestations in megamammals) would explain their vulnerability to extinction. A perfect example of the uselessness of terms like "r-strategist" and "k-strategist"; they are horribly subjective and ignore the full picture of reproductive biology.

Duane Nash said...

@Jason Silviria I think my choice of wording "narratives" or "storytelling" is less than precise. What I am speaking of is an informed speculative vista, view, or interpretation - something that necessarily goes a bit beyond what can be safely and confidently proven at the time. THis speculative vista should also counter the dominant view of the time to some degree. Now this method - which some caution as reckless - provides a necessary framework or backdrop for new data or information to be noticed. Otherwise without alternative ideas/paradigms filtering through ones head new and potentially revelatory information can be taken note where as it might otherwise be taken for granted, ignored, explained away, or dismissed as aberrant. See example above of GSP "predicting" widespread feathered theropods and later vindicated. Should we assume that no feather evidence was found before China? Maybe we did have evidence before but it was not on our radar so to speak.

That is my point about "storytelling" - research can benefit by filtering multiple alternative scenarios through their head. Sometimes an explanation might not have the smoking gun at hand when it is presented, but future investigators who come across new data that support alternative hypotheses can benefit by having that in their back pocket.

Interesting you mention the narrative of male conquest in reproduction. Ironically this is the sort of "narrative" or "dominant paradigm" I am talking about when I suggest we entertain alternative ideas/scenarios/stories that can counter such hegemony. I do have some posts planned for the future dealing with this topic in dinosaur reproduction, female competition, nest site competition and why sexual dimorphism appears to be rather modest.

@Nick you seem to have your mind made up about me that I am sort of anti-science goon. I am more than willing to have conversations and debates with people (see above discussions) but you seem hellbent on hemming me in to some cul-de-sac of ignorance. I will give you no such pleasure. I think I made the point of this piece quite explicit: speculative new paradigms/ideas (even ones that go beyond available data) can work hand in hand with testable rigorous analysis. THAT IS ALL. I am boring. Dinosaurs are not. If you want to join in the conversation, add some interesting comments, thoughts or data I would love for you to join in. You can see that others above have engaged in fruitful conversation. Otherwise you are just wasting your and mine time. The choice is yours.

Jason Silviria said...

"Filtering multiple alternative scenarios", i.e. proposing scenarios based on available empirical evidence and how to test them, is not what I consider "storytelling". That hypothesizing, that's science in action: examining the evidence and formulating a models (or several models) that best explain the material conditions present. "Here's the evidence, what are the possible conclusions it supports?" It's the opposite of dogmatic, undialectical "storytelling" that sticks to a paradigm while ignoring any and all contradicting evidence; "Here's our conclusion, how can we justify it?" It's a method of culturally biased mythmaking frequently associated with pseudoscience (creationism, UFOlogy, sasquatching, dianetics), but sadly I've seen it far too often in scientifically-oriented creative journalism, and it can hamper the judgement of professionals studying natural historiography.

I'm interested in reading your further thoughts on reproductive biology in dinosaurs, particularly on sexual dimorphism. I'm quite bothered that the more robustly flamboyant "sexual" morphotypes are always assumed by both professionals and amateurs to be males, and always assumed to indicate a masculocentric monogamous pair or polygamous lek. Remember when stegosaurs like Hesperosaurus were proposed to be sexual dimorphic, with the biggest and widest plates coming from males? (It turned out to be inconclusive; the Sophie specimen demonstrated how stegosaur plate size is quite variable along the back, with smaller pointer plates toward the tails). Remember when the two Khaan skeletons were named "Romeo and Juliet", because they were assumed to have come out of the rut a mated heterosexual pair? Why does no one consider other alternatives when formulating hypotheses? What if at least some dinosaurs were in fact polyandrous like phalaropes, with enormous females doing the lekking, gathering a harem of males? And what if homosexuality and even transgenderism and asexuality were just as widespread in non-avian dinosaurs as in modern birds? Why ignore these equally valid possibilities, other than because cisheteronormativity is what sells?

Another note: I really like your "kaiju" metaphor for dinosaur oology and ontogeny, though I can't imagine Mesozoic daycare being anything like Son of Godzilla...

Duane Nash said...

@jason Silviria thanks for comments and thoughts. On storytelling - and this is partially my fault for using such a loading term - my main contention is this: there are dominant hypotheses i.e. narratives that arise for whatever reason - some authorities have more sway than others, some ideas best fit what is known at the time. But, and you touch upon this in your suggestion we consider multiple sexual mores as possible fits for dinosaurs, other more "fringe" ideas might get relegated away because they don't fit the dominant story if you will. And even when evidence mounts that challenges or supports such fringe ideas they get relegated away to brief mentions or explained away as aberrant. I come across this all the time in paleo: "only T. rex could render and consume bone" yet we have giant allosaur coprolites riddled with shards of bone and Morrison sauropod ischiums with gigantic tooth rakes through them. Or should we really presume that feathered dinosaurs were only first encountered recently in China or have we in fact been overlooking evidence of feathered dinosaurs for quite a while because we did not have the context to recognize what we were seeing? When GSP began illustrating lushly feathered dinosaurs he was not met with unanimous praise - he had no explicit evidence either - many of his contemporaries (artistic and scientific) in the 80's and 90's did not warm up to his take until after China . It was a well reasoned story he was telling, it was not explicitly science he was engaging in but intuitive, deductive speculation. My question: should we brand thoughts like feathered dinosaurs before evidence of said feathered dinosaurs as pseudo-science as they don't conform to strict empirical evidence based hypothesizing yet they demonstrably offer a new context and vista to view new discoveries in? Clearly to put thinking like GSP in the same batch as creationism is not practical or useful.

It seems to me pseudoscience is a particularly nebulous term. The germ of a new idea with potential merit might at first have many qualities of pseudoscience - untested, scant empirical evidence, particularly rabid supporters of the "fringe". What I fear is that charging such an idea barely in its unrefined germative stage shuts down the conversation all at once. That idea is now blacklisted. Entertaining it taints you with the pseudoscience label.

On kaiju - and again this is my more "meta" play on storytelling - I made the argument that kaiju, which are intentionally made up - might offer more food for thought with regards to dinosaurs than a movie made about genetically cloned (ok frog hybrid) dinosaurs. Again what stories inform us? What tales do we tell? There are many layers at play here. We can ultimately benefit from keeping track of all stories - even fringe ones - that may offer some kernels of truth even if large chunks are rotten.

Nick Fonseca said...


I have to agree with you with regards to this notion. Out of the box thinking is important in any field. Without it things become boring and in a rut. It makes you think there is only one way to tackle a problem. Think about physics "which I barely understand" without out of the box thinking we probably wouldn't have physics. Like you said we wouldn't have the capacity to see beyond what we can see. It is impossible to "see" dark matter but someone postulated that it existed and have since been attempting to study it. It is always important to challenge our notions of what we understand or think we understand.

And there is always a narrative quality involved when I hear scientists talking about physics. The narrative is a device to inspire the listener to be in awe of what they are seeing/ hearing.

I can understand there is a fear of "pseudo science" as lay people who consume information handed to them aren't always equipped to be able to discern between "good" or "bad" science. Particularly in the digital age where anyone can create content and have potentially millions of people see it;flat earth comes to mind.

That said, dreaming, thinking, postulating, riffing, what have you; is one of the most important elements of a successful venture be it science, art, architecture, music etc. You have to know how far to stretch the rules which can make you uncomfortable, but it is OK to uncomfortable. Sometimes you fail and most times you succeed, but when you've pushed far and hit, it becomes something bigger.

I completely understand what you mean by living through the "Bakerian years" paleo was fun. Not because there was "less science" but because there were a lot of people participating, and supporting each other. The simple enjoyment has been lost by armchair "scientists" ripping apart every piece of content produced including art, science, blogs etc. It feels like it is all about personalities who want to control the narrative of "how things are supposed to be" to their own benefit. It isn't the science sucking the fun out, it is cherry picking science and using it as a tool for ones own benefit that has done that. I still love paleo anything but I have dumped a lot of related social media as the attitudes of people is just plain blech. At this point i mostly read this and a few other blogs and follow paleo news and that is enough to keep me happy.

khalil beiting said...

Oh the big news about Utahraptor reminded me about this parental care issue. From the block, there is a mix of juveniles, a couple sub-adults and only a single adult. Could this be an example of this odd parenting technique? Maybe some of the young, or rather the only surviving young, stayed with the mother? The father may or may not even be in the picture. And it looks like there are even more younger juveniles. Could this be an example of a multi-generational gang/family? The mother laying one clutch, then years later having another? I know it's shear speculation but it's still possible if not likely.

Lam Luong said...

I was reading the segment about nesting and reproduction when I remembered something a watched in a documentary - the nesting site of a large titanosaur species (Auca Mahuevo) was found within proximity of geothermal vents, which incubated the eggs and released chemicals that would slowly erode the thick shells of the eggs and making hatching possible for the neonate sauropods. Any thoughts on the possible reproductive and ecological implications?
My source:

Also, I remembered your blog discussing Allosaurus nesting at the Cleveland-Lloyd "hospice" wallow/graveyard, in which the decomposing carcasses provided both egg incubation and vast quantities of food. I was wondering if such behavior could be related to having a long incubation period, with such an abundance of carcasses that could provide such needed long-term incubation.

Duane Nash said...

@Lam Luong I will have to take another look on Auca Mahuevo. I remember something about geothermal springs and titanosaur eggs. I don't know if sauropods had long incubation times.

When i speculated allosaurs nested at Cleveland Lloyd due to abundant baby food I was not suggesting decomposing bodies incubated the eggs but that is a wild thought!!

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