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|
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.
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