|Neovenator sasterii rostral facial nerves. credit Darren Naish|
Sensitivity… not usually a word associated with flesh rendering beasts of yore. However the evidence is in and it seems unequivocal. The most celebrated of ancient predators, the theropods, were equipped with high facial sensitivity. Sensitivity, not just of the face but as a package of characters very emblematic of wide variety of animals including ourselves, is a word and concept we need to explore and unpack both culturally and biologically in order to better understand creatures that are actually both cultural and scientific creations. And in doing so I think we will learn more about these animals... and ourselves.
The Cultural Baggage of "Sensitivity" in Humans and Animals: Towards a Unifying Concept
Emotional sensitivity is generally ascribed a feminine quality in western cultures. We don't often ascribe connotations of sensitivity to those human conquests most adventurous, daring, "hyper masculine", and audacious in scope. Sensitivity is usually associated with the weak, indulgent, melancholic souls, too indecisive and wavering to get in the fight or even pick a side… That we have these cultural inscriptions, at least in western culture (especially in America), which are in turn enscripted into gender normative roles is an important concept. The feminine becomes the loci of sensitivity and, presumably, all those features incumbent upon such a character, namely whatever masculinity is not supposed to be; easily overwhelmed; dismayed; and petulant. The masculine defined more by a lack of sensitivity than anything else - stoic, distant, strong and silent - unsuited to express any emotion save anger.
It is interesting and perhaps perspective changing when we look at the two main definitions of "sensitive":
1. Quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences.
2. (of a person or person's behavior) easily hurt or damaged especially: easily hurt emotionally: delicately aware of the attitude and feelings of others.
If we had to make a choice I think most would drift towards definition #1 when thinking of an animal's sensitivity, focusing more on external stimuli especially as picked up by the "classic" recognized senses. When discussing human sensitivity I think it fair to say that most would drift towards definition #2, where the classic senses are eschewed and the impetus is placed more on emotional cues - both external and internal - as a dominating influence to a sometimes overwhelming degree. Note that in definition #2 the words hurt, damaged, and delicately are used. It is clearly not a good aspect in a person to be emotionally sensitive based on this definition. Sensitivity is conveyed as a weakness, not a strength. Of course, for me personally as a HSP (highly sensitive person), I would highly challenge this notion. However, at least in western societies the conceit remains - being overly emotionally expressive, empathic or "feeling" others emotions is seen as a weakness or shortcoming.
Interesting that there is a bit of a dichotomy in thinking of what it means to be a sensitive animal versus a sensitive human, especially given that we are all technically animals. But this dichotomy is not at all incongruous with our tendency to place humans outside of nature and removed from the behavioral patterns and tendencies of other fellow animals. Does our focus on emotional sensitivity in humans speak more towards a tendency to not only distance ourselves from "the animals" but also disavow our other senses? Does out tendency to highlight the classic senses of animals but diminish their emotional sensitivity likewise further distance us from animals and justify our treatment of them? Could these two separate definitions be combined more succinctly into one unifying concept of sensitivity in sentient beings of any species? I think so and I think such a definition is far more useful and practical despite whatever discomforts and cultural conceits such a definition arouses. For me there is much more utility in a definition that encompasses sensitivity in animals and humans as an ability to read incoming stimuli from the outer environment that includes not only sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch but a certain emotional capacity to display and interpret the "vibe" of other sentient animals, even other species.
Despite what I think constitutes a more holistic and encompassing definition of sensitivity we are still left with the (western) culturally enmeshed judgement that heightened "emotional" sensitivity is bad and linked to the feminine BUT heightened sensitivity in other arenas (smell, sight, hearing, touch, taste) is generally valued and revered in people. In fact other being sensitive in other senses is given a lauded and super power status.
Let me pull a Quentin Tarantino tactic (Kill Bill II David Carradine speech towards the finale) and use the comic book super hero analogy to drive home my point further. We've all seen comic book super heroes endowed with super senses; the superman ideal able to see through buildings, hear at infinitesimally low levels etc. etc. Funny that we appreciate and envy such super senses in our super heroes but have you ever heard of a superhero blessed with hypersensitivity on an emotional wavelength? Nope, I'm quite sure that you haven't. In fact just the thought probably arouses a slight chuckle in you. There is no highly empathetic, intensely emotional marvel super hero. Stan Lee did not think of that one. Still emotional sensitivity is seen as a negative i.e."Stop being so sensitive,", "You need a thicker skin,".
Yet if we imagine that reading, reacting, and displaying intense and nuanced emotional information is just another sense - like hearing, smelling, taste, touch, or vision - that is imbued into humans to varying degrees (or more animals than we might be comfortable to admit) then it stands to reason that such an ability has adaptive benefit to the individual and to the species. In humans this is self-evident despite our cultural and gendered normatives grafted upon highly emotional sensitive people. In animals, such as the large macro predatory theropods, being highly sensitive to the emotional cues of other members of your species would have been extremely strategic and adaptive because they could literally bite your face off. Try telling a pair of Tarbosaurus bataar engaged in courtship ritual "not to be too sensitive" and both partners would likely reply with (if they could) "fuck you man, I got to read every nuance of this other monster's emotion because they could bite my freaking face off!!"
"You are too sensitive", "stop being so sensitive"
Admonishing humans for being regarded as too sensitive emotionally is a culturally enmeshed tradition, not necessarily congruent with the adaptive real life brutal Darwinian realities of existence where hyper-sensitive attributes can be life saving. Heightened awareness of emotional cues , readings, and "vibing" things out has obvious and palpable survivorship benefits not just for the individual but for the group. Only in the unnatural setting of culture and society can such benefits be seen as negatives. Such an interpretation is congruent with many strands of feminist theory. In a patriarchal society both men and women are punished. Given that an especially high degrees of emotional sensitivity is equally represented in the sexes, when signals of overtly high levels of emotional sensitivity are displayed shaming and punishments are doled out i.e. "don't be so sensitive", "only women are sensitive" etc etc in a patriarchy. Such punishments are fear responses meted out when something arises that does not fit the mold. A spider is seen on the wall, smash it. A snake in the garden, kill it. Scapegoat it. Silence it. What is actually a strength and benefit to the individual and species is hammered down and shamed into silence together with a concomitant psychic and emotional paralysis for the person shamed and shunned. Saying someone is "too sensitive" is the equivalent of saying someone can see too well; hear too acutely; or have too refined a palate. It is a damning indictment on the current status of many cultures, but especially western, that the sense of empathy and emotional fluency is the only sense that is routinely disavowed and squashed - especially in men but to some degree in both genders - BUT is exactly the sense that needs to be heightened in order to combat the ills of the modern age.
It is also interesting that many of our most vaulted and celebrated animals - often times seen as symbols of courage, conquest, and power - are actually the most intensely hypersensitive of animals. And therefore, more acutely gendered as feminine. Cats for instance have always been associated - and often times reviled and persecuted - for their association with the feminine. Also highly sensitive. Including all those warlike symbolic gestures towards lions and coat of arms. Sharks, also highly sensitive and much more nuanced in social behavior than we might generally think. Crocodiles are surprisingly delicate lovers and more than equipped with a suite of features most accurately described as highly sensitive. Many theropods sported (or still sport) a panoply of highly sensitive qualities, including extreme facial sensitivity.
Ironically, western cultures in their disavowal of emotional sensitivity in males have negated some of the most powerful animals as sources of identity - as "spirit animals" - per se. Powerful and predatory felids go to the girls. Sharks and crocodiles, sorry guys if you disavow your sensitivity you don't get to keep them, they too go to the girls. And the penultimate insult to the male ego, those awesomebro predators of yore, they hypersensitive theropods - the girls get them too. Guys we are left with freaking water buffalo. Yup and other big stinky herbivores, omnivores and other "prey species". And dogs, woopty-doo, as if anyone had to ever work hard to earn their respect.
Maybe, in a post presumably about the sensitive snouts of theropods, you were not expecting a neo-feminist thesis illuminating the need for contemporary H. sapiens to reclaim not only our emotional sensitivity as a species for both sexes, but our place within a pantheon of emotionally sensitive animals. It should not be too surprising that I blend the cultural withe the scientific, that has been a constant theme of this blog, and one I will continue with even if some find it distracting, biased, or not rigorous enough. Dinosaurs especially, but really all animals to some extent are a blend of the scientific and socio-cultural-mythos.
You may want to skip to 2:50 to see the shark overwhelmed by the sensory input from the world. Sheesh, that shark is just too sensitive for the world!!
Face Nuzzling in Humans, Felids, Crocs, Birds and Monster faced Theropods
H. sapiens fits within a pantheon of sentient beings that has finely attuned neuro-sensory capabilities not limited to classic senses, but emotional ones too. While nerve endings are concentrated in our hands as well as our genitalia - we also share a highly sensitive oral region with the animals in discussion. A finely attuned and sensitive snout that is perhaps quite capable of soothing social relations and establishing long term pair bondings…
|http://avangardphoto.com / Mario Caputa CC3.0|
If the extant phylogenetic bracket is your thing we have abundant evidence of both crocs and birds showcasing face nuzzling within the context of mating/pair bonding.
Where to put theropods in this pantheon? Probably starting somewhere between crocodiles and albatross is a good ballpark. Theropods do appear to have long incubation times, their clutches were larger than birds but smaller than crocs, and due to their high metabolisms it would be hard to hunker down and babysit a nest for a month or two in a solitary fashion. The responsibility for nest and clutch guarding likely fell on the shoulders of both parents to some degree.
In terms of parental care of the hatched offspring I like to think of theropods parents as a bit like delinquent parents: "Yeah, you can hang around here for a while, even nibble a bit on my leftovers. But look I'm not gonna baby you, you should go out and get your own food and hang out with your clutch mates for the most part. Did I mention you are freaking annoying sometimes? And if shit hits the fan, if I can't feed myself, yeah I'm gonna eat you? So you better grow up and move out, pronto!!" Again, somewhere between crocodiles and birds is a good place to start from in these regards. With a sprinkle of some cannibalism if the need arises. (See I did not go all hippy-dippy, lubby-dubby on you, just mainly)
|REJOICE by Duane Nash|
It should not at all be too obvious that I went to UCSC where nekkid hippy chicks frolicking through redwood glades was definitely not a thing… No apologies for the gratuitous female flesh, I'm still a dude after all. Some of my fondest memories as a kid were sneaking through my dad's Heavy Metal comics. Some where along the line bewbs paired up with prehistoric beasties became something not to do despite the fact that everyone loves Mesozoic beasties and bewbs. That such Boris Valejo type art might now be considered a bit backwards, a bit passé, a bit too boys club, this makes me sad. Women and theropods are a natural pairing!!
Apart from that slight observation of perhaps an over political correctness what I really want to illustrate is that if we take this hypersensitive facial business and face nuzzling behavior to its logical conclusion in theropods there is quite the argument to be made that pair bonding between theropods and big brained, tactile, and empathetic humans is possible. Start with a young theropod and form that physical bond early, especially along the sensitive facial areas, and you have a friend to the end!!
It's actually an idea not outside the bounds of possibility… If humans could endear themselves to theropods at a young age and strategically take advantage of the facial sensitivity of theropods then we could see such a union forming per chance. Such facial sensitivy in theropds, if it was used for face muzzling, would also engender a heightened or hypersensitive emotional ability to read the other theropods intentions. Why? For the simple fact that if you are going to get close enough to face nuzzle you better be damn sure your presumed partner doesn't actually want to bite your face off!! Such an ability and need to "read" or "vibe" out your presumed partner would also engender more committed physical social cues. These could include ritualized head, body, tail movements i.e. "dance" moves. Also certain display structures that could be flushed with blood or inflated to various degrees to express intent. In mammals we have exquisite facial muscles, giving us highly communicative expressions. In many mammals it is the ears, especially in dogs, that can be used to express emotion and intent. Theropods, bereft of such facial muscles and communicative expressions - would invent other alternative modes of communication. The ability to flush with blood areas of the face and forequarters to show intention. Inflatable gular sacs and other fleshy display structures. And of course flesh antlers, the highest potential for and use of likely occurring in tyrannosaurids. Don't be so surprised when you notice that after we see a decline in the size and extravagance of hard tissue crests, lacrimals etc etc which seem to have peaked in the early mid Jurassic we see larger and larger supra temporal fenestra in many predatory theropods, especially tyrannosaurids.
The False Positive of Theropod Facial Biting
I think one of the more fascinating aspects of paleontology - and really paleoculture, because there is a constant dance between the culture and the science - is a certain appreciation of the oscillation of ideas. Unfortunately this oscillation can only really be appreciated with age and experience. For instance in my lifetime I have seen the wobble of Tyrannosaurus locomotion go from vertical tail dragger, to horizontal 45 mph speedster, now going back to a power walker. It still might oscillate some more, but I think the oscillations are getting tighter and tighter and we might be honing in on some truths. Younger enthusiasts might today scoff at the notion of tail dragging tyrannosaurids but need to realize it was some of the top minds of the time positing this stuff. To suggest that todays "top minds" all of a sudden are going to stop making mistakes - not the same ones but different ones - is naive and incongruent with the history of paleontology.
One idea that I think is due for a bit of an oscillation is the notion of face biting theropods. It has taken on kind of a dogmatic lore lately. I think that there is a notion out there, not really challenged, that a typical day in the life of a large carnivorous theropod went like this: "Wake up. Walk up to another theropod. Gnaw on each others faces for a bit. Eat something. Gnaw on another theropods face. Go to bed. Have dreams of gnawing on the faces of theropods. Next day repeat."
The question or challenge I posit is not that theropod face biting was not a thing, it clearly was, it was just not as much a thing as we are making it. Instead of a documentation of a daily ritual of antagonistic clashes, face biting represents the occasional lover's quarrel or a truly aggressive encounter for dominance, territory, mates etc. etc.
Towards a More Nuanced, Complex, and Varied Theropod Social Dynamic
I think that the startling and profound facial sensitivity of predatory theropod dinosaurs really pushes us to consider an increasing likelihood of a profoundly socially complex animal. Not necessarily socially complex in the same way primates are, or mammals in general, but by splitting the difference between modern crocodiles and aves we can hone in on some distinctly possible truths… or at least a modicum of truthiness. Having such social bonds established via feedback loops - i.e. face nuzzling behavior - is rather simple and straightforward. I suspect that facial sensitivity originally was furnished in prey manipulation and later proved a fortuitous exaptation that mollified aggressive tendencies and allowed pro-social behavior. Such pro-social behavior does not necessarily invoke a high canid or primate type of intelligence, altruistic behavior, pack hunting or other overtly advanced symptoms of "highly complex social behavior". It does not negate the possibility either. But I think as a baseline face nuzzling has some patently obvious benefits for peacemaking capabilities both between and among the sexes in predatory theropods. Basically enough tolerance generated for the animals to capitulate to, "OK this feels kinda good and pleasurable when we do this, I won't bite your face off. We can both stick around and take some turns guarding this nest of eggs we created." Seems like a win-win right? Predatory theropods would get some pleasure through face nuzzling, not get their faces ripped off, and win the genetic sweepstakes. Seems like a pretty good feedback loop, no? Those theropods that could nullify their aggressive tendencies through face nuzzling would have the best reproductive success because they would stick around long enough to share clutch watching duties…
I'm gonna leave this here…
And this is an important point that I want to stress here… egg incubation times for dinosaurs might be pretty darn long. Somewhere between incubation times for reptiles and birds is what we might be looking at for an average. Having an incubation period of several weeks or even months poses some profound difficulties for high metabolic rate large terrestrial predators. First of all it would prove difficult to go the route of mother crocs and simply hunker down on the nest for several months, the caloric and water needs would be too high for predatory theropods. Unlike large sauropods, hadrosaurs, and other herbivorous/omnivorous dinosaurs predatory theropods could not simply form huge colonies that overwhelmed the local ecosystem with eggs and babies - they did not have equal population densities. Finally predatory animals would have to abandon the nest for some time in order to forage, they don't have the luxury that herbivores or omnivores have in these regards. These simple deductions push us to consider two or more predatory theropods sharing clutch guarding burdens. It does not necessarily even have to be a classic monogamous male-female alliance. It could be a sisterhood that grew up together since clutch mates. It could be an alliance of male brothers that likewise came of age together. Or some combination there - of, there are actually a lot of alliances that could crop up. All of which were fostered and ameliorated via pro-social face nuzzling behavior.
Again let me state crystal clear the link - long incubation times and the realities of predatory ecology - push us into a realm where pro-social bonding behavior and shared clutch guarding duties become a very palpable possibility. I would say the favored image actually.
I realize that there a lot of other suggestions for high theropods facial sensitivity none of which are mutually exclusive to the scenario I have painted here. I though about discussing those ideas here but I think that is enough for now. Gonna have to revisit the other ideas in future posts, I also have heard of some other info coming down the pike…
For this post I also made some quick and dirty Youtube clips to sort of a give another avenue and thought document to these ideas. Gonna see how these work out, hopefully the video can work in conjunction with the writing and the illustrations to better drive home and express these ideas.
Barker, C.T., Naish, D., Newham, E., Katsamensis, O.L., Dyke, G. 2017. Complex neuroanatomy in the rostrum of the Isle of Wight theropod Neovenator salerii. Scientific Reports 7, 3749
Carr, T. D., Varricchio, D. J., Sedlmayr, J. C., Roberts, E. M. & Moore, J. R. 2017. A new tyrannosaur with evidence with evidence for anagenesis and crocodile-like facial sensory system. Scientific Reports 7, 44942.
Ibrahim, N., Sereno, P. C. Dal Sasso, C., Maganuco, S., Fabbri, M., Martill, D. M., Zouhri, S., Myhrvold, N. & Iurino, D. A. 2014. Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur. Science 345, 1613-1616.
Naish, Darren. The Sensitive Face of a Big, Predatory Dinosaur. Scientific America. June 16, 2017
Tanke, D. H. & Currie, P. J. 1998. Head-biting behavior in theropod dinosaurs: paleopathological
evidence. Gaia 15, 167-184.
"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