Oh no, a book review... Dinosaurs The Encyclopedia: Supplement 5

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If you're a blogger, then you choose when and how often you blog, what you blog about, and even whether you blog at all. There's no pressure, do what the hell you like. I've always been determined not to do stuff on Tet Zoo that I don't want to. No participation in pointless, boring memes for example. But if people send me books to review then, yikes, I suppose I better get reviewing them...

A recent-ish addition to the Tet Zoo library is Don Glut's Dinosaurs The Encyclopedia: Supplement 5, a 798-page synthesis of new stuff in the dinosaur literature, as of April 2007. Don published Dinosaurs The Encyclopedia - from hereon D:TE - in 1997, and since then has published a new supplementary volume every couple of years. As Ken Carpenter says in the foreward to Supplement 5, it's testament to the current highly active phase of dinosaur research that supplements continue to be required, and indeed will continue to be for the foreseeable feature, at least so far as we can tell from extrapolations about dinosaur diversity and discovery rates. While including a lengthy introductory section that discusses new work on dinosaur phylogenetics, palaeobiology and extinction, the core of the volume is an alphabetical review of both new dinosaur taxa, and of new work on not-so-new taxa. Covering as it does 2004 to 2007, Supplement 5 is therefore the book of Albertaceratops, Changchunsaurus, Dracorex, Dracovenator*, Erketu, Europasaurus, Galveosaurus, Guanlong, Juravenator, Koutalisaurus, Ligabuesaurus, Shanag, Sinocalliopteryx, Trigonosaurus, and so many others.

* Don't forget to check out Adam Yates's new blog of the same name.

I have mixed feelings about these books. For starters, they're prohibitively expensive. To make an understatement of obscene magnitude, I am not exactly flush with cash, and these books are totally out of my league. D:TE costs $295 (£150, €189), with Amazon currently doing it at a knocked-down $156.35 (£79.92, €100). I don't own it and don't think I ever will, with even the bargain price being just flat-out non-affordable. Supplement 5 is $145 (£74, €93) so, likewise, I would never get to buy this book. Of course, this is more of a complaint about the unjustifiably disgusting cost of books, and not about this book in particular, but you get the point. Moving on, the raison d'être of D:TE and its supplements is to report and summarise the dinosaur literature. To give some idea of how much literature we're talking about for Supplement 5, the bibliography is (at 10 point text) 53 pages long.

On the one hand it's great to have pretty much all the recent literature condensed in one place, and colleagues tell me that the volumes really are useful for this reason. I roughly estimate that all of the papers summarised here would - if printed out - require shelf-space of 1 to 2 m, yet here you have it all in one volume about 50 mm thick. But on the other hand, the books are redundant for the same reason. I appreciate that I might not be typical in this respect, but if you know and/or own the primary literature, there is very little here, if anything, that will be new to you. Importantly, rather than providing a new take or novel set of observations on any given dinosaur, Glut synthesizes the literature he's discussing, meaning that, if you've read the papers concerned, you won't get anything new at all: all the entries are retellings, with large sections of papers sometimes paraphrased or rewritten. I can't be the only dinosaur worker/enthusiast who really does read pretty much all of the dinosaur literature, so I regret to say that I don't ever use these volumes in my technical work (but, hey, let me say that I still very much enjoy owning them).

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Most of the many included figures are lifted straight from the relevant papers, so there's also nothing new in the way of technical illustrations. However, I like the fact that Glut includes lots of images of museum mounts, field digs and behind-the-scenes collection photos (wow, a photo of the Gigantspinosaurus mount: another one [from here] shown in adjacent image), many of which are new to me (although some are too dark and appear poorly focused). Like the other supplements, Supplement 5 also includes a lot of great new artwork by Beri Krzic. There is also at least one contribution by Mark Hallett, and new Greg Paul Acrocanthosaurus and Giganotosaurus drawings that I haven't seen before.

Obviously, Glut goes to great lengths to obtain, collate and read and read and read the literature, and this alone must make him one of the best-informed, most up-to-date individuals on contemporary dinosaur literature. However, I think that he sometimes accepts the opinion of an author all too uncritically, effectively assuming that what that author says is accurate, and/or that it reflects the current consensus view in the field (Glut is not a technical palaeontologist, so he might not know exactly what current thinking is on particular problem areas). He also might mislead some readers in reporting controversial views without critiquing them.

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In the section on the Madagascan maniraptoran Rahonavis ostromi (p. 562), for example, Glut reports how both John Ruben and Larry Martin have proposed that the only known specimen might be a chimaera (this opinion was also published by Geist & Feduccia 2000). The bones of the Rahonavis holotype were discovered closely associated, are of the right size to belong to a single individual, make anatomical sense in view of what we know about other maniraptorans, and were found in a cladistic analysis to group together, even when coded as separate entries (Forster et al. 1998: reconstruction of Rahonavis shown here). There doesn't seem to be any good reason for the chimaera claim, but of course Ruben and Martin (and Geist and Feduccia) contend that birds are not theropods, so fossils that combine traits of both non-avian maniraptorans and birds are problematical for them and hence they seek to explain them away.

By simply reporting this as an opinion that's apparently worthy of merit, Glut runs the risk of misinforming readers, and I think it would be helpful in such an instance to set the record straight, however briefly. Rahonavis has most recently been found to be an unenlagiine dromaeosaurid (Makovicky et al. 2005, Senter 2007, Turner et al. 2007a, b), and quill knobs - the one character used by Martin et al. to demonstrate the avian affinities of Rahonavis' forelimbs - are now known to occur in other dromaeosaurids, specifically Velociraptor (Turner et al. 2007c). They are not unique to birds. What's all the weirder is that Glut reports the inclusion of Rahonavis within Unenlagiinae elsewhere in the book, so why not mention it in the section on p. 562? [cladogram below, from Turner et al. 2007b, shows body size evolution within basal birds and deinonychosaurs. Unenlagiinae is the clade at the base of Dromaeosauridae that includes Buitreraptor, Rahonavis and Unenlagia].

i-98c360ab6e5b9779daba4ac49f4faf0d-Paraves phylogeny from Turner et al. Mahakala paper.jpg

Another example is provided by his repetition of Manning et al.'s (2006) conclusions on dromaeosaurid claw function without critique. These authors argued that dromaeosaurid sickle claws were for climbing and not for killing, and that these dinosaurs climbed up the bodies of their prey and used their jaws as their primary weapons. It seems wrong to report these conclusions as if they're reasonable, as - to put it mildly - a significant body of evidence weighs against them. Finally, a more extreme example is provided by Glut's apparent acceptance of Sullivan's work on pachycephalosaurs. Sullivan (2005, 2006) contends that domed skull roofs are primitive for pachycephalosaurs, that flat heads within pachycephalosaurs are derived, and that pachycephalosaurs and ceratopsians are not really close relatives and hence that Marginocephalia is an artificial grouping (see also Bakker et al. 2006). Glut apparently accepts all of this as valid, as he both discusses it favourably, and writes Marginocephalia as ?"Marginocephalia" elsewhere in the book. However, Sullivan's arguments don't appear to be strong, it seems unlikely that he's right, and his views have not been supported by other workers who have looked at pachycephalosaurs and their phylogeny (Xu et al. 2006, Butler et al. 2008). It's only right that Glut reported Sullivan's work, but I find it surprising that he accepted Sullivan's various unorthodox opinions as representing the status quo [pachycephalosaur Dracorex shown below, from Bakker et al. 2006].

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I'm sure that most dinosaur workers will do something vain and shameful on first seeing Supplement 5 or any of the other supplements to D:TE: thumb through the pages in order to see if their own work has been cited and/or discussed. And if you do this and find that your research hasn't been cited and/or discussed, do you deem the book a failure? On receiving a review copy of the then-brand-new Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs (Academic Press, 1997), one palaeontologist I know immediately checked a section relevant to his own research, only to find that a major work of his own was not cited. In disgust he wrote to the publishers, asking for a refund or something. The person I'm discussing is not quite right in the head, but anyway... how does Supplement 5 perform in this little test? I didn't publish much in the period of time that the book covers (there's Taylor & Naish (2005) on diplodocoids [available free here], and that is indeed discussed), but my overall impression is that coverage is indeed pretty complete [in image below, the Glut supplements are the huge black tomes to the right].

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And despite my comment above about the redundancy of these volumes, I need to back-peddle a bit as, while these volumes might prove useful or even essential to some palaeontologists, there were probably not compiled with a technical audience in mind. It would be fairer to say that they do a sterling job in bringing a summary of the dinosaur literature to the public, and it would be snobbish to assume that the technical literature is just out there and available to everyone, as it's clearly not. So hats off to Don, on balance I think he does a great service and I hope he continues to produce these weighty tomes. If only they weren't so bloody expensive.

Full reference: Glut, Donald F. 2008. Dinosaurs: The Encyclopedia, Supplement 5. McFarland & Company (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London), pp. 798. ISBN 978-0-7864-3241-7.

The volume can be ordered from www.mcfarlandpub.com (order line 800-253-2187).

Refs - -

Bakker, R. T., Sullivan, R. M., Porter, V., Larson, P. & Saulsbury, S. J. 2006. Dracorex hogwartsia, n. gen, n. sp., a spiked, flat-headed pachycephalosaurid dinosaur from the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota. In Lucas, S. G. & Sullivan, R. M. (eds) Late Cretaceous Vertebrates from the Western Interior. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 35, 331-345.

Butler, R. J., Upchurch, P. & Norman, D. B. 2008. The phylogeny of the ornithischian dinosaurs, Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 6, 1-40.

Forster, C. A., Sampson, S. D., Chiappe, L. M. & Krause, D. W. 1998. The theropod ancestry of birds: new evidence from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar. Science 279, 1915-1919.

Geist, N. R. & Feduccia, A. 2000. Gravity-defying behaviors: identifying models for Protoaves. American Zoologist 40, 664-675.

Makovicky, P. J., Apesteguía, S. & Agnolín, F. L. 2005. The earliest dromaeosaurid theropod from South America. Nature 437, 1007-1011.

Manning, P. L., Payne, D., Pennicot, J., Barrett, P. M. & Ennos, R. A. 2006. Dinosaur killer claws or climbing crampons. Biology Letters 2, 110-112.

Senter, P. 2007. A new look at the phylogeny of Coelurosauria (Dinosauria: Theropoda). Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 5, 429-463.

Sullivan, R. M. 2005. Pachycephalosaurs from Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta: taxonomy, biostratigraphy, and paleobiogeographic implications. In Braman, D. R., Therrien, F., Koppelhus, E. B. & Taylor, W. (eds) Dinosaur Park Symposium: Short Papers, Abstracts, and Program. The Royal Tyrrell Museum (Drumheller), pp. 121-126.

- . 2006. A taxonomic review of the Pachycephalosauridae (Dinosauria: Ornithischia). In Lucas, S. G. & Sullivan, R. M. (eds) Late Cretaceous Vertebrates from the Western Interior. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 35, 347-365.

Taylor, M. P. & Naish, D. 2005. The phylogenetic taxonomy of Diplodocoidea (Dinosauria: Sauropoda). PaleoBios 25, 1-7.

Turner, A., Hwang, S. H. & Norell, M. A. 2007a. A small derived theropod from Öösh, Early Cretaceous, Baykhangor Mongolia. American Museum Novitates 3557, 1-17.

- ., Makovicky, P. J. & Norell, M. A. 2007c. Feather quill knobs in the dinosaur Velociraptor. Science 317, 1721.

- ., Pol, D., Clarke, J. A., Erickson, G. M. & Norell, M. A. 2007b. A basal dromaeosaurid and size evolution preceding avian flight. Science 317, 1378-1381.

Xu, X., Forster, C. A., Clark, J. M. & Mo, J. 2006. A basal ceratopsian with transitional features from the Late Jurassic of northwestern China. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 273, 2135-2140.

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Of course, Darren is the worst possible person to review a volume like this, since not only does he read all the primary literature, he remembers it all. For us mortals, the Glut supplements are much more useful :-)

But I think it's unquestionable that the core volume is a much more valuable work than any of the supplements, summarising as it does 169 years rather than the two or three years covered by each supplement. it's a much more synthetic book than the supplements, which -- it's true -- do tend to report the latest-and-greatest papers rather uncritically.

I too applaud Don Glut for this kind of work. Unfortunately for the enthusiast the obsene price of books such as this means that most of us won't be buying it any time soon. Nor sadly will many public libraries. They're great as introductions to the technical literature for undergrads however, and I'm expect university libraries will be buying most of the print run.

By Dave Godfrey (not verified) on 06 Jun 2008 #permalink

Perhaps the obscene cost of the books could be substantially brought down if they were released as electronic volumes instead. The few volumes I own I find extremely useful in tracking down much of the literature I do not already have, or for a quick summarization of how complete my personal library of articles is (which is quite often inadequate, sadly).

Oh shit. Yet another book that I absolutely need and that I don't have time to read. <weep> <sob>

I can't be the only dinosaur worker/enthusiast who really does read pretty much all of the dinosaur literature

Keep in mind that Glut uses REALLY ALL of it. Even the uttermost obscure Chinese and Russian ones, like the descriptions of Kulceratops and "Omeisaurus" maoianus and the monograph on Gongxianosaurus. You wouldn't get anywhere near enough bang for your buck, but I still bet the books contain information that you don't know.

However, I like the fact that Glut includes lots of images of museum mounts, field digs and behind-the-scenes collection photos

Yes, but most of them are not measurable for the purposes of what was my MSc thesis :.-(

the supplements, which -- it's true -- do tend to report the latest-and-greatest papers rather uncritically.

I'm under the impression -- not surprising given the sheer volume of the books! -- that Glut works very fast. The series is chock full of typos and similar errors that range all the way to (in the main book) placing Transylvania in Hungary, where it hasn't been since 1919.


And now to linguistic observations:

A recent-ish edition to the Tet Zoo library

Ah, so edition and addition are pronounced the same? And forward and foreword? I knew peddle and pedal sound the same, but it isn't adequately taught abroad just how trounced unstressed vowels are in English. ~:-|

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 06 Jun 2008 #permalink

These books would be useful to someone like me who's primary interest isn't dinosaurs, but likes to stay informed by absent-mindedly thumbing through up-to-date books. Unfortunately, the price, the price...

I've never pronounced edition and addition the same. I've always said ed- (as in edit) and add (as in, well add.)

I say the first part of foreword and forward the same, but not the last part, obviously.

By Dave Godfrey (not verified) on 06 Jun 2008 #permalink

I'm either lazy or retarded, or maybe both, as both edition and addition sound the same when coming from my mouth.

You wouldn't get anywhere near enough bang for your buck, but I still bet the books contain information that you don't know.

I agree with your point - but let's note that I'm not pretending to know everything, nor even to read all the anatomical descriptions I obtain. But, yes, round here Gongxianosaurus is a house-hold name. You've never heard the phrase 'What's good for the goose is good for Gongxianosaurus'? If you think I'm kidding, think again. Someone back me up, please. That exact phrase is even in the literature.

You've never heard the phrase 'What's good for the goose is good for Gongxianosaurus'? If you think I'm kidding, think again. Someone back me up, please. That exact phrase is even in the literature.

Indeed -- and the PDF is even freely downloadable:

I'm a bit bitter about that joke, because Matt had to cut what was IMHO a rather better one as a tit-for-tat to get this frivolity past the reviewers/editors.

Ah, so edition and addition are pronounced the same? And forward and foreword?

They are for me (American). I might differentiate the first pair if I had to, but not normally. I can't think of any way to differentiate the second pair.

Sorry for the tangent. Nice review, Darren!

Neat. It's nice to hear such books exist even if beyond my reach. I'm just glad someone is keeping on top of it all, so that research findings are not lost to wider view.

I guess the high price per volume may be needed to ensure this intensive work gets done at all... since it is not likely to make the bestsellers list nor become prevalent in airport bookstalls?

Still, it would be nice to think all such information could be stowed availably online - and preserved for access by future civilisations. Such work needs rich altruistic sponsors.

By Graham King (not verified) on 06 Jun 2008 #permalink

I was wondering if the illustrations by Greg Paul on Acrocanthosaurus and Giganotosaurus are the same as the ones in his most recent interview in Prehistoric Times magazine, published by Mike Fredericks? (Or if anybody knows)

I have not bought a copy of any of these volumes also because they are way too pricey. I have not even seen them in the local Barnes & Noble nor in Borders, etc. And I have definitely not seen them in any of the local county libraries.

In general, I have complaints on just getting the primary literature (i.e., papers describing the skeleton of a certain species with the relevant photos/technical drawings), as I would like to do skeletal drawings but do not have the needed references to do so; this maybe the only reason why I would buy the volumes had I even seen them in person and had they had what I needed.

Furthermore, if I per chance do happen to find the needed material, you almost always have to buy it. And its usually like 24 dollars for a paper in a pdf. So I don't buy it. Oh well...

While I won't be getting this tome (I prefer the individual papers, honestly), I have some paleo-book related questions:

1) Isn't a T.rex symposium book coming out this month?

2) Isn't a Pachyrhinosaurus monograph coming out this summer?

To add another dino-related (well, ~2/7 chapters anyway) book coming out, there is this one:

Which is hideously expensive due to the colour figures etc, and only has 7 symposium-style chapters on sundry topics, but there is some neat stuff therein. Witmer's stuff alone should be worth the price. And it's good case of me violating my "don't publish in books" rule, perhaps for the last time for a while.

Where I am (Newcastle upon Tyne) there is a veritable dearth of *any* paleontological books in any of the book stores or libraries, and what there is, is both overpriced and of poor quality. So although it saddens me to know that it is so overpriced as to put it outside of my humble student hands, I am glad to know there IS still good quality books being published.

I suspect it's priced not for individuals, but mostly for libraries, who are used to paying obscene prices for reference works. You're supposed to ask your local library to buy it.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 06 Jun 2008 #permalink

Tangential to the topic. Scanning the figure that you reproduced, it is clear that the 'bird' lifestyle seems to have arisen at least twice: once in the clade with Archaeopteryx at the base, and once in the Dromaeosauridae (Mahakta [? hard to read the fig.] and Rahonavis). Two questions: 1) is this cladogram correct? 2) if so, which lineage (if either) gave rise to modern birds?

What is the current thought on this?

Mahakala most likely did not fly, but Rahonavis most likely did. Many people now think that this part of the tree contains a lot of secondary flightlessness, but independent elaborations of the flight apparatus also happened. For example, Sapeornis and the confuciusornithids retained an immobile scapulocoracoid, while Rahonavis, Shenzhouraptor/Jeholornis, Jixiangornis and IIRC Dalianraptor have a joint between the scapula and the coracoid like Ornithothoraces (represented in this tree by Yixianornis and Apsaravis).

How correct the cladogram is can only be shown by the next cladogram!!! However, the fact that all characters were unordered in this analysis does cast doubt on its results.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 07 Jun 2008 #permalink

McFarland is a special interest publisher. They probably do very limited press runs of their titles, hence the price. Ordinarily, these books would not be published at all (and I wouldn't have my copy of _Willis O'Brien: Special Effects Genius). It is ironic that Don's Encyclopedia volumes miss most of their audience due to price, but the same can be said for paleo art. The market is there but their wallets are empty. As for libraries, check out the reference section instead of the sciece shelves. Our local library carries Don's supplements there.

By Dan Varner (not verified) on 07 Jun 2008 #permalink

You've never heard the phrase 'What's good for the goose is good for Gongxianosaurus'? If you think I'm kidding, think again. Someone back me up, please.

I use it round the office all the time, and don't I get weird looks for it. Lamentable but unsurprising as Gongxianosaurus doesn't otherwise come up a lot in the world of government procurement.

I had just taken edition/addition as a rather subtle pun.

And, the other MikeT, what is that rather better joke, or are you saving it for a future paper?

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Thanks for the plug Darren!
I bought previous supplements back when I had money (no chance of that now that I have a family) but hhad already decided not to get anymore. Like you said, there is no critical synthesis and in this day and age you can get hold of the vast majority of the new papers on pdf. But mostly I was just seriously dissapointed by the production quality, blurry overly dark museum shots and really badly reproduced figures from the primary literature. I wonder has the quality improved in this supplement?



By Adam |Yates (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Hi Adam.

I don't have all the supplements, but so far as I can tell, no, the image quality in supp 5 is not different from that of the others.

The book and its supplements are great and are very usefull. They aren't that expensive. Save your pennies and drink less beer.

By david nystuen (not verified) on 10 Jun 2008 #permalink

Is this the same Donald F Glut that wrote the novelisation of The Empire Strikes Back?


Hi Darren, at the risk of sounding ungenerous (and I know it's not the main reason for your posting), I'd be interested to know about the large amount of evidence that supports the running/leaping/slashing dromaeosaur model to the rejection of the 'crampon' model. Manning et al. may not have got it right (and I am dubious about the applicability of the model to very large-bodied dromaeosaurs, for example), but please give us some credit for actually having a think about the biomechanics of this system in a quantitative testable way, rather than all other treatments of this question that have been purely qualitative. There is no actual 'evidence' for slashing - unless you know of a spectacularly preserved Tenontosaurus with direct unequivocal evidence of raptor claw slashes all over it. The Protoceratops/Velociraptor fighting pair may indicate that the latter was using its claw to slash at the belly of the former, but i) if true, this isn't surprising as the prey is this case is not really large enough to facilitate climbing all over it (and remember Manning et al. say that this may have a been a behaviour for dealing with much larger prey) and ii) it may be that the apparent slashing posture is simply how the thing was preserved rather than being a frame in a genuine action sequence. Feel free to e-mail me offline if you want to pursue this (and don't feel you have to post my message on the blog as it's off-topic if you'd rather conduct a conversation elsewhere).

By Paul Barrett (not verified) on 15 Jun 2008 #permalink

Every now and again I make throwaway comments on Tet Zoo that piss people off, and I apologise if my comments about the Manning et al. dromaeosaur study were annoying. Sorry! I don't have any special insight on dromaeosaur claw function and, yes, should be more generous in crediting your group as goes the quantitative analysis. Note that I didn't state that a large amount of evidence supports the slashing hypothesis, rather that a significant body of evidence weighs against the 'climbing crampon' hypothesis. But I don't think much of the way in which the slashing hypothesis was dismissed in the paper, plus I have to say that I find the 'climbing crampon' idea ridiculous (a single hypertrophied claw for climbing up large prey? Extant climbers employ lots of claws, not one big one). That last comment is of course just my opinion, so doesn't count for much. However, several assumptions and statements made in the paper can be questioned...

-- Manning et al. reconstructed the keratinous claw sheath of the dromaeosaur sickle-claw as ventrally convex, arguing that ventrally keeled claws are absent in all extant taxa. This is not correct. Ventrally keeled keratinous claws are present in cats, passerines, raptors and many other extant taxa. We don't yet know whether dromaeosaurs had ventrally keeled claws, but the possibility that they did wasn't considered and would presumably have made a difference as goes the behaviour of the replica claw.
-- Manning et al. tested the replica limb against scute-covered crocodile hide and part of a pig carcass. Neither seem to fairly test the slashing hypothesis, as extant predators (canids, felids, humans) are reported to pierce or slash those parts of the body where the dermis is thin (neck, groin, inside leg).
-- Manning et al. propose that dromaeosaurs used their skulls as their primary weapons. Given how lightly built and fragile the skulls of most dromaeosaurs are, and how weak their bites were (see Therrien et al. 2005), this can be doubted.
-- Manning et al. propose that, were a dromaeosaur to hook its claws into prey, it would be behaving in a manner analogous to that practised by cats. This mischaracterises the predatory behaviour of cats: the strongly hooked manual claws are used in grasping, prehension and manipulation (not in 'locking on' as stated by Manning et al.), while the pedal claws are more blade-like (in fact, resembling dromaeosaur sickle-claws more than the manual claws) and are used for disembowelment via a raking motion.
-- Manning et al. compared the claw curvature of Deinonychus to Feduccia's data set on birds. This led to the simplistic conclusion that Deinonychus resembled arboreal birds. I am surprised that data on other taxa that have similar claw curvature was not incorporated, especially when these animals are not dedicated climbers (see Peters & Görgner 1992, Bryant et al. 1996, Chiappe 1997).

In short, I don't think the paper adequately tested or rejected the slashing hypothesis, and the evidence used to support the climbing crampon hypothesis looks erroneous. Having looked anew at Bryant et al.'s paper on claw function (not cited by Manning et al.), I'm thinking at the moment that the slashing hypothesis might actually be likely.

Refs - -

Bryant, H. N., Russell, A. P., Laroiya, R. & Powell, G. L. 1996. Claw retraction and protraction in the Carnivora: skeletal microvariation in the phalanges of the Felidae. Journal of Morphology 229, 289-308.

Chiappe, L. M. 1997. Climbing Archaeopteryx? A response to Yalden. Archaeopteryx 15, 109-110.

Peters, D. S. & Görgner, E, 1992. A comparative study on the claws of Archaeopteryx. Science Series, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County 36, 29-37.

Therrien, F., Henderson, D. M. & Ruff, C. B. 2005. Bite me: biomechnical models of theropod mandibles and implications for feeding behavior. In Carpenter, K. (ed) The Carnivorous Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, pp. 179-237.

Don's books are indeed expensive especially if you factor in the cost of the addition you had to have built in order to store them.

Whatever their limitations whenever I sit down with one of his terrific tomes I marvel at the man, Mr. Glut. Active musician and band owner (Iridium Band :)), independent movie producer (Frontline Films), prolific author (and yes, MarkW he is the author of the Empire Strikes Back novelisation) and god-knows-what-else, he approaches more than most that rarest of modern beings: the renaissance man.

Darren I think you're right when you suggest you may not be typical in owning and reading all the primary texts. For us mere mortals despite their limitations (even I've found errors) Don's books are a less expensive way of keeping up than all those journal subscriptions, society memberships and filing cabinets.

As you find Don's books rather redundant how about offering them as prize in a competition to the first person who can name every book in that photo of yours?

By Steve Walsh (not verified) on 15 Jun 2008 #permalink

I also wonder if the way the claw was tested is realistic and might make a difference: it was first kicked straight in and then pulled back. Wouldn't that rather have happened in a single sweeping motion in vivo?

Also, regardless of whether the keratin sheath had a cutting edge, why is the ungual so narrow, and why is narrowest ventrally? Wouldn't a circular or a ventrally flat triangular cross-section be considerably more advantageous for climbing?

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 15 Jun 2008 #permalink

Waaay back in a college project, I suggested that the smaller, more avian dromaeosaurs used their sickle-claws to help anchor themselves to tree trunks and, perhaps, to climb such poles. It didn't make a whole lot of sense to me that an animal the size of a crow actively used its sickle-claws to KILL. Microraptorines (is that still the term?) probably snapped up bugs and small vertebrates, no scary sickle-claw necessary.

However, they still HAVE sickle-claws. It's a defining feature. So I wondered (aloud) if the claws were adaptations (originally) for climbing tree trunks. Anyway, after Sinornithosaurus and its bigger buddies took on a more ground-based existance, the claws remained, but trunk-climbing may have gone by the wayside, especially in larger animals like Velociraptor, Deinonychus and Utahraptor. So what were THEY using their sickle-claws for? Probably killing big ornithopods!

From a practical viewpoint, I can certainly see a large dromaeosaur using its sicke-claws to help mount and "climb" up the side of a big ornithopod OR slash away at vital organs. The claw became ever more hypertrophied as the animals themselves got bigger, so it must have taken on some importance in their lives.

Even the smallest sickle claws are still sickle-shaped. As in "blade-shaped". We don't know if they actually had a cutting edge, but in any case that's not what I'd recommend for climbing!

By David Marjanovi?, OM (not verified) on 17 Jun 2008 #permalink

"...quill knobs [...] are now known to occur in other dromaeosaurids, [...]. They are not unique to birds."

Have you ever heard of the concept that birds might contain dromaeosaurs? That droms may be descended from types similar to Archaeopteryx? You speak as if that is not an opinion worthy of scientific merit, certainly not worthy of mention. You seem to be behaving as though you do not consider phylogenies other than those springing from the output of a cladogenesis program, as worthy of genuine consideration. Why not take this opportunity to set the record straight, and tell us which of the following apply:

1. You don't consider it technically possible for any system, biological or not, to experience homoplasy or related characteristics to the point where the cladogram deviates substantially from the true tree.

2. You consider it possible, but not for biological phylogenies.

3. It may be possible in biological phylogenies, but it is too unlikely to be worthy of consideration.

4. It does happen in biological phylogenies but it is unscientific to consider such cases, either theoretical or actual.

5. It's not your responsibility to judge whether taking cladograms only at face value is right; others in the field have accepted the practice, and you trust them.

6. Irrespective of your own view, it is pointless trying to disagree with other palaeontologists on this (or anything major).

And if you do trust a cladogram implicitly, does it have to come from a particular algorithm? And what if two different cladogenesis programs produce differing phylogenies? Are those two phylogenies (one of which must be wrong) more valuable than a third just because it has yet to be output by a program?

I've included justifications 5 & 6 above because I suspect that's where the truth lies. I also wonder if this kind of thing is behind your delay in discussing that Filler paper you mentioned - a reluctance to discuss a theory that is seriously novel, but too superior to be criticised. You wouldn't be the first blogger to be in this position with that paper.

John Jackson

(I do not defend a chimaera as explanation for Rahonavis, or collagen as an explanation for e.g. Sinosauropteryx' fibres. I do however support the current phylogenetic view of Feduccia, A., Martin, L.D. and Tarsitano, S. (2007) Archaeopteryx 2007: Quo Vadis? The Auk, 124(2), 373-380 ...that: "All Chinese fossils with true avian feathers are best interpreted as secondarily flightless birds [...] or offshoots of the early avian radiation at all stages of flight and flightlessness". This to include e.g. oviraptorsaurids and microraptors.)

By John Jackson (not verified) on 02 Jul 2008 #permalink

John, you write as if I'm part of some sort of palaeontological conspiracy working hard to suppress the Obviously True Phylogeny proposed by Greg Paul (which, as you know full well, I am very familiar with). Short answer: as several recent finds seem to show (Mahakala, Shanag, Epidendrosaurus, Jinfengopteryx), basal members of the clades closest to birds were small and rather archaeopterygid-like, and some features characteristically considered avian (like quill knobs) had a wider distribution. But current morphological evidence indicates that, no, dromaeosaurs and so on are not part of the clade that includes Archaeopteryx and modern birds, ergo they are not birds. You might wish that they were, but the evidence does not support it at the moment. You are displaying signs of someone who has latched on to a theory because you find it appealing, not because you're interested in going where the evidence leads.

As for writing about Aaron Filler's research, I do not recall promising to do this and don't currently have plans to do so. As you may note from this Tet Zoo article discussing research on hominid bipedality, Filler is certainly not alone in proposing that bipedality arose in non-hominid hominoids.

"But current morphological evidence indicates that, no, dromaeosaurs and so on are not part of the clade that includes Archaeopteryx and modern birds, ergo they are not birds."

I've tried to cut through obscuring wordage to get you to describe the nature of the very evidence you rely on to justify ignoring the sensible theory, by just asking you to choose a number from 1 to 6. You refuse to do so, and fail to justify your "evidence" in any other way. Perhaps I'm showing the signs of someone who earned a degree in a proper biological science in about the year you were born, and subsequently got another in the very subject (information systems) that the disputed evidence is rooted in.

The "short answer" would have been choosing one of the justifications I suggested, not simply stating "morphological evidence indicates" and introducing the words "conspiracy" and "you are showing the signs of...".

This centres on understanding the nature of evidence. You aren't interested enough in that to own any books on the philosophy of science, are you. What material have you read on the technicalities of cladogenesis?

What exactly is the basis of your specialist knowledge or skill in these areas? To suggest that you've honed your theorisation through years of checking it directly against the reality (ancient life), as happens in non-historical disciplines, is the biggest mistake of all: we don't have time machines in palaeontology but we don't need them so long as we can offer sound theorisation. Don't point to the dozens who think like you - it's not about numbers, because for each of them there are ten who don't believe in evolution at all - it's about valid arguments. Sober ('88) argues convincingly against your style of phylogenising, and that is the classic reference on the value of raw parsimony by the world expert.

For those seeking the solution to the riddle of dinobird evolution, here it is:


Anyone wishing to dispute this, or the definition of evidence as: "those observations inconsistent with a theory, or predicting/explaining one theory better than another" might like to start by justifying their own definition of evidence.

By John Jackson (not verified) on 05 Jul 2008 #permalink

Your condescending approach and demand that I explain myself pissed me off, so I intially deleted your message. I then decided that that wasn't fair so I re-posted it.

I'm not really interested in your approach to this area given that it involves stuff which, YES, is beyond my interest and experience. Do I 'support' the 'conventional' (non-GSP) phylogeny because it is found to be most parsimonious by computational phylogenetic analyses? Well, partly, but not necessarily. Forget cladistics and all of the assumptions about data analysis that you are prattling on about: I return to the point I've made before - that examination (or comparison, or whatever) of the morphological data (you know, the raw information that our phylogenetic hypotheses are based upon) does not find 'dromaeosaurs are nested within the Archaeopteryx + modern bird clade' to be the best explanation for the data. You do a very good job of ignoring this, or of remaining ignorant of it.

Thanks at least for posting my viewpoint. It was because in the past you have kept your eyes open to wider possibilities than most that I was so surprised when you stopped mentioning alternatives to the "current orthodoxy" as genuine possibilities.

I'm also surprised that you are using non-pure-morphological-parsimony justifications for phylogenies; I thought I was one of the few doing that, and actually I would be interested in seeing your thoughts of that nature behind your placement of droms and ovis.

One shouldn't be too taken aback as a scientist when people ask you to clarify the justification for your beliefs since that's how people learn about new theories themselves, and judge one theory against another. Supporters of orthodoxies are often affronted if their theories are not accepted as unquestioned truths, but a good scientist puts his ego out of the way (her ego isn't so often in the way) when doing the business, and anyway, a good scientist knows that truth is only a convenient fiction. One is expected to defend one's theories against critical analysis, but it could be worse - not engaging in a meaningful debate puts you out of the game.

I'll admit there's much detail in "Reconstructing the Past", "Inferring Phylogenies" and Pete Wagner's work that I'm some way from understanding fully, but I don't need to since there's nothing in their main arguments I disagree with. By contrast, "the orthodoxy" is much easier to understand, its theorisation being not just unsophisticated but almost completely detached from genuine orthodox practices such as in the works above for example.

Much is made of "the horror that is aetogate". Against my better judgement I put my developing dinobird book into paper form and submitted it to a couple of journals but I'm glad I did. Of course it was rejected, but I was interested to see that the criticisms on technical subjects not only contained nothing that was valid, but nothing that even sounded professional. My theories had been branded as unscientific by those whose words reveal no interest never mind background in studies of what is and isn't good science (or other vital areas). This is the real scandal. And especially now you look set to be influential yet independent for some time, you do not have to be part of it, or the ignomony that will befall the poseurs who have taken over dinobird palaeontology.

By John Jackson (not verified) on 10 Jul 2008 #permalink

Let's make this short, John. Your use of "cladogenesis program" shows that you know neither what cladistics is nor what the term "cladogenesis" means -- which is a shame, because "cladogenesis" is as old as "anagenesis", dating IIRC from the 1950s or earlier, and it was coined in the western literature, unlike cladistics which Hennig developped in East Berlin.

Now, if you don't know what you are even talking about, what makes you think you are capable of criticising it?

Go here and learn what it is. Then come back.

And if you do trust a cladogram implicitly, does it have to come from a particular algorithm?

What do you even mean by this?

And what if two different cladogenesis programs produce differing phylogenies?

Look for mistakes in their datasets, run the analyses anew, and look what happens. If the results still differ, fuse the datasets and run the analysis once more.

Are those two phylogenies (one of which must be wrong) more valuable than a third just because it has yet to be output by a program?

Yes, because if they are wrong, we can find that out! That makes them scientific hypotheses, as opposed to theological opinions.

Sure, you don't really have to use a program. You can make cladograms by hand, too. It just takes years instead of hours for halfway reasonably-sized datasets; Hennig's cladograms are, for this reason, only of historical interest.


For the record, I'm quite sympathetic to the idea that Archaeopteryx is a basal troodontid or suchlike. But this is a completely worthless opinion as long as no phylogenetic analysis finds it. Sure, even the biggest existing analysis of this part of the tree (Turner et al. 2007) can still be improved -- taxa can be added, characters can perhaps be added, correlated characters can perhaps be fused, and certain multistate characters need to be ordered --, but that they can be improved, that they are not as well supported as a phylogenetic hypothesis can be, does not mean that any particular alternative hypothesis is therefore better supported!!! (Except for creationists who believe that "creationism is true" follows logically from "the theory of evolution has problems".)

Anyone wishing to dispute this, or the definition of evidence as: "those observations inconsistent with a theory, or predicting/explaining one theory better than another" might like to start by justifying their own definition of evidence.

The scientific method consists of two parts: falsification and parsimony. You simply drop the principle of parsimony so you can allow yourself to consider an enormously munificent hypothesis (diphyly of Ornithothoraces, I mean, please). And then you say everyone else has a problem?

You know the joke about the guy driving along the motorway who hears in the radio that in the section where he is someone is driving in the wrong direction? "One? Hundreds!"

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 10 Jul 2008 #permalink

I've always liked the idea of deinonychosaurs being basal, post-urvogal birds. Hell, I ate that up in Greg Paul's two books. But no dataset I've seen seems to come out that way. Could basal deinonychosaurs fly? Maybe! That just means that flight is basal to Paraves. It doesn't mean that flight had to evolve multiple times, and it doesn't mean that Velociraptor is a bird. I mean, maybe someday a fossil will come out of the ground that DOES prove one of those theories, but it hasn't yet.

David (and Darren), I am unaware of a gigantic, all-encompassing theropod, or more specifically maniraptoran, phylogenetic analysis outside of Thomas Holtz, Jr.'s not-ver-recent reappraisal of coelurosaurs. Is there one? And if so, can I get my hands on it?

There are plenty by the Theropod Working Group of the AMNH. Turner et al. 2007b, cited above, is the most recent one; its tree is shown above.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 10 Jul 2008 #permalink

Hello David...

You've made a spirited effort here, but it's important when writing a piece like this to maintain an impression of plausibility. Starting "Let's make this short..." when it's clear you haven't, primes the reader to doubt you.

Suggesting that by using a phrase (which in this case simply means "constructing a cladogram") differently from another way it has been used, a person indicates they know nothing about the subject, would be easy to doubt, even if you had explained what you thought was wrong about it. "Go here and learn what it is. Then come back" introduces a unsympathetic air of authoritarianism, and starts to confirm your dislike of careful discussion. When people arrive at the webpage you send them to, I suppose it will be obvious that its writers know more than the authors of "Reconstructing the Past" and "Inferring Phylogenies", widely considered adequate standards?

On: "And what if two different cladogenesis programs produce differing phylogenies?" you comment:
"Look for mistakes in their datasets, run the analyses anew, and look what happens. If the results still differ, fuse the datasets and run the analysis once more." Would this cladogram now be beyond doubt? Shortly after, you say of cladograms under question: "if they are wrong, we can find that out!" At this point you need to say how, since this is the core of the matter, and your tone suggests there is an easy answer, which people will want to hear.

This brings us to style - the main problem with your piece. Not the technical issues, problematic though they are, but the impression you give of elementary errors being made in a simple straightforward field - when readers know it's complex and intractable. They may also know that the approach you criticise springs from views held by world experts, not in palaeontology, but in more relevant fields. Just as damaging to your message is the problem readers will have of imagining your style of disputation having survived experience of discussions with experts over issues of genuine importance or at least where you were being paid to get something right. It's just that it would be hard to imagine someone having had reasonable experience in such an environment but still petulantly and insultingly casting all concepts as obvious absolutes and your disputants as stupid children. Here your plausibility is again marred.

The main technical error, apart from implying there is an easy and accepted way to check cladogram veracity, is glossing over the difficulties inherent in applying parsimony (which is not one of twin criteria but subsumed within explanatory power). Do we just count the number of changes? Shouldn't unnecessarily long ghost lineages, or variations in rate of mutation also imply a complication and therefore be involved in parsimony? If not why not, and if so, what common currency should be used?

Finally, although it is good to finish with a joke, do it by pulling together a couple of strands already covered and make the denouement the slickest phrase in the piece. If you need to declare it as a joke, it probably isn't.

By John Jackson (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink

Hi Zach -

"But no dataset I've seen seems to come out that way."

Before looking at what studies say, we should check we can trust them. Unfortunately we usually can't. As we've seen, dinobirders are unwilling to explain why they refuse to consider any evidence except that coming from the raw output from simple algorithms. With dinobirds, wherever the homoplasy is coming from, we know there's too much for the cladogram to be taken at face value. Good scientists would spend a sizeable fraction of their time trying to check and enhance the validity of their tools but apart from twiddling the parameters they find on the computer packages they use, almost all dinobird cladists make no effort to check by running simulations and making calibrations. They'd rather bluster than experiment, and we shouldn't be surprised because they don't come to palaeontology from the right background.

"...someday a fossil will come out of the ground that DOES prove one of those theories, but it hasn't yet."

Don't look for proof of theories! We now know nothing in physics was actually proved prior to 1905, and we shouldn't think anything ever will be; and it's much worse in historical sciences. All we can look for is theories that explain the most observations the best. Science is about theories; especially in historical sciences, items of evidence are treated en masse - one fossil is unlikely to do it. We will never know anything for certain, yet even twenty years ago the balance of evidence was on the side of ovis and droms coming from Archaeopteryx.

(Incidentally, my chart:
...shows flight evolving only once.)

By john Jackson (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink