A Plausible Monster? Part Three: Answering Criticisms, section A

Introduction

[Here’s section B]

In the previous installments of this series, I have been arguing for the likelihood of an unclassified animal species living in the Congo.

Skeptics are not buying it, often for understandable reasons. The notion of a large land-dwelling animal still being undiscovered sounds rather larger-than-life to many people, especially with Western civilization enjoying the conveniences of satellite photography, Google Earth, smartphones, and Youtube. And given Mokele-mbembe’s well-known resemblance to a sauropod dinosaur, many people see that as plenty of reason to dismiss the animal as a myth or rumor. Great fodder for a sensationalistic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, perhaps, but not worthy of serious consideration in the halls of zoology.

The problem is, the typical skeptical responses regarding Mokele-mbembe are not nearly as compelling as they are for other “monsters” like Sasquatch or the Abominable Snowman. (That was stated at length beforehand, but it bears mentioning again)

Of course, it doesn’t help when someone spouts off the libelous declaration that anyone who takes Mokele-mbembe seriously is some fundamentalist tool, trying to find a live dinosaur just so they can stick it to Darwin. (Darren Naish once assured me that anyone who thinks the animal is real is either a creationist or a wishful thinker, a claim which I know for a fact to be inaccurate) If one brings up Roy Mackal as a credentialed scientist who took Mokele-mbembe seriously (and he was certainly no creationist), he is waved off as an eccentric with tenure, and his credentials “aren’t the right kind” for him to be an authority.

Strange, considering that this guy who’s making a big deal about credentials and qualification (and continues his nasty habit of committing the genetic fallacy) has declared the following:

“[Y]ou don’t need a Ph.D. to do good science, and not all people who have Ph.D.s are good scientists either. As those of us who have gone through the ordeal know, a Ph.D. only proves that you can survive a grueling test of endurance in doing research and writing a dissertation on a very narrow topic. It doesn’t prove that you are smarter than anyone else or more qualified to render an opinion than anyone else.” ~ Donald Prothero, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, page 16, emphasis added

I guess credentials and qualifications ultimately don’t matter, until you decide to smear anyone you want to label a pseudoscientist or quirky eccentric who doesn’t merit serious attention.

Of course, this business about credentials amounts to little more than an annoying distraction from the stark, black-and-white question “Is Mokele-mbembe a real animal or not?” That is the real heart of the matter.

So without further ado, let’s address some of the bigger, more understandable objections.

1. “There would have to be a breeding population of these animals to survive, and there would have to be too many for their species to escape notice in the 21st century.”

No one’s proposing Mokele-mbembe is a single animal. So when asking how a big animal species can be reproducing and yet exist in small enough numbers to escape detection, we should probably ask a question: do we have large animals that are critically endangered, that are running out of that oft-mentioned breeding population? The answer seems quite evident when one considers the Giant Panda, Black Rhinoceros, Blue Whale, Mountain Gorilla, Sumatran Tiger, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Orinoco Crocodile, Sumatran Elephant, and numerous others. They have wild populations in serious danger of being wiped out.

Given the (limited) evidence available and its seeming to match the pattern of a rare but real creature, I for one am unwilling to take the chance that Mokele-mbembe is merely a legend after all. The Congo Basin carries many dangers to rare animals in general. These include disease, deforestation, poaching, hunting, the mere fact of human encroachment, and so forth. If this animal does exist I’d rather we discover it before we no longer have a chance to conserve and protect it, thank you. By then we would have lost a unique creature, and much of the blame would lie with Western academics who saw fit to dismiss it as a myth until it was too late.

2. “The natives should be able to provide the remains of this animal, like the animal hides they use for shields or the bird feathers they use in ceremonial dresses. They haven’t shown us anything, so that’s a serious red flag.”

This criticism would be a devastating blow against the idea that Mokele-mbembe is a living animal species, but for one obvious fact: the natives need to successfully hunt a creature before such tangible traces become potentially available. Initially, the sole reason why the scientific community could study physical remains of the okapi was because the natives hunted and killed the animal, from time to time.

The natives in Central Africa that allegedly run into Mokele-mbembe describe its size and ferocity as comparable to (or greater than) those of a hippopotamus, which possesses an infamous temper. If it exists, this rare animal carries too much risk and hassle for even the more adventurous hunters to treat it as quarry. In addition to its short temper, they claim the animal is a large pest that disturbs their fishing activities when it grazes on foliage, and it can capsize canoes when surfacing from the river. Depending on where you go, the natives either think it’s a dangerous god-monster that must not be trifled with, or simply a large and problematic animal they’d rather live without.

[Note: In actuality, there have been a few anecdotes of giant reptilian creatures killed in the Congo, with horns or hides or bones being harvested and kept “somewhere,” but without the physical remains themselves to back these rumors up, I will not use these stories to argue my case.]

3. “Satellites should have photographed Mokele-mbembe long ago. They can photograph elephants on the African savannah, so there’s nowhere this animal could hide.”

Even the supportive skeptics in the comments here realize this argument is hardly airtight. Everyone’s aware that rain forests have a thick canopy, right? Savannahs don’t. Observing animals from above is considerably easier when there’s nothing in the way. Just like in any rain forest, the Congo Basin has plenty in the way.

(to be continued in “Answering Criticisms, section B”)

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Another feathered dinosaur ramble?! On Jurassic Park IV, Science, Plausible Doubt, etc.

Hey, guys. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly say anything more on why fellow paleontology geeks need to loosen up on feathered dinosaurs, I had a couple of extra thoughts to contribute (or reiterate, in some cases). I don’t want to make a huge deal out of this again, except it seems others are bent on making a big deal out of the issue. I wonder if anyone else is going to call them out on it.

Not really a unified angry rant so much as it is a couple of thoughts bundled together. And I’m trying to be charitable and composed here. Honest.

Xiphactinus, on the other hand...

Xiphactinus, on the other hand, isn’t. My thanks to Dinomemes.

One

Sometimes it’s hard to be charitable with other paleontology enthusiasts when they make such a big deal out of “OMG why aren’t the ignorant masses accepting feathered dinos?! We’re shoving the facts down their throats as hard as we can! Facts! Science! Argh!”

Maybe that’s the problem? Perhaps we can afford to back off from the battering ram? Entice people with the awesome fact that some dinosaurs had feathers (as XKCD does, quite admirably). Facts coupled with charity and grace will generate a greater impact. The problem isn’t that science is making dinosaurs less cool. The problem is that those with facts on their side are addressing the subject in such an adversarial manner that they alienate everyone else.

[One-B]

There’s a lot of derisive humor at the expense of outdated raptor depictions. Oh, so scaly raptors would have been pathetic and ill-equipped for survival…because they lacked feathers? A large, warm-blooded archosaur needs plumage (crocodiles and Carnotaurus notwithstanding), or else it’ll keel over and die? The muscles, intelligence, claws, pack hunting, etc. all count for naught? All righty then. Let me know when the cloned raptors are stalking you in Jurassic Park’s kitchen and immediately collapse because this essential tool of survival is not available for their use. Stupid geneticists. What do they know?

Two

Not everyone who’s less than ecstatic about feathered dinosaurs is anti-science, or a stick in the mud, or someone who’s overtly nostalgic for the scaly movie monsters of yore. Sometimes people’s aesthetic tastes (mine, for example) just lean more toward scaly raptors. I know they’re inaccurate. I am not contesting that. And if I ever design a painting of a Raptor for a museum exhibit, you can bet your Dinosaur Revolution DVDs it will have plumage in plenitude.

For crying out loud, I’m editing (well, I’m supposed to be editing) a fantasy novel that has dinosaurs in it, and I’m putting feathers on the appropriate species to keep the animals as accurate as possible. A fantasy novel!

But sometimes, people simply find the Jurassic Park Raptors awesome or frightening. Those people are neither lame, nor out of date, nor anti-progress. It’s a testament to the excellent work of Stan Winston and his animatronics crew, Steven Spielberg, and the CGI crew in bringing the movie’s versions of Velociraptor to life. Talking down to someone for appreciating a good movie monster doesn’t make you pro-science. It makes you look like a condescending jerk.

Three

The transition to feathered raptors being considered “cool” by the public will take time. Patience is required, but it’ll happen eventually. Here’s what I want to know: why is it so important that a Deinonychus with feathers be considered “cool” right now? What cosmic fate balances on the public’s awareness of the sort of body covering an extinct animal had? Normally I want animals to be accurately portrayed, or as accurate as possible. But I don’t scream for a boycott of adventure movies when the hero comes face-to-face with a “poisonous” jungle snake, and I can see it’s a harmless kingsnake or garter snake. I take the movie with a grain of salt, and enjoy it all the more when Indiana Jones encounters a real, live cobra.

Four

One large Tyrannosaur we know had feathers — Yutyrannus — doesn’t automatically mean all large Tyrannosaurs had feathers, too. The region where most of the known feathered dinosaurs lived — China and Mongolia — was, if I remember correctly, a colder region at the time, which would be conducive to feathered dinosaurs, at least when the feathers are being used as insulation against the cold (Note: please correct me on this and show your sources if I’m wrong!).

[Additional note: Yutyrannus is much more closely related to the other feathered Tyrannosaur we know of — Dilong — than it is to T. rex, so strutting around and pretending this is “proof” that T. rex had feathers is overreaching with the available evidence.]

T. rex and other large Tyrannosaurs, on the other hand, seem to have inhabited warmer climates, where they might not have needed any such insulation. Nothing to do with feathers that are used for display, of course. Tyrannosaurus rex may very well have had feathers anyway. I grant that. But it’s a plausible scenario, for the time being. Not knowledge. Until we can confirm it through physical fossil evidence, please don’t tell me we “know” T. rex had feathers. I don’t dread a discovery of T. rex having feathers, but I worry that it’ll be abused as another cudgel, wielded by OCD dino-nerds against those Ignorant Masses they love to rail against.

Five

So Jurassic Park IV isn’t going to put feathers on its raptors. Yes, I know it’s a huge fricking deal. Museums will have to close their doors. Paleoartists will be forced at gunpoint to strip their paintings and sketches of every quill and feather, because that’s how much people hate scientific accuracy. People will riot in the streets. Fossils will be smashed.

It’s a movie, guys. A movie that includes “Genetically engineered theme park monsters” in the words of Alan Grant. Dinosaurs that can change sex thanks to frog DNA being used to patch up their degraded genomes. Maybe they look a little different than the creatures from prehistory? It seems the OCD dino-nerd crowd is just hurt that the Jurassic Park franchise isn’t catering to their demands.

Consclusion

If I read one more of Brian Switek’s tantrums on this subject, I’ll need to visit my physician and request some blood pressure medication. I know, I’ve complained about him before. My apologies; I ought to be better than picking on one person. But I don’t like it when someone sneers at others who appreciate dinosaurs in a different way than he does, and I hate it when his fans join in with outright insults and ill will.

I am excited about paleontological discoveries. I’m grateful that there are surprises around every corner, that a new discovery can change our view of these animals completely upside down. But a smarter-than-thou attitude ruins the fun for everybody.

EDIT: I’m not sure if it’s Brian or me who’s doing the most whining, but I know one thing for certain: This has got to stop.

Feathered Dinosaurs: Vigilance and Room for Artistic License

I’m going to say this right up front: We have found dinosaurs with feathers. That’s a confirmed fact. Small carnivores make up most of the species with this particular trait. Velociraptor had quill knobs on its arm bones, which served as points where long feathers attached. Microraptor had four fully developed wings. Others were covered in what looks like a downy covering, possibly for insulation. There’s even a medium-sized Tyrannosaur with down on its hide (although I think T. rex in particular has been found to have scales instead, and any addition of feathers is pure speculation).

But as I look over the blogosphere and hear the words of fellow dinosaur fanatics, there arises a hysterical cry that scaly theropods (carnivorous dinosaurs), especially raptors, should be tarred and…well, feathered. Fictional treatments of dinosaurs in books, movies, and TV shows are practically burned in effigy if a small carnivore shows up naked (scaly). Tyrannosaurs and allosaurs and abelisaurs can be tolerated without down or full feathers, but God help you if there’s a Deinonychus or Ornitholestes that isn’t fuzzy.

Notice that I said fictional. As in, stories told for entertainment, which are often known for fudging scientific accuracy. That should be expected and understood, even when the creators try to be accurate. This gets you about as far as saying “You can’t hear explosions in space!” We already know that. Now are you going to sit down and watch Star Wars, or do I have to ask you to leave?

I kid you not, one unpleasant man insisted to me that the scaly Velociraptors of Jurassic Park were “abominations” even though their only crime is being outdated. Let’s get something straight, Jurassic Park was released in 1993, at which point any feathered raptors were speculative. The quill knobs on this species’s arms were examined in a paper published in 2007. Call me nuts, but “abomination” doesn’t quite fit.

Yes, he’s a real menace to scientific accuracy. You can see it in those knowledge-hating eyes.

To make matters worse, I’ve seen these self-important, melodramatic bloggers getting upset about episodes of Doctor Who and Terra Nova because they do have feathered dinosaurs, but they’re not “feathery enough.” Why count your blessings when movies and TV shows aren’t furthering your cause as hard as you want them to?

Allow a little artistic license. Come on, people know they’re not looking at real dinosaurs. The Doctor isn’t riding a real Triceratops, and Stephen Lang isn’t shooting an actual Carnotaurus. By all means, correct a museum display that shows a Deinonychus without a scrap of feathers on its skin, because that’s meant to be a scientifically accurate reconstruction. But even then, don’t lose your temper. That’s just childish.

And for the love of everything sacred and holy, stop telling me that dinosaurs had “denser” feather coatings than modern birds. That’s a little hard to establish when you point to feathers on (gasp) a dinosaur’s ankles. And when all you’ve got with dinosaurs is feather impressions in the rock…how do you know the coating was denser than on birds? This is pseudoscience at its finest, folks.

Bloggers and paleontologists, listen. I know you’re tired. You’re tired of people whining “Don’t take away my scaly raptors and replace them with foofy little peacocks with teeth!” I know you’re tired of creationists insisting that Microraptor was nothing more than a weird bird (I don’t even know that much anatomy, and even I can tell you that’s false). I know you specialize in the cutting edge discoveries of dinosaur paleontology, and a lack of feathers can be aggravating.

Nevertheless, seeing this aggravation bleeding out into long-winded rants about how important feathered dinosaurs are can get very tiresome. A raptor without feathers may be scientifically inaccurate, but it’s not a threat to scientific literacy. It’s just outdated. Don’t try saying “feathered dinosaurs are more beautiful,” either, because beauty is subjective, and some people just find a scaly raptor more badass. Too bad. Just because you have the benefit of scientific evidence doesn’t mean you can be a jerk to someone who likes scaly raptors better.

Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Image taken from Wired Magazine.

Eventually the public will come around and find feathered raptors “cool.” Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, however, when you’re doing more whining than they are.

UPDATE: I would also like to point out, just for the heck of it, that many of the same anatomical features on Microraptor that identify it as a dinosaur (lack of a beak, teeth set into the jawbone, large antorbital fenestra, etc.) are traits shared by Archaeopteryx. For this reason, I place Archaeopteryx within the Dinosauria, rather than call it a full-fledged bird.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: I think it’s more likely a given theropod was feathered if it was in a colder climate, such as the Antarctic Cryolophosaurus, Canadian Ornithomimids, or the Mongolian Tyrannosaur Yutyrannus. In warmer climates, they might simply not need them.