Announcing TetZooCon 2019 – the Biggest Yet

At last, tickets for TetZooCon 2019 are on sale. And you’re advised to buy one, and thus book a place, as soon as possible, since they’re selling pretty fast. This is the sixth TetZooCon, and we’re now in bigger, badder, faster, harder mode with two whole days of TetZoo-related stuff.

This year’s banner includes just some of the birds I’ve drawn for my in-prep textbook… but let’s not talk about that today.

This year’s banner includes just some of the birds I’ve drawn for my in-prep textbook… but let’s not talk about that today.

As per the last two years, we’re once again at The Venue at Malet Street in central London on a weekend (Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th October). Things kick off at 10am both days. We have numerous talks but the schedule has been arranged this year such that – hopefully – there’s time for Q&A sessions, and also more time for roundtable events and other discussions, since they worked well at the 2018 meeting.

Beautiful  Megaloceros  model made by Agata Stachowiak. You might recognise the colour scheme if you’re a regular TetZoo reader. Image: (c) Agata Stachowiak, used with permission.

Beautiful Megaloceros model made by Agata Stachowiak. You might recognise the colour scheme if you’re a regular TetZoo reader. Image: (c) Agata Stachowiak, used with permission.

Palaeoart. Once again we’re running a dedicated palaeoart event which involves short talks (this time mostly revolving around the theme of making things in 3D: Rebecca Groom, Agata Stachowiak, Jed Taylor; Joschua Knüppe is speaking too), a discussion (led by Beth Windle) and a workshop. The palaeoart event runs in parallel to one of the main sessions: not ideal, but we can’t otherwise fit everything in. You have to pay separately for the palaeoart event if you intend to come along (I mean, in addition to the main entry fee). There will also be – we hope; none of this is confirmed and finalised yet – two palaeoart-themed exhibitions. Also, both Luis Rey and Mark Witton will be selling and signing palaeoart-themed books. I believe that Luis’s new book will be out in time, fingers crossed! Hey, that’s a lot of palaeoart-themed stuff.

Just two of our several palaeoart presenters for TetZooCon 2019, both - coincidentally - holding dromaeosaurids. Jed Taylor (of   JCTArtStudio  ) at left; Rebecca Groom (of   palaeoplushies  ) at right. Images: (c) JCTaylor, Rebecca Groom, used with permission.

Just two of our several palaeoart presenters for TetZooCon 2019, both - coincidentally - holding dromaeosaurids. Jed Taylor (of JCTArtStudio) at left; Rebecca Groom (of palaeoplushies) at right. Images: (c) JCTaylor, Rebecca Groom, used with permission.

Dinosaurs and other extinct archosaurs. One major theme this year is Mesozoic dinosaurs and kin, because why not. We have a block of talks on dinosaur palaeobiology (Rebecca Lakin on parental care, Chris Barker on pathologies in theropods, Dave Hone on social behaviour), as well as Jordan Bestwick on his work on inferring diet from tooth microwear analysis, recently published in Scientific Reports. There’s also a roundtable discussion on extinct archosaur palaeobiology as a whole. Dave Hone will be selling and signing his The Tyrannosaur Chronicles as part of this event.

Dr David Hone will be speaking at TetZooCon 2019, and signing his book  The Tyrannosaur Chronicles . Image: (c) David Hone, used with permission.

Dr David Hone will be speaking at TetZooCon 2019, and signing his book The Tyrannosaur Chronicles. Image: (c) David Hone, used with permission.

Natural History Film-Making. A second theme involves film-making. I don’t so much mean the nuts and bolts of how one actually goes about ‘making’ a film, but the entire experience, the backstories to the people involved, and their various projects and adventures. Amber Eames will be talking about her award-winning film Swans: Mystery of the Missing, and we’ll be joined in an on-stage discussion by Paul Stewart (who’s filmed a vast number of mammals, birds and other animals worldwide, including a huge number of things featured in the BBC Attenborough documentaries), Nick Lyon (best known for the BBC Dynasties episode on African wild dogs), and Zoe Cousins (who’s worked on documentaries about the Tapanuli orangutan, urban wildlife and more). We’re hoping to show film segments and montages as part of this event.

Amber Eames will be talking about her film devoted to the plight of migratory Bewick’s swans. Images: (c) Amber Eames, used with permission.

Amber Eames will be talking about her film devoted to the plight of migratory Bewick’s swans. Images: (c) Amber Eames, used with permission.

Wildlife film-maker, producer, author and qualified zoologist Dr Paul Stewart (in the middle; here with Sir David Attenborough and other team members) will be at TetZooCon 2019. Image: (c) Paul Stewart, used with permission.

Wildlife film-maker, producer, author and qualified zoologist Dr Paul Stewart (in the middle; here with Sir David Attenborough and other team members) will be at TetZooCon 2019. Image: (c) Paul Stewart, used with permission.

Other talks, other events. And there’s tons more as well. TetZooCon 2019 also includes Ellen Coombs on whales, Amy Schwartz on her work on roadkill, Lauren McGough on eagles and adventures in falconry, Tim Haines on ‘20 years of popular digital palaeontology’, Ross Barnett on The Missing Lynx (another book signing), Jack Ashby on Unnatural History Museums (another book signing)…. and more! There will also be stalls and merchandise, we end with a quiz (with great prizes), and there’s a conference meal and a drinks reception too.

One of our many star speakers for 2019: the amazing Lauren McGough. Image: (c) Lauren McGough, used with permission.

One of our many star speakers for 2019: the amazing Lauren McGough. Image: (c) Lauren McGough, used with permission.

As per last year, it’s likely that we’ll be sold out by the early weeks of October, so don’t leave things too late if you’re planning to come along. We’ve also changed the ticket sales so that you can pay for attendance on just one day. And that’ll do for now. Go here to book (and see more information), and see you there in October!

TetZooCon-2019-speaker-montage-17-8-2019-1000px-tiny.jpg

The First Year of Tetrapod Zoology Ver 4

It’s July 31st 2019, meaning that TetZoo the blog has been at its new home here – tetzoo.com, previously occupied only by the podcast and the TetZooCon page – for a whole year.

If there’s ever a TetZoo Park, it’ll have a lot of tapirs, especially Kabomani ones. Image: Patrick Murphy.

If there’s ever a TetZoo Park, it’ll have a lot of tapirs, especially Kabomani ones. Image: Patrick Murphy.

As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader, I already do birthday articles every January 21st (doing these is a good way of keeping track of the year’s events), but being at a new hosting site is enough of a big deal that I feel it’s worthy of a special article too. This article also exists as a one-stop list of links for all ver 4 articles published so far.

Who doesn’t love bigfoot, wailing in the dark? More colorful versions of this image are   available on merchandise at the TetZoo redbubble shop  . Image: Darren Naish.

Who doesn’t love bigfoot, wailing in the dark? More colorful versions of this image are available on merchandise at the TetZoo redbubble shop. Image: Darren Naish.

Ver 4 started its life with an obligatory ‘Welcome to ver 4’ article but we were immediately deep in extreme niche: specifically cryptozoology, more specifically bigfoot (still one of my favourite subjects in the world, however things pan out), and more specifically still the genitals of bigfoot. Yes, it was a vile, cheap effort to rake in readership, but by fuck did it work. A few dinosaur-themed book reviews followed, as did a popular and fun article on the vexing (and somehow topical as of August 2018) issue of dinosaur domestication.

The  Vectidraco daisymorrisae  holotype (NHMUK PV R36621) in (A) left lateral, (B) right lateral, (C) dorsal and (D) ventral views, and - at right - shown in anatomical position as per the animal's presumed profile in life. Image: figures from  Naish  et al . (2013) .

The Vectidraco daisymorrisae holotype (NHMUK PV R36621) in (A) left lateral, (B) right lateral, (C) dorsal and (D) ventral views, and - at right - shown in anatomical position as per the animal's presumed profile in life. Image: figures from Naish et al. (2013).

For understandable reasons, another thing I often blog about is the research I publish, and August 2018 saw me writing about the new paper on pterosaur palaeoneurology I published with Liz Martin-Silverstone and Dan Sykes (Martin-Silverstone et al. 2018). The evolutionary history and diversity of modern animal groups are – surprisingly to many – not well covered in the literature, nor online, and it’s partly for these reasons that I often write review articles on given groups when I can (oh, for more opportunity to do this). August’s article on mastigures is one of the latest example of this noble tradition; I hope it proves useful.

Megaloceros  cheat-sheet, from the   September 2018 article on the life appearance of this animal  . Image: Darren Naish.

Megaloceros cheat-sheet, from the September 2018 article on the life appearance of this animal. Image: Darren Naish.

And so to September 2018. A long-running project I’d been involved in over the past several years – the travelling, immersive Dinosaurs in the Wild experience – came to an end in September, and I just had to write about it, one more time. I also wrote about the giant deer Megaloceros (part of a slow-burn series on the life appearance of Pleistocene mammals), and I also covered TetZoo-relevant meetings of the time: the Dougal Dixon After Man event and TetZooCon 2018.

A  Tapirus terrestris  at Chester Zoo, UK. Relevant to tapir discussions   covered here in October 2018  . Image: Darren Naish.

A Tapirus terrestris at Chester Zoo, UK. Relevant to tapir discussions covered here in October 2018. Image: Darren Naish.

Avocets and tapirs – the infamous Kabomani tapir, no less (did I mention that there’s a new tapir?) – were covered here in October, while November saw New Living Animals We Want to Find, another dinosaur-themed book review, a report of the ZSL ‘Comical Tales From the Animal Kingdom’ meeting, thoughts on an alleged 16th century dino-chicken, news on the second edition of the Naish & Barrett book Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved (Naish & Barrett 2018), a brief review of Erroll Fuller’s Passenger pigeon book, and a really fun article on the pouches of the Sungrebe. Wow, that was a busy month. The dino-chicken article includes a serious gaff and a follow-up article is needed. It’s coming, I promise.

Head of the reclining Crystal Palace  Iguanodon . There’s an awful lot to say about these models… and I’m pretty sure they’ve been extensively discussed on a blog run by a colleague of mine. If only I could remember the name of it, or the url. Ok, ok,   Mark Witton   has been discussing all the models A LOT. Image: Darren Naish.

Head of the reclining Crystal Palace Iguanodon. There’s an awful lot to say about these models… and I’m pretty sure they’ve been extensively discussed on a blog run by a colleague of mine. If only I could remember the name of it, or the url. Ok, ok, Mark Witton has been discussing all the models A LOT. Image: Darren Naish.

And we saw the year out with articles from December on TetZoo’s 12th birthday, the Crystal Palace prehistoric animal models, and one on exciting TetZoo-themed discoveries of 2018.

That’s 27 articles over the five months in which ver 4 had - at this point - existed (I can’t count July, seeing as things kicked off on July 31st), meaning that 5.4 articles were published each month. That’s reasonable value for money, if I say so myself – more than one new article per week. Surely I couldn’t keep up such superhuman levels of productivity across 2019 as well? Let’s find out…

Gerhard Heilmann’s take on the appearance of ‘Proavis’ - a hypothetical bird ancestor - as illustrated in his Danish book of 1916. For more see   the article on Heilmann and his Proavis from January 2019  . Image: Heilmann (1916).

Gerhard Heilmann’s take on the appearance of ‘Proavis’ - a hypothetical bird ancestor - as illustrated in his Danish book of 1916. For more see the article on Heilmann and his Proavis from January 2019. Image: Heilmann (1916).

January 2019 was off to a good start, with articles on hypothetical proavians (follow-up article still needed), the life appearance of sauropods, and the obligatory birthday review all appearing during the month. More new(ish) books were reviewed in February, I also wrote about potoos on the internet, my personal recollections of the Dinosaurs Past and Present exhibition of the late 1980s and early 90s, and another new published piece of academic research (a new paper on a Late Cretaceous nesting colony, dominated by archaic birds; Fernández et al. 2019).

Pretty soon there’ll be an entire wing of Tet Zoo Towers devoted to Loch Ness literature. Image: Darren Naish.

Pretty soon there’ll be an entire wing of Tet Zoo Towers devoted to Loch Ness literature. Image: Darren Naish.

More on cryptozoology was published in March as I got through two of the promised three connected reviews of books on the Loch Ness Monster (the third will appear within the next month or two). Also worth mentioning here is the April article on my paper with Charles Paxton on sea monster sightings and whether they were shaped by people’s familiarity with fossil marine reptiles (Paxton & Naish 2019), and my recollections of a popular children’s book on monsters.

Slow loris, sloth and hypothetical pre-hominid, three ‘cautious climbers’ illustrated in the   cautious climber article of March 2019  . Image: Darren Naish.

Slow loris, sloth and hypothetical pre-hominid, three ‘cautious climbers’ illustrated in the cautious climber article of March 2019. Image: Darren Naish.

Articles on the cautious climber hypothesis of hominid origins, sleep behaviour, New World leaf-nosed bats, and cocks-of-the-rock all appeared during April 2019. May was fairly eclectic and featured articles on the creatures of Star Wars, the way in which Styracosaurus has been depicted in books and movies, birdwatching in China, and cases where animals have been killed by falling rocks and trees. An unusual personal article dedicated to the life of the older of our family dogs – Willow – also appeared in May.

I have it bad for the Big G. Here’s a recent addition to my toy and model collection. Image: Darren Naish.

I have it bad for the Big G. Here’s a recent addition to my toy and model collection. Image: Darren Naish.

June – we’re in recent memory now – included articles on Godzilla: King of the Monsters, my reminiscences of Watson’s Whales of the World, thoughts on books about woodpeckers, and a review of Witton’s The Palaeoartist’s Handbook. Bringing us right up to date, we have my July pieces on dunnocks, Palaeolithic rock art and gulls.

Sleep well, little, err, giant panda. From Chengdu Panda Base. Image: Darren Naish.

Sleep well, little, err, giant panda. From Chengdu Panda Base. Image: Darren Naish.

Excluding the article you’re reading now, that gives us 27 (again, oddly) 2019 articles across the first six months of the year, giving us a lower output of 4.5 articles per month… so, still more than one a week. I’ll say at this point that it’s the support I receive via patreon that allows me to be, and remain, productive here at TetZoo, so huge thanks to those who assist. My other projects – technical research and various in-prep books (not least of which is The Vertebrate Fossil Record) – are also dependent on patreon support.

I constantly upload in-prep stuff to patreon,   support me there   and see it come together :)

I constantly upload in-prep stuff to patreon, support me there and see it come together :)

So there we have it: a quick review of what’s happened at ver 4 so far. As I’m sure I always say, there’s tons more I plan to write about, the current to-do list featuring some ungodly number of articles that are partially written, or planned, or in some preliminary stage of preparation. I would do so much more if I could. Overall, I’m happy with the way things are going at ver 4. Finally, I’m free of adverts (like those crow-barred in at SciAm) and have control over commenting (something I care about and want to encourage, not curtail). The community here is healthy and growing, and it can only continue to grow and expand as ver 4 itself incorporates more articles on an increasing number of subjects. Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll continue to do so. Here’s to the first year of ver 4.

The inevitable consequence of overlapping obsessions: actinopterygians and tapirs. Result: mertapir. Image: Darren Naish.

The inevitable consequence of overlapping obsessions: actinopterygians and tapirs. Result: mertapir. Image: Darren Naish.

Hacks Vs Wildlife: the Eternal Vilification of Gulls

Every summer, here in the UK, it’s the same. “CRAZED KILLER SEAGULL ATTACKED MY BABY”, “PSYCHO SEAGULL’S REIGN OF TERROR”, “EXPERT SAYS PUPPIES AND KIDS COULD BE NEXT”. It’s almost as if hack journalists, writing for shitty tabloids like The Mail, The Sun and The Star, have nothing smart to write about so fall back on scaremongering and the vilification of wildlife. Hack journalists are pretty good at this, stirring up waves of anti-gull feelings among a public that already dislikes any animal trying its damnedest to survive and persist in a land dominated by humans and their intolerance of wild places and other species (see #HacksVsWildlife on Twitter for a constant stream of this sort of thing).

It’s summertime in the UK, and this can only mean one thing….

It’s summertime in the UK, and this can only mean one thing….

Right now, the story of Gizmo the chihuahua – apparently snatched by a gull in Paignton, Devon – is doing the rounds. Gizmo is, or was, a very small dog, so the idea that he/she might have been grabbed by a big gull is not out of hand. I’m inclined to think that the event did happen, in which case Gizmo’s owners have my sympathy. Lesson for the future: don’t leave tiny dogs unguarded, outside, in an area where there are big gulls. As others have pointed out, big white-headed gulls like the Great black-backed Larus marinus can swallow prey the size of juvenile rabbits, and a big gull can likely fly while carrying an object about similar in size to a very small chihuahua (cf Young 1987).

Alas, poor Gizmo. Screengrabs of headlines from some of the UK’s most noble gutter rags.

Alas, poor Gizmo. Screengrabs of headlines from some of the UK’s most noble gutter rags.

As cynical as it sounds though, this strikes me as an example of bad pet management more than a case of ‘out of control’ wildlife. I have a pet lizard and guinea-pig who are often taken outside in an area where there are gulls and corvids of several species, and I simply wouldn’t leave them alone and unguarded. What about those parts of the world where there are such things as coyotes, bobcats, eagles and other opportunistic predators? Who is to ‘blame’ when, say, a pet cat is taken by a coyote? Is it really because the coyote is in the ‘wrong’ place?

White-headed gulls (those gull species remaining in the genus  Larus ) are good-looking birds, in cases with wingspans that exceed 1.3 m. This is a Herring gull (photographed in Cornwall, England) with an unusually shaped head. Image: Darren Naish.

White-headed gulls (those gull species remaining in the genus Larus) are good-looking birds, in cases with wingspans that exceed 1.3 m. This is a Herring gull (photographed in Cornwall, England) with an unusually shaped head. Image: Darren Naish.

Are gulls big, formidable and potentially dangerous to small animals and even people? Yes, of course they are. They’re predatory and opportunistic, and often territorial and liable to be aggressive when guarding their nests and chicks. But the idea – promoted continually by hack journalists – that there’s some kind of GULL PLAGUE that we should rid ourselves of is just wrong, and bad.

Herring gulls consume leftovers at a restaurant in Tintagel, Cornwall. Image: Darren Naish.

Herring gulls consume leftovers at a restaurant in Tintagel, Cornwall. Image: Darren Naish.

Gulls Are In Decline. First of all, let’s look at the idea that these birds are super-abundant, as hack journalists and gull-haters would like you to think. As has now been pointed out many times (here at TetZoo and elsewhere), the species concerned are not just in decline, they’ve declined so much within recent decades that they’re now a cause for conservation concern. In the UK, the Herring gull L. argentatus – the species that hacks and haters mostly focus on – is a Red List species, its population now being at its lowest since recording began in 1969/70, and having declined by about 50% since the early 1990s (Madden et al. 2010, Joint Nature Conservation Committee 2014). The next most familiar species – the Lesser black-backed gull L. fuscus – has undergone a worrying population crash during this century. Similar trends are present in white-headed gulls elsewhere; the North American Herring/Smithsonian gull L. smithsonianus has declined by almost 80% since the 1960s.

A fine Lesser black-backed gull at a train station. Note the yellow legs, the small extent of the white spotting on the black tips to the primaries, and fairly dark mantle. Image: Darren Naish.

A fine Lesser black-backed gull at a train station. Note the yellow legs, the small extent of the white spotting on the black tips to the primaries, and fairly dark mantle. Image: Darren Naish.

In view of this, it seems wrong to call for these birds to be sterilised (as some politicians have, apparently seriously, suggested), or for them to be lethally controlled or extirpated entirely. I may well be speaking from a position of privilege (I undoubtedly am, in fact, given that I live in a land where there are no big dangerous animals at all), but I want to live in a world where we’re alongside other species, not hell-bent on crushing them under heel into extinction. Urban gulls are an occasional menace for sure, but these aren’t animals that we should vilify or try to expunge. They need help; we should promote tolerance, not destruction.

A Bristolian Herring gull eating a feral pigeon, again at a train station. Did the gull kill the pigeon, or was the pigeon a victim of a train collision? I don’t know, but either is possible. Image: Darren Naish.

A Bristolian Herring gull eating a feral pigeon, again at a train station. Did the gull kill the pigeon, or was the pigeon a victim of a train collision? I don’t know, but either is possible. Image: Darren Naish.

I should also add that urban gulls are important ecosystem service providers, eating waste, carrion and undesirable material (I won’t start listing it, but – oh, ok – it includes vomit and dog scat) left in the built environment by human action. They’re also important seed dispersers, playing this role in areas where other fruit-eating birds (yes, gulls eat fruit) are rare or absent (Iason et al. 1986, Magnusson & Magnusson 2000, Sekercioglu 2006).

A large group of white-headed gulls compete for food scraps in Lisbon, Portugal. Image: Darren Naish.

A large group of white-headed gulls compete for food scraps in Lisbon, Portugal. Image: Darren Naish.

Why are people fixated on the idea that we have a ‘gull plague’, or that there are somehow ‘too many’ gulls? I think that a few factors may be at play. One is that gulls are both big and comparatively long-lived, meaning both that they’re way more obvious than small birds, most of which are ignored by the majority of people, and also seen repeatedly in the same areas. A single gull, hanging out on the same area of railway platform or beach promenade for perhaps more than 30 years (a Herring gull ringed in 1965 was still alive in 1997, and older individuals are now on record too), creates the impression of abundance.

There’s A Human Problem, Not A ‘Gull Problem’. Why are gulls so ubiquitous and – to hark back to the hack journalist take – problematic and pestilent? Is it because they’ve devised a clever plan to usurp humans and kill us all by pecking at the face? No, it’s because we’ve created ideal places for them to live, forage and breed thanks to our epic production of useable and edible waste, and our production of (mostly) predator-free, friendly places ideal for resting, feeding and breeding. We’ve also made life harder for them at coasts and seas thanks to development, pollution and industrial fishing. In short, the urban gull ‘problem’ is a direct product of the human problem.

There’s some degree of uncertainty as goes how reliable urban Herring gull counts are, but the overall trend over recent decades is certainly one of overall population decline. This graph is from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee Herring gull page. The dotted lines show 95% confidence limits. Image: JNCC (original   here  ).

There’s some degree of uncertainty as goes how reliable urban Herring gull counts are, but the overall trend over recent decades is certainly one of overall population decline. This graph is from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee Herring gull page. The dotted lines show 95% confidence limits. Image: JNCC (original here).

At the risk of repeating myself… yes, big gulls can be less than ideal neighbours. Yes, they’ll steal your chips or sandwiches if you’re dumb enough to hold those things aloft and be unaware of big animals watching you from nearby. Yes, they’ll potentially swoop at you or whack or bite you if you go close to their nests or chicks. Yes, they may even – very, very rarely – do such things as see small dogs and other pets as prey items. Yes, they shit. And, yes, they can be noisy and do their raucous calling at inconvenient times of the day or night.

White-headed gulls are slow to mature and have different plumage phases depending on age. It’s therefore typical to see birds of several different year stages at any one place where gulls hang out. This 1st winter Herring gull was photographed at Orton, Devon. Image: Darren Naish.

White-headed gulls are slow to mature and have different plumage phases depending on age. It’s therefore typical to see birds of several different year stages at any one place where gulls hang out. This 1st winter Herring gull was photographed at Orton, Devon. Image: Darren Naish.

But I seriously question the idea that these often magnificent, slow-growing, long-lived and behaviourally fascinating birds are anything like the ‘problem’ that hack journalists would have us believe. I want to live in a world where there are other animals besides more humans and our domesticates, and the whole idea that gulls are a ‘problem’ is, frankly, tired bullshit that we should be done with.

Articles like this are possible because of the support I receive at patreon. Please consider supporting my research and writing if you don’t already, thank you so much.

Gulls and other charadriiform birds have been covered a few times on TetZoo before… though here’s your usual reminder that some of these articles are now paywalled, or have had their images removed.

Refs - -

Iason, G.R., Duck, C. D. & Clutton-Brock, T. H. 1986. Grazing and reproductive success of red deer – the effect of local enrichment by gull colonies. Journal of Animal Ecology 55, 507-515.

Madden, B. & Newton, S. F. 2010. Herring gull (Larus argentatus). In Lloyd, C., Tasker, M. L. & Partridge, K. (eds) The Status of Seabirds in Britain and Ireland. T & AD Poyser, London, pp. 242-261.

Magnusson, B. & Magnusson, S. H. 2000. Vegetation on Surtsey, Iceland, during 1990–1998 under the influence of breeding gulls. Surtsey Research 11, 9-20.

Sekercioglu, C. H. 2006. Increasing awareness of avian ecological function. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 21, 464-471.

Young, H. G. 1987. Herring gull preying on rabbits. British Birds 80, 630.

Five Famous Palaeolithic Rock Art Enigmas

I’m fascinated by ancient rock art and have written about it a few times here at TetZoo, in part because it often gives us a great deal of useful information on the life appearance of extinct Pleistocene animals. My article on the life appearance of the Woolly rhino is here, the one on Pleistocene horses is here, and the one on Megaloceros is here. As per usual, at least some of these articles have been ruined by hosting issues (if you’re patient, they’ll eventually appear in one of the Tetrapod Zoology books – which are a thing, I promise).

Today I want to talk about a few examples of Palaeolithic art that have caused controversy and uncertainty as goes what they depict. I’ve been unashamedly hokey and sensational with regard to which I’ve chosen, and have deliberately picked cases where especially odd things have been said about them, often in decidedly grey literature. This doesn’t mean that I endorse said odd things, but they’re certainly relevant and inspirational to my interests. Furthermore, they aren’t so much ‘enigmas’ as ‘ambiguous cases open to interpretation’.

I should also emphasise that I’m concentrating here on European rock art. Australian, African, Asian and North American rock art also has its fair share of intriguing images that have been the topic of contention.

The famous Lascaux ‘unicorn’ or ‘licorne’. Pretty weird that an animal with two horns ever became a ‘unicorn’, but whatevs. Credit: New Cryptozoology Tarmola Wiki (original  here ).

The famous Lascaux ‘unicorn’ or ‘licorne’. Pretty weird that an animal with two horns ever became a ‘unicorn’, but whatevs. Credit: New Cryptozoology Tarmola Wiki (original here).

1. The Unicorn of Lascaux. Among the most famous of enigmatic rock art animal depictions is the bovid-like, horned quadruped from the ‘Hall of the Bulls’ at Lascaux, Dordogne, France, sometimes called the licorne. It’s 1.65 metres long and combines a dark, rectangular muzzle and shoulder hump with a sway back, rotund belly (leading some to suggest that it might be pregnant), short tail and dark legs. Large dark reddish blotches with pale centres cover its sides. Its most memorable feature is its two long, parallel, straight horns, which project forwards and upwards from its forehead in a manner that doesn’t really match any known animal. The fact that there are clearly two horns means that ‘unicorn’ is a total misnomer, but I guess we’re stuck with it.

The ‘unicorn’ (at far left) in the Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux Cave. Image: N. Aujoulat © MCC-CNP, from Martin-Sanchez  et al . (2015).

The ‘unicorn’ (at far left) in the Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux Cave. Image: N. Aujoulat © MCC-CNP, from Martin-Sanchez et al. (2015).

The animal is standing at the far left of a frieze that features horses, aurochs and deer – among the best examples of their kind, in fact. The realism of the two aurochs in the same frieze is intriguing, since this somehow adds credence to the ‘unicorn’: surely it must be a realistic depiction of something real as well? Needless to say, it doesn’t match anything known to science. Is this a representation of a species otherwise unknown, it is a ‘bad’ depiction of a known species, or is it a fictional, symbolic or representational animal of some sort? Well, people have suggested a bunch of ideas.

Could the ‘unicorn’ be a Chiru? I dunno, it doesn’t seem like a good match. Image: Philip Sclater, public domain ( original here ).

Could the ‘unicorn’ be a Chiru? I dunno, it doesn’t seem like a good match. Image: Philip Sclater, public domain (original here).

A few informal suggestions have drawn attention to the supposed cat-like form of this animal (err, not sure I see that myself… what would this mean – that it’s a bovid-mimicking horned cat? Bwahahaaaha), or the possibility that it might depict people wearing a skin as a hunting disguise (nice idea, but no way to be at all confident about it) (Eberhart 2002). The best known idea – “best known” because it was mentioned in Björn Kurtén’s Pleistocene Mammals of Europe – is probably Dorothea Bate’s that it depicts a Chiru Panthalops hodgsoni (Kurtén 1968). While there’s a really vague superficial resemblance, the spotted body and forward-canted horns of the ‘unicorn’ aren’t at all Chiru-like. The suggestion that it might be saiga is out there too, but this suffers from the same problems: the horns are the wrong shape, what’s with the spotting, and why are the key features of saiga (most notably the distinctive snout) missing?

Björn Kurtén’s  Pleistocene Mammals of Europe    features this composite, showing the ‘unicorn’ next to a Chiru, the idea being that they look quite similar. But I think the picture is a bit of a cheat since Chiru horns point upwards and backwards, not forwards. Image:   Kurtén (1968)  .

Björn Kurtén’s Pleistocene Mammals of Europe features this composite, showing the ‘unicorn’ next to a Chiru, the idea being that they look quite similar. But I think the picture is a bit of a cheat since Chiru horns point upwards and backwards, not forwards. Image: Kurtén (1968).

2. The Sorcerer of Trois Frères. I can’t not talk about the famous ‘deer man’ of Trois Frères, Ariège, France, even though it almost certainly isn’t a depiction of a non-human (reminder: TetZoo isn’t just about non-human tetrapods). This image is 75 cm long, and is most typically imagined as an illustration (it combines both engraving and paint) of a bipedal male humanoid, standing with partly folded, short forelimbs, and with a low shoulder hump, short neck, small-eyed, bearded face, erect, deer-like ears and stout branched antlers. A curving tail and dangling male genitals are supposed to be visible as well, and prominent dark stripes run the length of the body and hindlimbs. Could this be a god-like creature believed in as a protector or object of worship? Or does it show that the artist was part of a group who believed in human-non-human transmogrification or transmutation? Is it a therianthrope (a mashup of human and non-human body parts of the sort illustrated elsewhere in the ancient world)? Or is it a semi-abstract take on a non-human bipedal creature of some sort… something unknown to science!!

A redrawing of Breuil’s interpretation of the ‘Sorcerer’, from Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams’s 1998 book  The Shamans of Prehistory . As discussed in the text, this may be too generous relative to the original. Image:   Clottes & Lewis-Williams (1996)  .

A redrawing of Breuil’s interpretation of the ‘Sorcerer’, from Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams’s 1998 book The Shamans of Prehistory. As discussed in the text, this may be too generous relative to the original. Image: Clottes & Lewis-Williams (1996).

At the time of writing I’ve recently watched the 2017 movie The Ritual, and - while watching it - I couldn’t help but wonder if the creature in that movie – I’ll say no more because spoilers, but it’s called the Jōtunn – was in some way inspired by the Trois Frères sorcerer. But it wasn’t.

A scene from  The Ritual , a great movie I really liked. Image: Netflix/Collider (taken from  here ).

A scene from The Ritual, a great movie I really liked. Image: Netflix/Collider (taken from here).

Anyway, we owe this view of the figure to Abbé Henri Breuil (1877-1961), priest, archaeologist and master of French cave art. Breuil did a lot of good work and came up with many influential ideas on why, when and how cave art was produced (most famously in Breuil (1952)), but he wasn’t ashamed to speculate way beyond the confines of the data and at least some of his thoughts on the art involve a lot of interpretation that’s difficult to be at all confident about. Indeed, photos of the image show that a substantial amount of imagination is required to turn the fuzzy, partly indistinct humanoid figure visible today into the antlered novelty that Breuil depicted, and it simply isn’t possible to be confident that his take on the image is valid. Some people say that this is because photos typically don’t capture the subtleties of the images (which are often formed of cracks and lumps on the rock and hence don’t transfer well to flash photography), and others that the image may have faded or degraded since Breuil drew his take on it during the 1920s.

A post-Breuil photograph of the image. As you can see, it doesn’t definitely show the many details he thought it did. But were they present originally and later lost, or not captured in photos? Image: strangehistory.net (from  here ).

A post-Breuil photograph of the image. As you can see, it doesn’t definitely show the many details he thought it did. But were they present originally and later lost, or not captured in photos? Image: strangehistory.net (from here).

Whatever’s going on, there’s clearly something unusual in the original art. We’re seeing an interesting image of some kind.

3. The Lion Statuette of Isturitz. Big cats are depicted in several European caves and are most usually images of cave lions (and a whole article could be written on what that cave art tells us about life appearance and behaviour in Pleistocene European lions). A few depictions, however, show other cat species (like leopards). The Isturitz cave in Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France, yields some of Europe’s most interesting Palaeolithic art, and among this is a 16 cm long statuette of a big cat, seemingly shown with a short tail, rectangular face, prominent chin, and sparse array of spots across its upper surface. Conventionally identified as a lion, it was argued by Vratislav Mazak (1970) to instead be a depiction of the sabretooth Homotherium. This would be pretty radical for several reasons: not only would it be the only known human-made image of a sabretooth on record (though read on), it would also require that Homotherium persisted in Europe much later than anyone had previously thought (to 30,000 years ago, rather than to 300,000 years ago). The statuette is lost today (sigh), but there is at least one photo of it.

A drawing of the Isturitz statuette, borrowed from Michel Raynal’s page here (a newer drawing of the image has since been produced by Mauricio Antón; see Antón  et al . 2009). Lion or scimitar-toothed cat?

A drawing of the Isturitz statuette, borrowed from Michel Raynal’s page here (a newer drawing of the image has since been produced by Mauricio Antón; see Antón et al. 2009). Lion or scimitar-toothed cat?

Mazak’s idea was accepted by several other authors, most notably Michel Rousseau (1971a, b), who argued that several other European Palaeolithic illustrations could depict Homotherium as well. The idea was made better known thanks to the coverage it received from Shuker (1989) and Guthrie (2005). And in 2000 it received what looked like support from the discovery of a geologically young Homotherium fossil (a lower jaw from the North Sea), dated to c 28,000 years ago (Reumer et al. 2003). So far, so good – maybe the Isturitz statuette gives us an unparalleled insight into the life appearance of an iconic sabretooth.

But… no. In a detailed re-examination of the case, Mauricio Antón and colleagues argued that it isn’t a depiction of Homotherium at all, but a Cave lion Panthera leo spelaea (Antón et al. 2009). They argued (following rigorous and detailed anatomical assessment of the life appearance of Homotherium) that the statuette lacks the longish neck, level (rather than convex) dorsal outline to the head, protruding canine tips, and sloping back that would be evident if this really was a depiction of Homotherium. I find these arguments pretty compelling and think that the statuette is a lion after all. Probably.

Antón  et al . (2009) argued that  Homotherium  (A, B) would differ noticeably from Cave lion (C, D) in proportions. The homothere has taller shoulders, a longer neck, a flatter head, and a more sloping back than a pantherine like a lion. Image: Antón  et al . 2009.

Antón et al. (2009) argued that Homotherium (A, B) would differ noticeably from Cave lion (C, D) in proportions. The homothere has taller shoulders, a longer neck, a flatter head, and a more sloping back than a pantherine like a lion. Image: Antón et al. 2009.

Long-time readers might recall this as something I covered way back at TetZoo ver 1. That article (with about half of all the other TetZoo ver 1 articles) is included in my 2010 book Tetrapod Zoology Book One (Naish 2010). Book Two will be published this year or in 2020, incidentally.

4. The Beast-Women of Isturitz. Isturitz is also the discovery site of an engraved piece of bone that features a bison on one side, and two humanoids on the other. The humanoids are depicted in side view, as if swimming past the viewer, and they appear to be women. But they’re very unusual women.

One of several photos showing the famous Isturitz ‘bison and two women’ engraved bone shard. This is a replica on display at Musée d'Archeologie Nationale et Domaine, St-Germain-en-Laye. Image: Don Hitchcock, from  donsmaps.com .

One of several photos showing the famous Isturitz ‘bison and two women’ engraved bone shard. This is a replica on display at Musée d'Archeologie Nationale et Domaine, St-Germain-en-Laye. Image: Don Hitchcock, from donsmaps.com.

For one thing, while they’re certainly human-like, they aren’t as human-like as regular humans. The one breast we see is shown hanging from the armpit region, rather than at the front of the chest, the profile of the face is not especially human-like and features an unusual protruding nose, and the body is unusually massive and stocky, exceeding the proportions of a human with substantial body fat. Additionally, the figures have collars or binding around their necks and wrists, and one of them has a barbed harpoon symbol on its thigh – the exact same symbol elsewhere shown on prey animals, like the bison on the other side of the engraving.

Drawings of the same piece, this time showing both the bison side and the ‘two women’ side. Image: this version appeared in Heuvelmans & Porchnev, but is taken here from  donsmaps.com .

Drawings of the same piece, this time showing both the bison side and the ‘two women’ side. Image: this version appeared in Heuvelmans & Porchnev, but is taken here from donsmaps.com.

The most likely explanation is that these are stylized or badly drawn figures, and that we’d be silly to over-interpret them and think that they’re meant to be anatomically accurate in all their details. Perhaps the harpoon symbols show the images represent one or more particularly unpopular members of the tribe (maybe this is even a deliberate parody or cartoon), or perhaps this is a sort of Palaeolithic ‘most wanted’ poster (Bahn & Vertut 1997) and maybe the collars and wrist bindings are just ornaments or jewellery.

I can’t resist mentioning, however, the far more out-there idea that these aren’t depictions of Homo sapiens, but of another hominin species, and one that differs from ours in being more massive, different in head and nose shape, and in being regarded by us as an enemy or prey species, or even a beast of burden. The idea has been seriously proposed in the cryptozoology literature wherein it’s argued that ancient humans knew, and sometimes depicted in art, a more bestial, snub-nosed hominin that was perhaps part of H. neanderthalensis (Loofs-Wissowa 1994, Raynal 2001, Heuvelmans 2016). Regular readers will recall me covering this very niche take on prehistoric hominins in my 2016 review of Bernard Heuvelmans’s book Neanderthal: the Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman. I don’t think it’s a valid take on these illustrations, but… come on, it’s such a fun idea.

Heuvelmans and a few other authors argued that Neanderthals were bestial creatures with an enlarged upturned nose. I covered this whole take on Neanderthals in my review of   Heuvelmans (2016)  ,   here  . Image:   Heuvelmans 2016  .

Heuvelmans and a few other authors argued that Neanderthals were bestial creatures with an enlarged upturned nose. I covered this whole take on Neanderthals in my review of Heuvelmans (2016), here. Image: Heuvelmans 2016.

5. Great auk… or Long-Necked Sea Monster? Finally, birds are not especially abundant in ancient rock art, but nevertheless such species as owls, swans, geese, duck and herons were all depicted on occasion. Among the most interesting of ancient birds in rock art are those at Cosquer Cave in Marseille, France, an amazing cave – discovered in 1985 and only announced in 1991 – with a submerged undersea entrance. The birds here are big-bodied, short-legged, and with flipper-like wings and a small head, and the most popular identification is that they’re Great auk Pinguinus impennis*. That would be a big deal since it would be the first rock art of that species; it would also be consistent with fossil evidence showing that this species occurred in the Mediterranean during prehistoric times.

* An error meant that these birds were initially announced as ‘penguins’. As many as you will know, the term penguin was originally applied to the Great auk, and only later applied to the sphenisciforms of the south.

The Cosquer Cave ‘penguins’. I don’t know who to credit this image to but will add info when I get it.

The Cosquer Cave ‘penguins’. I don’t know who to credit this image to but will add info when I get it.

However, the Cosquer Cave illustrations don’t look much like Great auks at all – this suggestion could be completely wrong, or it could be that they’re schematic or abstract depictions of this species. Indeed, some experts think that providing a specific identification like this is going too far and that it might be better to just identify them as generic seabirds (Bahn & Vertut 1997).

Is the Cosquer Cave animal really a depiction of a Great auk? Hmm, maybe… but the similarity isn’t actually convincing. Images: auk by Darren Naish; Cosquer Cave animal from Mysterious Universe ( here ).

Is the Cosquer Cave animal really a depiction of a Great auk? Hmm, maybe… but the similarity isn’t actually convincing. Images: auk by Darren Naish; Cosquer Cave animal from Mysterious Universe (here).

An even more exotic suggestion is that the massive body, stumpy tail, flippers and small head of these animals makes them look like…. the long-necked sea monster – a sort of enormous seal with a long seal and a humped back – endorsed by some cryptozoologists (most famously Bernard Heuvelmans, who proposed the name Megalotaria longicollis for this creature).

One of the most familiar depictions of  Megalotaria  is this painting from Janet and Colin Bord’s article on sea monsters from the partwork series  The Unexplained  (and latterly included in the book    Creatures From Elsewhere   ). Not sure who the artist was. Image: (c) Orbis Publishing.

One of the most familiar depictions of Megalotaria is this painting from Janet and Colin Bord’s article on sea monsters from the partwork series The Unexplained (and latterly included in the book Creatures From Elsewhere). Not sure who the artist was. Image: (c) Orbis Publishing.

Yes, the idea that these might be depictions of a sea monster are out there in the cryptozoology literature, specifically in a 1994 article by François de Sarre*. Given that this idea requires Megalotaria to be real (something I don’t endorse, regretfully: see Woodley et al. 2008), I don’t think that this is an especially good idea, though I do agree that there’s a superficial similarity.

So - is that Cosquer Cave animal a depiction of the long-necked mega-seal  Megalotaria ? Err, wouldn’t  Megalotaria  have to actually exist first? Images:  Megalotaria  (c), Stefano Maugeri (from  here ); Cosquer Cave animal from Mysterious Universe ( here ).

So - is that Cosquer Cave animal a depiction of the long-necked mega-seal Megalotaria? Err, wouldn’t Megalotaria have to actually exist first? Images: Megalotaria (c), Stefano Maugeri (from here); Cosquer Cave animal from Mysterious Universe (here).

In the end, the idea that these images can be precisely identified to a species is probably erroneous, as it is in many similar cases. People must surely have drawn things badly, or in abstract fashion, or perhaps with only partial or second-hand knowledge of the animal concerned. And sometimes they might have made things up, or mashed things together.

* I’ve misplaced my copy of this article and can’t provide the full citation. But an online version is here, and an article inspired by de Sarre’s is here.

And that’s a good point to end on. Prehistoric rock art – produced over tens of thousands of years, by all manner of different groups of people with all kinds of influences, motivations, beliefs, experiences, artistic techniques, materials and technologies – no more performs the same function as human-made images do in the modern world. Some depictions were meant to be true to life, and to be educational, practical or naturalistic; others were abstract, symbolic, whimsical or even satirical; and surely others were practise pieces, or the work of individuals less skilled than others. We must not, I think, assume that everything can be identified to a known animal species with certainty or confidence.

My technical research and my writing here at the blog continues with your kind support via patreon. Many thanks to those who assist my projects. Please consider assisting if you can. The more independence I achieve, the more time I can spend producing the content you enjoy.

 For previous TetZoo articles on ancient rock art and related issues, see…

Refs - -

Antón, M, Salesa, M. J., Turner, A., Galobart, Á. & Pastor, J. F. 2009. Soft tissue reconstruction of Homotherium latidens (Mammalia, Carnivora, Felidae). Implications for the possibility of representations in Palaeolithic art. Geobios 42, 541-551.

Bahn, P. G. & Vertut, J. 1997. Journey Through the Ice Age. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.

Breuil, H. 1952. Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art. Hacker Art Books.

Clottes, J. & Lewis-Williams, D. 1998. The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. Ariel, Barcelona.

Eberhart, G. M. 2002. Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology (two volumes). ABC Clio, Santa Barbara.

Guthrie, R. D. 2005. The Nature of Paleolithic Art. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

Heuvelmans, B. 2016. Neanderthal: the Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman. Anomalist Books, San Antonio, Tx.

Kurtén, B. 1968. Pleistocene Mammals of Europe. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.

Loofs-Wissowa, H. 1994. The penis rectus as a marker in human palaeontology? Human Evolution 9, 343-356.

Martin-Sanchez, P. M., Miller, A. Z. & Saiz-Jimenez, C. 2015. Lascaux Cave: an example of fragile ecological balance in subterranean environments. In Engel, A. S. (ed) Microbial Life of Cave Systems, De Gruyter, pp. 279–302.

Mazak, V. 1970. On a supposed prehistoric representation of the Pleistocene scimitar cat, Homotherium Farbrini, 1890 (Mammalia; Machairodontinae). Zeitschrift fur Saugertierkunde 35, 359-362.

Naish, D. 2010. Tetrapod Zoology Book One. CFZ Press, Bideford.

Raynal, M. 2001. Jordi Magraner’s field research on the bar-manu: evidence for the authenticity of Heuvelmans’ Homo pongoides. In Heinselman, C. (ed) Hominology Special Number 1. Craig Heinselman (Francestown, New Hampshire), unpaginated.

Reumer, J. W. F., Rook, L., Van Der Borg, K., Post, K., Mol, D. & De Vos, J. 2003. Late Pleistocene survival of the saber-toothed cat Homotherium in northwestern Europe. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23, 260-262.

Rousseau, M. 1971a. Un félin à canine-poignard dans l’art paléolithique? Archéologia 40, 81-82.

Rousseau, M. 1971b. Un machairodonte dans l’art aurignacien? Mammalia 35, 648-657.

Shuker, K. P. N. 1989. Mystery Cats of the World. Robert Hale, London.

Woodley, M. A., Naish, D. & Shanahan, H. P. 2008. How many extant pinniped species remain to be described? Historical Biology 20, 225-235.

Tell Me Something Interesting About Dunnocks

Never forget that animals familiar to you – the sort you see and hear every day, or every other day – may be exotic and exciting creatures to various of your fellow humans. And it’s for this reason that I’ve sometimes chosen to write about familiar, commonplace species I see every day, since I know that other people won’t be familiar with the animals concerned, nor even (in cases) be aware of their existence. Today I want to discuss a passerine bird I’ve long planned to write about: a cryptic, mostly brown species known generally and most commonly as the Dunnock Prunella modularis but increasingly as the Hedge accentor.

I’ve never found Dunnocks especially easy to photograph… but, then, I could say that about most of the birds I’ve tried to photograph. This one is living up to one of its vernacular names and standing on top of a (recently trimmed) hedge. Image: Darren Naish.

I’ve never found Dunnocks especially easy to photograph… but, then, I could say that about most of the birds I’ve tried to photograph. This one is living up to one of its vernacular names and standing on top of a (recently trimmed) hedge. Image: Darren Naish.

Actually, the ‘old’ name for this species here in the UK is ‘Hedge sparrow’. This name has mostly had its day. It’s naïve and quaint as well as wrong – we’ve mostly given up on the idea that ‘sparrow’ means ‘generic small brown bird’ – and it’s dying out because you look far smarter and more knowledgeable about birds if you know what an accentor is. Accentors are unique to northern Africa and Eurasia (excepting their introduction to New Zealand); all extant 13 species are included within the genus Prunella, though an argument has sometimes been made that Laiscopus should be recognised too (for the large, mountain-dwelling Alpine accentor P. collaris and Altai accentor P. himalayana). They’re mostly birds of mountainous places and temperate woodland, the Dunnock also occurring in suburban gardens and parks. Where do accentors belong within the passerine radiation? They’re part of Passeroidea and – ironically – very close to sparrows proper, but are outside the big passeroid clade that includes finches and New World nine-primaried oscines, termed Emberizoidea (Selvatti et al. 2015). Yes, they have a fossil record, but it only extends back to the Pliocene…. so far.

Substantially simplified cladogram of passeroid passerines, showing some of the main lineages. Accentors are close to true sparrows, wagtails and pipits and kin but are part of a paraphyletic assemblage of mostly thin-billed lineages (based on the phylogeny of Selvatti  et al . (2015)). This cladogram uses images produced for my STILL in-prep textbook on the vertebrate fossil record,   on which go here  . Image: Darren Naish.

Substantially simplified cladogram of passeroid passerines, showing some of the main lineages. Accentors are close to true sparrows, wagtails and pipits and kin but are part of a paraphyletic assemblage of mostly thin-billed lineages (based on the phylogeny of Selvatti et al. (2015)). This cladogram uses images produced for my STILL in-prep textbook on the vertebrate fossil record, on which go here. Image: Darren Naish.

Dunnocks are mostly insectivorous but also eat worms and seeds, and mostly forage at ground level among leaf litter. Like so many birds that occur in western Europe, the Dunnock also occurs in part of northern Africa and in such parts of western Asia as the Caucasus and Iran. Some populations – those of the UK and elsewhere in western Europe, among others – are essentially sedentary while those of Scandinavia and western Russia migrate to the Mediterranean fringes and Asia Minor during the winter. Several subspecies have been named. These differ mostly in how dark they are, the form of Ireland, western Scotland and the adjacent islands (P. m. hebridium) being darkest, that of England and eastern Scotland (P. m. occidentalis) being palest.

Dunnocks are often seen in undergrowth, and thus in poor light. This photo (from 2006) shows one of the birds that used to live in my garden. Image: Darren Naish.

Dunnocks are often seen in undergrowth, and thus in poor light. This photo (from 2006) shows one of the birds that used to live in my garden. Image: Darren Naish.

Flexible sexual systems. These days one of the things that most people interested in birds know about the Dunnock is that it’s notoriously flexible in breeding strategy. Some populations are monogamous (one male defends a territory inhabited by a single female), others are polygynous (where one male territory overlaps that of a few females, all of which mate with him and are defended by him from other males), and yet others are polygynandrous (where two males work together to defend the same territory, that territory containing several females, all of whom mate with the two males).

Females are often polyandrous and mate with the several males who share the same territory (these males have a dominance hierarchy of their own, but since they all mate with the same female even the ‘top’ male doesn’t necessarily father the greatest number of offspring). Seemingly because males know (or suspect) that the female in question has been mating with other males, females engage in a striking precopulatory display where she droops her wings, raises and vibrates her tail, and exposes her cloaca… which the male pecks, causing her to eject the contents (Davies 1983). The male will then guard the female to (in theory) ensure that she doesn’t mate with another male again.

I’ve seen a Dunnock do something that looked like soliciting on one occasion and have a bunch of poor photos of it, here are two of them. Image: Darren Naish.

I’ve seen a Dunnock do something that looked like soliciting on one occasion and have a bunch of poor photos of it, here are two of them. Image: Darren Naish.

Despite the familiarity of the Dunnock as a European garden bird, this weird and memorable behaviour wasn’t documented until 1933 in the book Evolution of Habit in Birds (this reporting an observation actually made in 1902), and even then by someone considered an outsider to technical ornithological research, namely Edmund Selous (Birkhead et al. 2014). The realisation that the precopulatory display and cloacal pecking was linked to sperm competition (Davies 1983), that extra-pair copulations were commonplace in ‘monogamous’ species, and that scientists might be able to test parentage of the resulting chicks via DNA analysis (Burke et al. 1989) didn’t arrive until the 1980s, and the Dunnock studies concerned occurred at about the same time as similar studies were documenting post-copulatory sexual selection and extra-pair copulations in birds and other animals.

David Quinn’s excellent illustration, showing the female’s precopulatory display. Image: (c) David Quinn. This drawing has appeared in   Davies (1992)   and   Birkhead  et al . (2014)  .

David Quinn’s excellent illustration, showing the female’s precopulatory display. Image: (c) David Quinn. This drawing has appeared in Davies (1992) and Birkhead et al. (2014).

Some of you might remember seeing cloacal pecking in Dunnock featuring on TV for the first time in the 1998 BBC series The Life of Birds.

Female-female competition. In polygynous Dunnock populations, females compete for male attention and vie for territory with other females, at least some (and not the majority) of these competing females using complex songs to help attract ‘their’ male when he’s spending time with other females (Langmore & Davies 1997). They might sing as many as 60 times over the space of two days, and bouts of intense female-female competition can cause the male to move “to and fro in response to their trills, sometimes as often as every 10 or 20 seconds” (Langmore & Davies 1997, p. 887). In male passerines, elevated testosterone levels are linked to an increase in singing more. Could the same thing operate in females? Langmore et al. (2002) found that aggression among competing polygynous and polygynandrous females caused a rise in their testosterone levels, with this rise being linked to female calling and singing.

Use of complex, competitive singing by females is not unique to the Dunnock but was first documented in another accentor, the habitually polygynandrous Alpine accentor (Langmore et al. 1996). It’s increasingly well known that female-female competition is present and even important in animals (it’s key to the work I and colleagues have published on mutual sexual selection), but the case studies where it’s well documented aren’t all that familiar among biologists at large. Accentors, it turns out, are among the best of case studies.

The face a of a Dunnock. There are some similarities here with wagtails and pipits, and with sparrows and finches and their kin. Image: Darren Naish.

The face a of a Dunnock. There are some similarities here with wagtails and pipits, and with sparrows and finches and their kin. Image: Darren Naish.

Having mentioned variation in female vocalisations, it’s worth noting that male Dunnocks are variable too, their singing changing (‘switching’, to use ornithological parlance) to an increased rate when they’re searching for fertile females. Rapid song switching appears to be liked by females, who are more likely to solicit matings when they hear a male produce multiple song types (Langmore 1997).

Dunnocks encountered in the UK. The most striking plumage feature of this bird - the prominent streaking on its mantle and flanks - is not obvious in all views. Image: Darren Naish.

Dunnocks encountered in the UK. The most striking plumage feature of this bird - the prominent streaking on its mantle and flanks - is not obvious in all views. Image: Darren Naish.

So many copulations. Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of all this, Dunnocks are sexually active little animals with a high reproductive output, by which I mean that they can mate over 100 times in a day, each copulation taking less than a second. A thousand copulation events might have occurred over the span of time in which a single egg clutch was produced, the high number of solicitations by females seemingly being more to do with securing male interest in provisioning the clutch than in winning successful fertilisation (Davies et al. 1996). In polygynandrous populations, it therefore makes sense – as a male – to turn down at least some female solicitations,  and to help less at the nest than males do in monogamous and other populations.

The possibilities open to these birds are diverse, and all have different knock-on effects as goes which sex has the ‘upper hand’ and what these strategies could mean in evolutionary terms. I haven’t covered half of the complexity here anyway – you could literally write a whole book on this stuff, and in fact Nick Davies did exactly this, back in 1992 (Davies 1992).

Nick Davies’s 1992 book   is the classic work on these birds. Hey, there’s that illustration by David Quinn again.

Nick Davies’s 1992 book is the classic work on these birds. Hey, there’s that illustration by David Quinn again.

That’s where we’ll end for now. This is yet another of those TetZoo articles that’s been planned and in a partially written state for years. Big thanks to Matt Wedel for helping to collect the relevant literature – something he did back in 2006! Yes, a lot of slow-burn stuff here at TetZoo.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see me do more, please consider supporting this blog (for as little as $1 per month) at patreon. The more support I receive, the more financially viable this project becomes and the more time and effort I can spend on it. Thank you :)

 For previous TetZoo articles on passerines, see…

Refs - -

Birkhead, T., Wimpenny, J. & Montgomerie, B. 2014. Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Burke, T., Davies, N. B., Bruford, M. W. & Hatchwell, B. J. 1989. Parental care and mating behaviour of polyandrous dunnocks Prunella modularis related to paternity by DNA fingerprinting. Nature 338, 249-251.

Davies, N. B. 1983. Polyandry, cloaca-pecking and sperm competition in dunnocks. Nature 302, 334-336.

Davies, N. B. 1992. Dunnock Behaviour and Social Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Davies, N. B., Hatchwell, B. J. & Langmore, N. E. 1996. Female control of copulations to maximize male help: a comparison of polygynandrous alpine accentors, Prunella collaris, and dunnocks, P. modularis. Animal Behaviour 51, 27-47.

Langmore, N. E. 1997. Song switching in monandrous and polyandrous dunnocks, Prunella modularis. Animal Behaviour 53, 757-766.

Langmore, N. E., Cockrem, J. F. & Candy, E. J. 2002. Competition for male reproductive investment elevates testosterone levels in female dunnocks, Prunella modularis. Proceedings of the Royal Society, London Series B 269, 2473-2478.

Langmore, N. E. & Davies, N. B. 1997. Female dunnocks use vocalizations to compete for males. Animal Behaviour 53, 881-890.

Langmore, N. E., Davies, N. B., Hatchwell, B. J. & Hartley, I. R. 1996. Female song attracts males in the alpine accentor Prunella collaris. Proceedings of the Royal Society, London Series B, 263, 141-146.

Selvatti, A. P., Gonzaga, L. P. & Russo, C. A. de M. 2015. A Paleogene origin for crown passerines and the diversification of the Oscines in the New World. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 88, 1-15.

Mark Witton’s The Palaeoartist’s Handbook

It’s probably – no, surely – true to say that palaeoart (aka paleoart) is more popular right now that it ever has been, a fact due in equal part to a vibrant, active community of people worldwide, to the instant, ubiquitous reach of the internet and the connectedness we feel via social media, to self-publishing and on-demand printing services, and to the excitement and discussion generated by what seems to be a never-ending stream of amazing fossil and anatomical discoveries relevant to ancient animals.

Today, Mark Witton is well known for generating large-scale artworks like this one - depicting the sauropod  Diplodocus , and produced to accompanying the NHM’s Dippy specimen as it tours the UK - in addition to work done to accompany press releases. Image: (c) Mark Witton.

Today, Mark Witton is well known for generating large-scale artworks like this one - depicting the sauropod Diplodocus, and produced to accompanying the NHM’s Dippy specimen as it tours the UK - in addition to work done to accompany press releases. Image: (c) Mark Witton.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Dr Mark P. Witton is, right now, one of the world’s best known and most visible of palaeoartists; his articles and artwork are abundant online, and his work appears in many contemporary published works on prehistoric life, and in various museum installations and other displays. Combine this with the fact that he’s published a long-sought holy grail of the palaeoart canon – a palaeoart handbook – and we surely have one of the most important and worthy palaeoart-themed volumes of all time. Right? Does it deliver?

Witton-WPH-Palaeoartists-Handbook-cover-645px-tiny-June-2019-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

I refer to 2018’s The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, a slick, extremely affordable softback of 224 pages and extremely high production values. In response to my question above: yes, this book does deliver, and functions extremely well as a ‘handbook’ for those interested in producing palaeoart. Buy it right now if you haven’t done so already. Even those not needing or interested in Dr Witton’s advice should obtain it if they’re interested in palaeoart, since it contains stacks of invaluable review and commentary, does a great job of stating where we are with respect to what we think we know about the appearance of ancient animals, and is really well designed and densely illustrated. It’s probably the most important volume yet published on palaeoart*, and that remains true even if you dislike or disagree with the author’s contentions.

* ‘Importance’ is subjective, but the volume vies – I predict – with 2012’s All Yesterdays and volumes I and II of Dinosaurs Past and Present.

There aren’t many ‘crucial’/’must have’ volumes on palaeoart, but the  Dinosaurs Past and Present  volumes are almog them, volume II in particular because of Greg Paul’s article (Paul 1987). Images: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press.

There aren’t many ‘crucial’/’must have’ volumes on palaeoart, but the Dinosaurs Past and Present volumes are almog them, volume II in particular because of Greg Paul’s article (Paul 1987). Images: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press.

A disclaimer I should mention upfront is that Mark and I are long-standing friends and colleagues. I lectured to Mark when he was an undergrad, we’ve been on fieldwork together, and we’ve published several works together on pterosaurs (Witton & Naish 2008, 2015, Dyke et al. 2014, Vremir et al. 2015, Naish & Witton 2017) and palaeoart (Witton et al. 2014). These things might, in theory, mean that I’m positively biased towards his work, but in reality I think they help make me more neutral, since our good relationship means that I can say negative things (where fair and appropriate) and not be worried about being offensive. But let’s see.

Witton (2018) is extremely well designed and very attractive. It’s glossy, full colour throughout, and absolutely packed full of diagrams, photos and art. The art is not just by Mark Witton but also features images by Raven Amos, Rebecca Groom, Johan Egerkrans, Bob Nicholls, John Conway, Emily Willoughby, Julius Csotonyi and Scott Hartman. Holy crap, it’s a virtual who’s who of Early 21st Century palaeoart.

Witton (2018)   includes artwork by several artists, sometimes included to depict diverse styles, compositions and approaches. This is ‘Nemegt Sunrise’ by the amazing Raven Amos ( website here ), and depicts the oviraptorosaur  Conchoraptor  with a hermit crab. Image: (c) R. Amos.

Witton (2018) includes artwork by several artists, sometimes included to depict diverse styles, compositions and approaches. This is ‘Nemegt Sunrise’ by the amazing Raven Amos (website here), and depicts the oviraptorosaur Conchoraptor with a hermit crab. Image: (c) R. Amos.

What sort of book is this? A ‘palaeoart book’ can be one of several things. It could be a compendium of historical images (like Zoë Lescaze’s gigantic, deeply idiosyncratic but invaluable 2017 Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past), it could be a bunch of new, daring stuff that makes a point of some sort (cf All Yesterdays), it could be an artist’s porfoilio or a series of portfolios (like the Dinosaur Art volumes, or The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi), or it could be a technical volume that provides some theoretical or technical background to the field… I’m sure we’re all still waiting for ‘The Grand Handbook to Illustrating Prehistoric Life, a Rigorous How-To Guide’, hint hint.

The number of books devoted to palaeoart is growing. I think I’ve managed to keep up so far. Image: Darren Naish.

The number of books devoted to palaeoart is growing. I think I’ve managed to keep up so far. Image: Darren Naish.

Witton (2018) is partly all of these things: the volume is fundamentally devoted to the techniques, practices and scientific processes and conventions behind the creation of palaeoart, and the case studies and targeted discussions mean that we effectively see much of Witton’s work showcased. But there’s more.

Witton (2018) begins with introductory sections on what palaeoart is and on its history. The historical chapter is quite complete and inclusive, and I’m a big fan of Witton’s take on the work of Cuvier, Hawkins at Crystal Palace and other early efforts. He’s also fair to the artists who produced work during what he terms ‘The Reformation’, some of whom (Greg Paul in particular) have had a major, lasting impact on how we imagine ancient life. The ‘palaeoart meme’ story that I’ve drawn attention to through my own research and the All Yesterdays movement bring a close to this section alongside comments on some of the amazing, exciting new developments being made in the world of soft tissues and palaeo-colour.

The Crystal Palace animals remain among the most accurate renditions of prehistoric life ever made (like all palaeoartistic reconstructions, they have to be seen as being  of their time ), and Mark Witton’s take on them is one I absolutely agree with. This photo of the  Iguanodon  pair was taken in September 2018. Image: Darren Naish.

The Crystal Palace animals remain among the most accurate renditions of prehistoric life ever made (like all palaeoartistic reconstructions, they have to be seen as being of their time), and Mark Witton’s take on them is one I absolutely agree with. This photo of the Iguanodon pair was taken in September 2018. Image: Darren Naish.

The meat and potatoes. We then move on to the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the book: a group of chapters that discuss in great detail the process of creating palaeoart. Sections here cover how research is important and how a worker might go about doing it, how knowledge of phylogeny is integral to understanding an organism, and how artists should at least be aware of tropes and stereotypes. This book is fundamentally not a ‘rigorous how-to guide’ to all the prehistoric animals (every time I use this term I’m riffing on the title Greg Paul gave his seminal 1987 article on archosaur reconstruction), but this middle section of the book does include copious discussion of anatomy, the shapes of animals in 3D and cross-section, of musculature and posture, the importance of integument, fat and other external tissue, and so on. I should add that Chapter 9 (‘The Life Appearance of Some Fossil Animal Groups) is devoted to the probable life appearances of key tetrapod groups. Ha, take that fishes.

In many cases, the favoured, traditional look for a given prehistoric animal is not necessarily the one we might favour. Here’s an example: Mark has argued that a new look for the proboscidean  Deinotherium  - shown here - should be considered. Image: (c) Mark Witton/  Witton (2018)  .

In many cases, the favoured, traditional look for a given prehistoric animal is not necessarily the one we might favour. Here’s an example: Mark has argued that a new look for the proboscidean Deinotherium - shown here - should be considered. Image: (c) Mark Witton/Witton (2018).

These central chapters are probably the most important part of the book and will be those used most by the largest number of people. There’s a ton of information and discussion, and Mark describes in detail how he’s arrived at the conclusions he has. Readers of Mark’s blog will be familiar with some of the arguments here and might also know that much of it has never been properly published (as in, in technical papers or articles). The book is therefore especially significant as a source of primary data, though I know that efforts are underway to get at least some of it into the primary literature.

Extensive sections of   Witton (2018)   discuss osteological correlates for external texture and other features. In some cases - like ceratopsian dinosaurs - there are many such correlates. Image: (c) Mark Witton/  Witton (2018)  .

Extensive sections of Witton (2018) discuss osteological correlates for external texture and other features. In some cases - like ceratopsian dinosaurs - there are many such correlates. Image: (c) Mark Witton/Witton (2018).

How confident can we be that Mark is ‘right’ when it comes to his arguments about lips, cornified facial tissue, scalation or fuzziness on the body and so on? I think that a strong response would be that he has at least described, explained and illustrated his reasoning and it’s difficult to think that he’s ‘wrong’, two caveats being that there is – as Mark states quite clearly – still some considerable slop as goes determining the relative size of keratinous coverings (like the pads, scales and sheaths covering horns, claws and so on), and that the vagaries of taphonomy might still be cheating us out of valuable information on which archosaurs had filaments, fuzz or feathers. Yes, I still think that big tyrannosaurs could have been fuzzy and that we aren’t picking this up because the fossils concerned aren’t preserved in the ideal sedimentological regimes.

Speculation and the All Yesterdays Movement. The main message here is that while some speculation always has to be included in palaeoartistic reconstructions, there’s a lot of stuff that’s knowable, or potentially knowable, and informed by actual anatomical data. This is increasingly the case even for colour and pattern (caveat: we still only have data on some infinitesimally tiny percentage of extinct animals). The door is not open for any possibility, and artists who wish to be seen as doing work that’s scientifically credible have to take into account data derived from fossils as well as ‘rules’ (or guidelines) gleaned from living animals. However…

Conway et al.’s 2012  All Yesterdays    has changed the way many people approach palaeoart… but is this for better, or for worse? Image:   Conway  et al . (2012)  .

Conway et al.’s 2012 All Yesterdays has changed the way many people approach palaeoart… but is this for better, or for worse? Image: Conway et al. (2012).

A valid, controversial and timely point concerns just how much speculation is permissible in palaeoart. This is something I feel especially connected to given the impact of my 2012 book – co-authored with John Conway and C. M. Kosemen – All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2012) and the subsequent ‘All Yesterdays Movement’, which is hated by some but loved by others. Mark’s take on what happened post-AY is that a lot of AY-inspired artwork has failed to appreciate the nuance of the original work, and that AY was (wrongly) taken by some as a green light to go nuts and do whatever, the results being misguided and likely wrong.

Mark has indulged in some speculation himself (here: shaggy-coated pachyrhinosaurs), and it’s down to opinion as to whether this is as extreme as anything depicted in  All Yesterdays . Image: Mark Witton/  Witton (2018)  .

Mark has indulged in some speculation himself (here: shaggy-coated pachyrhinosaurs), and it’s down to opinion as to whether this is as extreme as anything depicted in All Yesterdays. Image: Mark Witton/Witton (2018).

It would be wrong to avoid bringing attention to Franco Tempesta’s woolly, cold-adapted pachyrhinosaur, very obviously inspired by Mark Witton’s, and appearing in the 2016 Usborne book    Build Your Own DInosaurs Sticker Book   . I was consultant, but I’m sure that that’s coincidental. Image: (c) Franco Tempesta/Usborne.

It would be wrong to avoid bringing attention to Franco Tempesta’s woolly, cold-adapted pachyrhinosaur, very obviously inspired by Mark Witton’s, and appearing in the 2016 Usborne book Build Your Own DInosaurs Sticker Book. I was consultant, but I’m sure that that’s coincidental. Image: (c) Franco Tempesta/Usborne.

I agree… if we’re talking about artworks that aim to reflect possible realities. A nuance to the nuance of AY is that there exists a small contradiction in the aims of its creators. Yes, we argued that there are many potentially valid, scientifically defensible possibilities that hadn’t or haven’t been sufficiently explored in pre-AY palaeoart, but we did also promote the idea that people might explore other possibilities – even those weird or dumb or wrong – purely for the sake of artistic expression. That this view is canonical in the AYverse is demonstrated by the inclusion in the sequential All Your Yesterdays of retrosaurs that are absolutely contradicted by data but still fun from an artistic take. In other words, not all AY-inspired art is meant to be scientifically defensible. The takehome – post-AY – is that people need to say what they’re aiming to depict: a random fancy or a serious proposal?

Not all AY-inspired art is meant to be scientifically responsible and potentially realistic, some of it is deliberately whimsical and fanciful. Exhibit A: the wonder that is  Spinofaaras vulgaris , a creature that now has an internet life of its own. Image: (c) Chris Masna ( original here ).

Not all AY-inspired art is meant to be scientifically responsible and potentially realistic, some of it is deliberately whimsical and fanciful. Exhibit A: the wonder that is Spinofaaras vulgaris, a creature that now has an internet life of its own. Image: (c) Chris Masna (original here).

Anyway, returning to the contents of Witton (2018), this main section wraps up with some thoughts on how landscapes are created, and how composition and mood can be formed. Discussing environments and landscapes involves science – geology, geomorphology and palaeoclimate, among other things – and this is Witton’s main strength, but I also found his take on composition, stylistic choices and other matters of artistic style compelling…. speaking as someone who lacks artistic training and expertise, that is. The volume ends with a chapter on the professional side of palaeoart.

Feedback and criticism is crucial, but it can be difficult to know what to say to artists when you aren’t one yourself. In this section of the book, Mark provides advice, using his 2008 azhdarchid image as a piece that might benefit from constructive criticism. This piece accompanied the   Witton & Naish (2008) PLoS paper on azhdarchids  . Image: (c) Mark Witton/  Witton (2018)  .

Feedback and criticism is crucial, but it can be difficult to know what to say to artists when you aren’t one yourself. In this section of the book, Mark provides advice, using his 2008 azhdarchid image as a piece that might benefit from constructive criticism. This piece accompanied the Witton & Naish (2008) PLoS paper on azhdarchids. Image: (c) Mark Witton/Witton (2018).

On the negative side of things… I find the editing sloppy in places and think that the prose could have been tightened here and there. There are also a few turns of phrase that I found awkward, weird or (sorry) terrible, top of the list being the reference to “palaeontologists with the mightiest beards” (p. 38). On technical aspects, I’m a bit confused by Mark’s use of ‘reptile’ in the old, paraphyletic sense (in a volume otherwise using modern phylogenetic nomenclature, wouldn’t it make sense to use Reptilia for the lizard + turtle + croc clade, and not to use it for a paraphyletic assemblage that excludes birds?). Panoplosaurus is wrongly called an ankylosaurid (p. 125), and isn’t Deinotherium a deinotheriid, not a deinotherid? These are minor, piffling, trivial things that I only state here because I have nowhere else to put them.

The book is just full of spectacular imagery like this, much of which hasn’t appeared in print before. This image depicts the azhdarchoid pterosaur  Thalassodromeus . Image: (c) Mark Witton/  Witton (2018)  .

The book is just full of spectacular imagery like this, much of which hasn’t appeared in print before. This image depicts the azhdarchoid pterosaur Thalassodromeus. Image: (c) Mark Witton/Witton (2018).

All in all, The Palaeoartist’s Handbook is an excellent, beautifully produced, well crafted book which contains a wealth of information on the life appearance of extinct animals and how we might imagine them as living things, and it’s phenomenally good on the workings of palaeoart more generally. It should have broader appeal than to the palaeoart fraternity alone, and I think that anyone seriously interested in prehistoric animals or even in the history of art or the way people have imagined the past should obtain it too. For now, Witton (2018) is – mission fulfilled – THE palaeoartist’s handbook indeed.

Mark P. Witton. 2018. The Palaeoartist’s Handbook: Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art. The Crowood Press, Marlborough (UK), 224 pp, softback, index, refs, ISBN 978-1-78500-461-2. Here on amazon. Here on amazon.co.uk.

 For previous TetZoo articles on palaeoart and Wittoniana (the ver 2 and ver 3 ones have been ruined by removal of images), see…

 Refs - -

Conway, J., Kosemen, C.M. and Naish, D. 2012. All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books.

Dyke, G. J., Vremir, M., Brusatte, S., Bever, G., Buffetaut, E., Chapman, S., Csiki-Sava, Z., Kellner, A. W. A., Martin, E., Naish, D., Norell, M., Ősi, A., Pinheiro, F. L., Prondvai, E., Rabi, M., Rodrigues, T., Steel, L., Tong, H., Vila Nova, B. C. & Witton, M. 2014. Thalassodromeus sebesensis – a new name for an old turtle. Comment on “Thalassodromeus sebesensis, an out of place and out of time Gondwanan tapejarid pterosaur”, Grellet-Tinner and Codrea. Gondwana Research 27, 1680-1682.

Naish, D. & Witton, M. P. 2017. Neck biomechanics indicate that giant Transylvanian azhdarchid pterosaurs were short-necked arch predators. PeerJ 5: e2908.

Paul, G. S. 1987. The science and art of restoring the life appearance of dinosaurs and their relatives - a rigorous how-to guide. In Czerkas, S. J. & Olson, E. C. (eds) Dinosaurs Past and Present Vol. II. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press (Seattle and London), pp. 4-49.

Vremir, M., Witton, M., Naish, D., Dyke, G., Brusatte, S. L., Norell, M. & Totoianu, R. 2015. A medium-sized robust-necked azhdarchid pterosaur (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchidae) from the Maastrichtian of Pui (Haţeg Basin, Transylvania, Romania). American Museum Novitates 3827, 1-16.

Witton, M. P. & Naish, D. 2008. A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS ONE 3 (5): e2271. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002271

Witton, M. P. & Naish, D. 2015. Azhdarchid pterosaurs: water-trawling pelican mimics or “terrestrial stalkers”? Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 60, 651-660.

Witton, M. P., Naish, D. & Conway, J. 2014. State of the Palaeoart. Palaeontologia Electronica 17, Issue 3; 5E: 10p.

The World’s Best Books on Woodpeckers

I really like woodpeckers. This large, widespread group of around 240 living species includes the wrynecks, piculets and true or typical woodpeckers and includes species ranging from 7 to 60 cm in length. Woodpeckers are famous for their wood-excavating specialisations and ability to cling and climb on vertical substrates, but they’re diverse and not all species have these features. Here, I’ll resist the urge to talk about the birds that much and will instead provide brief comments on some of the best books written on these charismatic and fascinating animals.

This is one of the two woodpecker species I see on a regular basis: Green woodpecker  Picus viridis  (this photo from March 2016). All my photos are bad. Image: Darren Naish.

This is one of the two woodpecker species I see on a regular basis: Green woodpecker Picus viridis (this photo from March 2016). All my photos are bad. Image: Darren Naish.

Winkler et al.’s Woodpeckers: A Guide to the Woodpeckers, Piculets and Wrynecks of the World. Winkler et al. (1995) is the woodpecker instalment in the famous Pica Press book series: these books feature an introductory section on the anatomy and systematics of the group concerned, a colour plate section (in this case, with art by David Nurney), and a species-by-species text section. The book is definitive and I’ve used it a lot. The text summarises knowledge on range, identification, habits, foot, breeding and more, and references are provided.

woodpecker-books-June-2019-Winkler-cover-1000px-tiny-June-2019-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

Like most people seriously interested in birds, I’ve amassed a decent collection of the Helm/Pica Press books in the same series, but I’m some way from owning all of them. Insert typical complaint about recently published bird books being prohibitively expensive.

The Helm/Pica Press bird books (oops, plus a few others) in the Tet Zoo Towers library. Image: Darren Naish.

The Helm/Pica Press bird books (oops, plus a few others) in the Tet Zoo Towers library. Image: Darren Naish.

woodpecker-books-June-2019-Skutch-1000px-tiny-June-2019-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

Alexander Skutch’s Life of the Woodpecker. Skutch (1985) is a large (near ‘oversize’) hardback book, beautifully illustrated in colour throughout by the very good paintings of Dana Gardner. The book is separated into sections that cover the various aspects of woodpecker behaviour and ecology; there’s also a brief introduction to woodpeckers as a whole and a taxonomic list of recognised species at the back. Overall, the book is a good introduction to our knowledge of woodpeckers and everything about them, but it’s the artwork that makes it really worth getting.

Left: Fiery-billed aracari ( Pteroglossus frantzii ) vs Pale-billed woodpecker ( Campephilus guatemalensis ). Right: Imperial  Campephilus imperialis . Just two of the many excellent illustrations by Dana Gardner included in   Skutch (1985)  . Image: Dana Gardner/  Skutch (1985)  .

Left: Fiery-billed aracari (Pteroglossus frantzii) vs Pale-billed woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis). Right: Imperial Campephilus imperialis. Just two of the many excellent illustrations by Dana Gardner included in Skutch (1985). Image: Dana Gardner/Skutch (1985).

Gerard Gorman’s Woodpeckers of the World. I absolutely love field guides, often for the art more for the utility, and in part because I love the convention of showing closely related species arranged together on the same plate. But despite those things, we still often need to see photographs of the animals we’re interested in. Gorman (2014) is a photographic guide to the world’s living woodpecker species, each being illustrated by at least a few photos (though read on). The text is good too: each species has a short section covering identification, range, variation and so on. The photos are excellent. It’s a must-have if you’re seriously interested in these birds.

woodpecker-books-June-2019-Gorman-1000px-tiny-June-2019-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

Are all species illustrated by photos? What about the Ivory-billed woodpecker in the room… by which I mean: what about photos of the Ivory-billed Campephilus principalis and Imperial C. imperialis? No photos, only text.

Tim Gallagher’s Imperial Dreams. I reviewed this book at TetZoo back when it was new in 2013 (but good luck finding the article now; it’s been ruined by its hosters, like all stuff at ver 2 and ver 3). I’m not that great a fan of travelogue-type books on natural history, but I do really like Imperial Dreams. One of the world’s most spectacular woodpeckers is – or, was – the Imperial woodpecker of the Sierra Madre Occidental, a pine forest giant that seems to have dwindled to extinction somewhere between the late 1950s and … 1980s? 90s? No-one knows exactly when this bird went extinct, and its persistence was rumoured as recently as the 1990s.

woodpecker-books-June-2019-Gallagher-1000px-tiny-June-2019-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

Gallagher (2013) charts an effort to search for continuing traces for this species. A lot of information on the bird itself is included, but the human story relevant to the region is fascinating too. If you like woodpeckers, the book is well worth getting hold of. I should finish by adding that Gallagher also wrote The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a volume I haven’t yet read.

Books on woodpeckers. There are others… Image: Darren Naish.

Books on woodpeckers. There are others… Image: Darren Naish.

Remembering Lyall Watson’s Whales of the World

I’ve written before about some of the books that had an undue influence on me during my formative years. Such books tend to be well illustrated, they mostly contain attractive, colourful, detailed pieces of art, and they usually showcase weird and surprising proposals and arguments that later proved erroneous, questionable or wrong. The fact that I’ve always considered such books especially interesting and/or influential surely says a lot about me and how my brain works, but whatever.

The somewhat worn cover of my copy of   Watson’s  Whales of the World    (the 1988 softback edition). Image: Darren Naish.

The somewhat worn cover of my copy of Watson’s Whales of the World (the 1988 softback edition). Image: Darren Naish.

Today I’d like to discuss another of these fondly remembered books, and if you know it as well as I do you may well understand where I’m coming from. If you don’t know the book at all, (1) what have you been doing with your life?, and (2) obtain the book for yourself, it’s worth it. I’m here to discuss the weird, wonderful Whales of the World (also published as Sea Guide to Whales of the World) by the late Lyall Watson, illustrated by Tom Ritchie, and subtitled ‘A Complete Guide to the World’s Living Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises’ (Watson 1981).

Watson (1981) is a robust, attractively designed volume of 302 pages that goes through all the cetacean species thought valid by the author at the time of writing. It saw at least three reprintings, the first edition being hardback with a dustjacket, the 1985 and 1988 editions being softbacks. The book is arranged taxonomically and groups the cetaceans together by family, each family section including an introduction that has a key and a guide to the family’s respective anatomical traits. The family-level taxonomy Watson used is a little idiosyncratic, on which more later. Each species gets its own two pages. These include a distribution map, colour illustration (sometimes showing variants and juveniles where appropriate), an image of the skull where possible, and text sections on Classification (read: taxonomic history and discovery), Local Names, Description, Stranding, Natural History, Status, Distribution, and Sources (there’s a good bibliography).

Watson (1981)   includes both ‘wet keys’ (providing information on the life appearance of cetaceans, and intended to be used in the field) and ‘dry keys’ (providing information on skeletal material meant to be used to identify stranded animals or carcasses). Image:   Watson 1981  .

Watson (1981) includes both ‘wet keys’ (providing information on the life appearance of cetaceans, and intended to be used in the field) and ‘dry keys’ (providing information on skeletal material meant to be used to identify stranded animals or carcasses). Image: Watson 1981.

Who was Lyall Watson? Before we move on to the things that make the book unusual, we must ask: who was Lyall Watson? I recall being surprised on first learning of the existence of this book given that Watson was, and still is, best known for his 1973 Supernature: The Natural History of the Supernatural, a book on inexplicable phenomena and how they might be connected and explained. Supernature reads much like woo today, and it’s not surprising that Watson was regarded as embarrassingly credulous and even dishonest by some, and as refreshingly open-minded by others. I knew Watson for these reasons before discovering (by chance, in a bookshop… pre-internet days, kids) that he’d published a book on whales.

At left: Dr Lyall Watson. At right: 1973’s    Supernature   , Watson’s most famous book. Images: list of quotations of Lyall Watson ( here ), goodreads.com ( here ).

At left: Dr Lyall Watson. At right: 1973’s Supernature, Watson’s most famous book. Images: list of quotations of Lyall Watson (here), goodreads.com (here).

A look at the titles of his more than 20 published works reveals a remarkable and eclectic interest in all of natural history, in sport, culture and ritual (witness the 1989 Sumo: A Guide to Sumo Wrestling), in biology, anatomy and evolution, in the elements and physical geography, in the paranormal and spiritual, and in the human experience and everything about it. Many of us are interested in most or even all of these things, but scarcely any have the skill and knowledge that might allow us to write books on them. In keeping with his diverse interests and writing abilities, he was tremendously qualified, holding degrees in botany, zoology, ecology and anthropology. He even studied palaeontology under the great Raymond Dart. Watson completed his PhD on animal behaviour at the University of London under Desmond Morris, another scientist and author well known for a diverse skillset and ability to write engagingly about remarkable and controversial subjects. Unsurprisingly, Watson moved into the world of TV and also worked as a consultant for zoo and safari park design. Watson died in 2008 and there are some very good obituaries available online.

Anyway, back to the book. What makes it unusual?

Several of Ritchie’s whales, composited together (it might be obvious that I especially like beaked whales). Clockwise from upper left, we’re seeing Fraser’s dolphin  Lagenodelphis hosei , Peale’s dolphin  Lagenorhynchus australis , Strap-toothed whale  Mesoplodon layardii , Rough-toothed dolphin  Steno bredanensis  and Blainville’s beaked whale  M. densirostris ; Baird’s beaked whale  Berardius bairdii  is the big animal in the background. Images: Tom Ritchie/  Watson 1981  .

Several of Ritchie’s whales, composited together (it might be obvious that I especially like beaked whales). Clockwise from upper left, we’re seeing Fraser’s dolphin Lagenodelphis hosei, Peale’s dolphin Lagenorhynchus australis, Strap-toothed whale Mesoplodon layardii, Rough-toothed dolphin Steno bredanensis and Blainville’s beaked whale M. densirostris; Baird’s beaked whale Berardius bairdii is the big animal in the background. Images: Tom Ritchie/Watson 1981.

Whales of many hues. A key aspect of this book concerns its fantastic artwork. The whales look accurately proportioned and each illustration is nicely detailed. They’re not by Watson, but by artist Tom Ritchie. Watson states in a foreword how he and Ritchie travelled far – both north and south, he says – aboard the MS Lindblad Explorer in search of cetaceans. When describing the field sign, appearance and behaviour of cetaceans, he often describes things from the point of personal experience. Watson also states that he and Ritchie looked at numerous specimens in museum collections and also that they had access to new data never before published: the image of the Vaquita Phocoena sinus – named Gulf porpoise in the book (more on taxonomy in a minute) – “is taken from life and is the first ever printed which shows what the animal looks like” (Watson 1981, p. 8).

Ritchie’s Vaquita - at top - is apparently the first published full-body depiction of this animal’s life appearance. Below, a photo of a Vaquita in life. Extinction looms for this small cetacean. Images: Tom Ritchie/Watson 1981, Paula Olson/NOAA, in public domain ( original here ).

Ritchie’s Vaquita - at top - is apparently the first published full-body depiction of this animal’s life appearance. Below, a photo of a Vaquita in life. Extinction looms for this small cetacean. Images: Tom Ritchie/Watson 1981, Paula Olson/NOAA, in public domain (original here).

In view of all this, I find it fascinating that Ritchie’s cetaceans are often more boldly and brightly marked than those illustrated in other works, and depicted in hues that look surprising in view of more typical reconstructions (yes, it might be justifiable to term some depictions of living cetaceans reconstructions, since they’ve been cobbled together from diverse lines of evidence). The classic example is Stejneger’s beaked whale Mesoplodon stejnegeri (termed the Bering Sea beaked whale in the book). Photos and comments on this whale in living state show that it’s greyish brown, pale ventrally, and with off-white around the mouth and eyes. Ritchie’s version is warm brown dorsally, blue on its sides, white ventrally, and with a dark mask across the forehead and eyes (Watson 1981, p. 139). It’s an enhanced, technicolor version of the whale, and so different from other takes on this species that you’re left wondering how accurate it is. This sort of thing occurs throughout the book. The illustrations and wonderful and really attractive, but it’s difficult to be sure that they’re trustworthy.

Ritchie’s depiction of Stejneger’s beaked whale  Mesoplodon stejnegeri . The hues and pattern depicted here are very different from other takes on the appearance of this animal. Image: Tom Ritchie/  Watson 1981  .

Ritchie’s depiction of Stejneger’s beaked whale Mesoplodon stejnegeri. The hues and pattern depicted here are very different from other takes on the appearance of this animal. Image: Tom Ritchie/Watson 1981.

I once wrote an April Fool’s article whereby a newly designed machine was said to have revealed the true life appearance of whales (  it’s here at TetZoo ver 3  ). The imaginary multi-coloured whales devised for that spoof article were in part inspired by Tom Ritchie’s illustrations. Images: Gareth Monger and Darren Naish.

I once wrote an April Fool’s article whereby a newly designed machine was said to have revealed the true life appearance of whales (it’s here at TetZoo ver 3). The imaginary multi-coloured whales devised for that spoof article were in part inspired by Tom Ritchie’s illustrations. Images: Gareth Monger and Darren Naish.

A heterodox phylogeny and taxonomy. A great strength of Watson (1981) is that it includes a fairly decent exposition on cetacean evolutionary history (now very dated of course) and copious discussion throughout of how anatomical characters group species together. What makes the book look odd today, however, is that Watson’s ideas are often heterodox and discordant with consensus views on these issues. We might expect no less of Watson given his other writings, but we might also wonder if the urge to shake things up a bit and promote new or minority opinions was a product of the time in which Watson was working (the late 1970s).

An early section in the book explains how the two great cetacean groups – mysticetes (baleen whales) and odontocetes (or toothed whales) – can’t definitely be said to share a recent common ancestor and might have emerged independently, and it’s even implied that this might also be true of ‘archaeocetes’, the archaic cetaceans otherwise regarded as the ancestors of mysticetes and odontocetes. Cetacean polyphyly is a weird idea in view of how many details mysticetes and odontocetes share to the exclusion of other mammals, but it would have seemed new and exciting during the 1970s given that it had come to the fore in papers of the mid and late 60s (Yablokov 1964, Van Valen 1968). Watson (1981) opted to support it. It isn’t taken seriously today, the anatomical, fossil and molecular evidence supporting cetacean monophyly being overwhelmingly good.

It gets better. Watson (1981) also opted to follow some (otherwise mostly ignored or forgotten) taxonomic proposals for delphinoids, and recognised a distinct Stenidae for ‘coastal dolphins’ (Steno, Sousa and Sotalia) and Globicephalidae for pilot and killer whales and their close kin. Those familiar with the technical literature on delphinoid evolution will know that both names originated elsewhere and have complex histories (which I must avoid discussing here), but their use in a field guide was unusual and heterodox given the tradition of including all of these animals within Delphinidae.

Watson (1981)   wasn’t the only popular volume of the late 20th century to adopt some aspects of ‘non-traditional’ taxonomy. Anthony Martin  et al .’s 1990  Whales and Dolphins  also includes a globicephalid section (  Martin 1990  ), which opens with this fantastic artwork (by Bruce Pearson). Image: Bruce Pearson/  Martin 1990  .

Watson (1981) wasn’t the only popular volume of the late 20th century to adopt some aspects of ‘non-traditional’ taxonomy. Anthony Martin et al.’s 1990 Whales and Dolphins also includes a globicephalid section (Martin 1990), which opens with this fantastic artwork (by Bruce Pearson). Image: Bruce Pearson/Martin 1990.

I should add that, in other respects, Watson (1981) seems conservative. Caperea is included within Balaenidae, the Kogia whales are included within Physeteridae (rather than their own Kogiidae; in this instance Watson states a preference to stick with consensus) and all river dolphins are lumped into Platanistidae, as was tradition at the time (though he noted that “There ought to perhaps be at least 3 separate families”, p. 148).

Watson’s  Whales of the World    includes various montage illustrations like this, which depict the field signs and characteristic markings of groups of species. The pictures look great. However, it has been argued that some of the details shown here are not wholly reliable (read on). Images: Tom Ritchie/  Watson 1981  .

Watson’s Whales of the World includes various montage illustrations like this, which depict the field signs and characteristic markings of groups of species. The pictures look great. However, it has been argued that some of the details shown here are not wholly reliable (read on). Images: Tom Ritchie/Watson 1981.

Smash the patronymy. On the subject of taxonomy – this time on common names rather than scientific ones – another bold move is the assertion that an overhaul is needed in naming conventions, and that biologists and naturalists should absolutely move away from the time-honoured tactic of naming animals after people. After all, calling a given animal – say – ‘Smith’s mouse’ tells you nothing at all about the mouse, does nothing to honour the remarkable features of said mouse, and is positively unhelpful should you see said mouse in the field and wish to remember its name. No, it should be the Epic blue mouse, or the Great spectacled forest mouse, Watson opined. I agree with this idea and also think that names should honour organisms. With this approach in mind, you won’t, then, find True’s beaked whale, Commerson’s dolphin or Bryde’s whale in Watson’s Whales of the World, but the Wonderful beaked whale, Piebald dolphin and Tropical whale, respectively (Watson 1981). Many new names of this sort are proposed in the book.

Close-up of Ritchie’s illustration of Shepherd’s beaked whale  Tasmacetus shepherdi , one of my favourite living cetaceans. But it isn’t called Shepherd’s beaked whale in   Watson (1981)  . Instead, it’s the  Tasman whale . Image: Tom Ritchie/  Watson 1981  .

Close-up of Ritchie’s illustration of Shepherd’s beaked whale Tasmacetus shepherdi, one of my favourite living cetaceans. But it isn’t called Shepherd’s beaked whale in Watson (1981). Instead, it’s the Tasman whale. Image: Tom Ritchie/Watson 1981.

However… language works best when we understand what other people are saying. When a word or name or turn of phrase is established and used throughout a community, it makes sense to stick with it, even if it’s misleading, technically inaccurate, or downright ‘wrong’. We can change it, but – I’d argue – we need to do so democratically, with input from as many relevant players as possible. I suppose a counter-argument is that someone has to get the ball rolling, and that proposing a new set of names in a book designed to function as a fieldguide is a good place to start.

Whatever the argument. Watson’s proposals didn’t win any accolade and his new names never became adopted by the cetological community. Maybe this was because he was an ‘outsider’ and lacked an established reputation as a whale expert or field biologist, but my main feeling is that most workers have wanted to stick with convention and continue to use the names that are otherwise entrenched.

My own whale illustrations - these were produced for various articles published back in the 1990s - were heavily inspired by those of Tom Ritchie. The originals of these illustrations appear to be lost today, so I have to draw them all anew for my in-prep textbook. Image: Darren Naish.

My own whale illustrations - these were produced for various articles published back in the 1990s - were heavily inspired by those of Tom Ritchie. The originals of these illustrations appear to be lost today, so I have to draw them all anew for my in-prep textbook. Image: Darren Naish.

The reception to Whales of the World. Having just noticed that Watson was seen as “an outsider”, it’s worth finishing this article by wondering how Whales of the World was received and perceived by specialists. Among whale researchers in general, the book was mostly ignored and generally regarded as problematic. Typical comments were provided by marine mammal specialist Niger Bonner (who wrote several excellent volumes on pinnipeds and cetaceans himself). Bonner noted that the book had noble aims but was marred by errors and erroneously gave the impression that many of the species were far better known than they really were (Bonner 1983). He criticised the maps, thought that the new naming system was arbitrary, confusing and annoying, and noted that the colours given to the animals in the artwork didn’t always match what was stated in the text (Bonner 1983).

So far as I can tell, these comments were and are typical, and what was – and remains – a popular and much-read book by amateurs and enthusiasts was never endorsed or recommended by those who know whales best.

Of all the popular and semi-technical books on cetaceans and other marine mammals,   Watson (1981)   remains one of the most interesting and attractive. This photo is from 2015 and I’ve acquired quite a few additional relevant volumes since. Image: Darren Naish.

Of all the popular and semi-technical books on cetaceans and other marine mammals, Watson (1981) remains one of the most interesting and attractive. This photo is from 2015 and I’ve acquired quite a few additional relevant volumes since. Image: Darren Naish.

I’m not a whale specialist, but I love the book, the caveat being – as should be obvious by now – that I love it for its weirdness and its design and artwork, not because I’ve ever found it an indispensable go-to work or a definitive take on the whales of the world. I’d say you should definitely get hold of it if you want a somewhat quirky, exciting take on the subject, or if you’re a completist or want to see Watson’s take on phylogeny, taxonomy and cetacean life appearance.

Articles like this are possible because of the support I receive at patreon. Please consider supporting my research and writing if you don’t already, thank you so much.

 Cetaceans have been covered at length on TetZoo before - mostly at ver 2 and ver 3 - but these articles are now all but useless since all their images have been removed (and/or they’re paywalled, thanks SciAm). Here are just a few of them…

Refs - -

Bonner, N. 1983. [Review of] Sea Guide to Whales of the World. Oryx 17, 49.

Martin, A. R. 1990. Whales and Dolphins. Salamander Books Ltd, London and New York.

Van Valen, L. 1968. Monophyly or diphyly in the origin of whales. Evolution 22, 37-41.

Watson, L. 1981. Whales of the World. Hutchinson, London.

Yablokov, A. V. 1964. Convergence or parallelism in the evolution of cetaceans. Paleontological Journal 1964, 97-106.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Some Trivial But Monstrous Thoughts

I’m a big fan of Godzilla, and of kaiju movies in general. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I just went and saw Godzilla: King of the Monsters (KOTM), and – boy – did I like it. I don’t care about criticisms concerning the human plot (which I thought was fine, perfectly serviceable and well-acted), nor do I care that various possible plot-holes perhaps create issues. Look, it’s a film about giant monsters - rebranded titans for KOTM - knocking the crap out of each other, stomping on cities, out-flying military jets and messing about with lava, ice, epic weather, electricity and nuclear power. I loved it, and I applaud the bravery of the team concerned in taking classic monsters like King Ghidorah and remaining mostly faithful to their design without the need for some major overhaul.

A main theme of Godzilla: King of the Monsters is that humanity is an infection upon the planet, and that titans are the cure. Image: (c) Warner Bros.

A main theme of Godzilla: King of the Monsters is that humanity is an infection upon the planet, and that titans are the cure. Image: (c) Warner Bros.

I noticed a lot of interesting trivial little details in the film that are of interest or relevance to readers of this blog, at least some of which will have been missed unless you’re a monster fan or have serious nerdy interests in zoology. I mean, there are a hundred other things that are references to other stuff relevant to the Godzilla films and their real-world, factual backstory (Serizawa’s watch, the reference to a Steve Martin, Castle Bravo, Infant Island, maser turrets, the term ‘Monster Zero’, the use of a frikkin’ oxygen destroyer… and so on). It’s the more zoology-themed things I mostly want to highlight here.

The ‘science of Godzilla’ has been covered a fair bit at TetZoo in the past… Image:  The Biological Nature of Godzilla .

The ‘science of Godzilla’ has been covered a fair bit at TetZoo in the past… Image: The Biological Nature of Godzilla.

I should add that Godzilla has been covered at TetZoo on several previous occasions, the usual caveat being that these classic articles (which got a fair bit of attention back in the day and have led to various media appearances and such concerning ‘The Science of Godzilla’) have recently been effectively ruined by the removal of their accompanying images. They’re linked to below.

One more thing. STOP READING NOW IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS. THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Ok, onwards…

Figures in my collection. As a Godzilla fan, it’s great that at least some of these characters have been licensed anew for a modern movie franchise. Image: Darren Naish.

Figures in my collection. As a Godzilla fan, it’s great that at least some of these characters have been licensed anew for a modern movie franchise. Image: Darren Naish.

Musical Tunes. The score to this movie – by composer Bear McCreary – was fantastic, and hopefully you noticed that the main monster characters had their own musical themes. These themes incorporated components of the original themes created for the monsters in the original Toho movies. I mean, Godzilla’s theme is from the original 1954 movie and Mothra’s is from the 1962 debut movie, my god. This could partly be considered fan-service but more appropriately reflects an effort to create continuity with these older works. If you liked the music, stay to the end of the credits. There’s a post-credits scenes, by the way, and one that I didn’t predict.

Montage of the main monsters - re-branded as titans for this movie - starring in  Godzilla: King of the Monsters . Image: (c) Film Music Central ( original here ).

Montage of the main monsters - re-branded as titans for this movie - starring in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Image: (c) Film Music Central (original here).

Frank Searle’s Nessie. At one point in KOTM, people sift through images when learning about the long cultural influence King Ghidorah has had on human civilizations over the centuries. Among the images we see – ever so briefly – a blurry black and white photo of a water monster, its head obscured because its long, slender neck curves down to the water. This is unmistakeably one of Frank Searle’s infamous Nessie photos. Searle (1921-2005) was a notorious Loch Ness Monster investigator who, between about 1969 and 1983, claimed to have photographed the beast on a great many occasions (over 20; Harrison 1999), often at very close range. As should have been obvious right from the start (amazingly, he was able to dupe some people into thinking that he was the real deal), his photos variously involved models, cleverly posed sticks and branches, and even artwork superimposed onto photos of the water surface. He would likely have been thrilled to see one of his photos appear in a big-budget movie.

One of Frank Searle’s (in)famous Nessie photos. I’m 99% sure that this exact image made a brief appearance in KOTM. Image: (c) Frank Searle.

One of Frank Searle’s (in)famous Nessie photos. I’m 99% sure that this exact image made a brief appearance in KOTM. Image: (c) Frank Searle.

The Alpha Myth. Main human character Dr Mark Russell is a biologist who’s spent years studying wolves and other animals. In attempting to explain the combative, competitive, hierarchical behaviour observed among the newly emerging titans, he explains that they’re working out which will serve as The Alpha, the big boss animal that gets to control the others. He starts this discussion by saying that animals like wolves work within such a structure, ‘The Alpha’ being the biggest, strongest and meanest and thus the one that gets to rule the pack. This idea is deeply rooted and mainstream in culture and even integral to the philosophy of some animal trainers. But it’s not quite right. Wolf packs are extended families, with the leaders (which can still be called alphas if you want) being the parents of most other pack members. They are thus the most experienced, wisest wolves, not necessarily the baddest or strongest.

Check out all the interesting body language going on in this captive wolf pack. The especially dark animal near the middle is presumably an ‘alpha’. Image: Darren Naish.

Check out all the interesting body language going on in this captive wolf pack. The especially dark animal near the middle is presumably an ‘alpha’. Image: Darren Naish.

I know that this ‘Alpha’ concept was integral to the movie and works fine as an explanation for what we see of titan behaviour. But it would have been nicer if a person who’s supposed to be an experienced biologist said things that better reflected current thinking on the species he was supposed to know best.

The Congolese Titan. At several points during the film, we see world maps which depict titan activity as it’s happening live. And if we look at central Africa during one such scene, we see that the titan stomping around in the Congo region is labelled ‘mokele-mbembe’. Yes, the mokele-mbembe, the long-necked water monster of the Congo, beloved of cryptozoologists and creationists and suggested on many occasions to perhaps be a living sauropod dinosaur. Mokele-mbembe as we ‘know’ it (I mean: as described in the cryptozoology literature) wouldn’t make a particularly impressive titan, since it’s only meant to be about elephant-sized (albeit with a longer neck and tail). The KOTM version is presumably a super-sized version then. I’ve written about mokele-mbembe several times at TetZoo, and also in my book Hunting Monsters (Naish 2017).

One of the most famous of mystery beasts: mokele-mbembe, a creature popularly suggested to be a modern-day amphibious sauropod dinosaur. This illustration is by David Miller for   Roy Mackal’s 1987 book on the subject  . Image: David Miller/  Mackal 1987  .

One of the most famous of mystery beasts: mokele-mbembe, a creature popularly suggested to be a modern-day amphibious sauropod dinosaur. This illustration is by David Miller for Roy Mackal’s 1987 book on the subject. Image: David Miller/Mackal 1987.

Our Species Name. A reveal in the movie is that palaeobiologist and kaiju scientist Dr Emma Russell has used acoustic data from a mystery species in designing the sounds emitted by the monster-luring ORCA device… aaaand, the mystery species is us, since we’re one of the biggest monsters. What name do they give our species? They have it written – very clearly and in big red letters – ‘Homo sapien’. Major fail, 10 points deducted. It’s difficult to work out why, but many people today seem to think that ‘Homo sapien’ is the correct technical name for our species, and it’s often said this way in TV shows and popular literature. Our scientific name is Homo sapiens, which is scientific knowledge about as advanced as knowing that water has the formula H2O or that the Earth is a sphere.

That’s Not How You Do Scientific Names. On a related note, the titans in the movie have what look like scientific names. But the names don’t make any sense as goes the conventions biologists actually use in naming organisms. I think we’re meant to think that the names we see in KOTM are species names, unique to each kind of titan. These are obviously novel: hypothetically, Godzilla could be something like Gojiratitan terribilis, while Rodan might be, let’s say, Stupendadactylus mexicanus. But KOTM puts all the titans in the same one genus – Titanus (which isn’t available in use since it’s already been used for something else*) – which is then followed by a specific epithet, such that Godzilla is Titanus gojira, Rodan is Titanus rodan and so on. Most viewers won’t care about this, but it’s something that anyone with any knowledge of biology will notice and it’s annoying and a bit dumb. Next time: have an actual biologist on hand to check for these sorts of technical things, they make movies better!

* The longhorn beetle Titanus Audinet-Serville, 1832.

Oh Hollywood, why you no do scientific names right? This image is not from a Godzilla film… Image: (c) Universal Pictures.

Oh Hollywood, why you no do scientific names right? This image is not from a Godzilla film… Image: (c) Universal Pictures.

The Hollow Earth. KOTM goes big-time with the idea – previously hinted at in Kong: Skull Island – that our planet is a honeycomb, with hidden tunnels that pass right through it and gargantuan internal chambers and pockets (a description most familiar to modern audiences due to the form of the planet Naboo in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menance). I suppose that this has been worked into the MonsterVerse as a way of explaining how the impossibly huge yet also cryptic titans can remain concealed for a long time and only emerge on occasion.

Here’s the ‘Hollow Earth’ image that appears most frequently online (this being because it was uploaded to wikipedia). It’s from William Bradshaw’s 1892 novel  The Goddess of Atvatabar . Image: public domain, original  here .

Here’s the ‘Hollow Earth’ image that appears most frequently online (this being because it was uploaded to wikipedia). It’s from William Bradshaw’s 1892 novel The Goddess of Atvatabar. Image: public domain, original here.

The Hollow Earth thing is not unique to the MonsterVerse: it was suggested, as a serious model for our planet’s structure, by Edmond Halley in 1692. Halley didn’t propose the model because it was a fun idea, but because he thought it might explain anomalous compass readings which, he thought, meant that the Earth was formed of more than one rotating sphere. His assumption that compass readings should always be consistent was flawed, since they vary given that the magnetic field is constantly in flux. This model – which involved substantial gas-filled spaces existing between the different sphere – was dead and disproven by the late 1700s, and thereafter it only survived in pseudoscience (UFOs must come from inside the Earth instead of from outer space, and so on) and fiction. Edgar Rice Burroughs is most famous for using the Hollow Earth model for his Pellucidar novels of the early 1900s. These have people tunnelling into the Earth and discovering a hidden world, lit by an inner sun, inhabited by creatures long thought extinct. It’s surprising and interesting to see this idea persist in a modern sci-fi movie series.

The Hollow Earth of Edgar Rice Burroughs is supposed to have looked something like this… [UPDATE: nope, this is nothing to do with the Hollow Earth - it was instead done for the cover of a 1967 magazine issue that celebrated the movie  One Million Years BC . Thanks to Alan Friswell for this correction]. This is one of Frank Frazetta’s inimitable illustrations. Image: (c) Frank Frazetta,   original here  .

The Hollow Earth of Edgar Rice Burroughs is supposed to have looked something like this… [UPDATE: nope, this is nothing to do with the Hollow Earth - it was instead done for the cover of a 1967 magazine issue that celebrated the movie One Million Years BC. Thanks to Alan Friswell for this correction]. This is one of Frank Frazetta’s inimitable illustrations. Image: (c) Frank Frazetta, original here.

That Final Meltdown. Without giving too much away (I know I said that there would be spoilers, but…), the final act of the movie involves Big G discharging A LOT of nuclear energy, so much that he glows red and seems in imminent danger of incandescent eruption. If you’re a hardcore Godzilla fan you may well be predicting at this point that KOTM was going to do its own take on the final scene of the 1995 Godzilla vs Destoroyah (aka Godzilla vs Destroyer) in which Godzilla glows with radiation and eventually (spoiler) melts and dies – only to be replaced by his direct descendant, Godzilla Junior. I don’t know if the KOTM team were inspired by Godzilla vs Destoroyah at all, or if what they did was wholly novel, but the similarities are hard not to notice.

In the 1995 movie  Godzilla vs Destoroyah , Godzilla burns up from the inside and endures a painful phase of looking spectacularly patchworked with glowing red. Images: (c) Toho.

In the 1995 movie Godzilla vs Destoroyah, Godzilla burns up from the inside and endures a painful phase of looking spectacularly patchworked with glowing red. Images: (c) Toho.

Rick and Morty. You might have noticed the prominent Rick Sanchez sticker on the lid of a laptop (if, that is, you’re a Rick and Morty fan. I am). This may or may not be a nod to the fact that Bradley Whitford’s character Dr Rick Stanton was apparently inspired by Rick of Rick and Morty. While I’m here, the original concept of Rick and Morty was based on Doc and Marty of Back to the Future… which is also heavily referenced – or, hell, flat-out mentioned – in another big movie of 2019. A little movie that hasn’t done at all well at the box office.

Finally – Character Continuity. Many of the people in KOTM were previously introduced in 2014’s Godzilla, and therein we got their various backstories (Dr Serizawa, for example, is the descendant of Daisuke Serizawa from the original movie of 1954). But note that they also featured characters who have a direct link to other Godzilla and MonsterVerse movies. The Chen twins – both played by Zhang Ziyi – were an obvious nod to the twin fairies of the 1961 Mothra movie, and Dr Houston Brooks (played in KOTM by Joe Morton, who we mostly know as Dr Myles Bennett Dyson) previously appeared in Kong: Skull Island.

A strength of the new Legendary Godzilla movies is they establish an approximate continuity with the original film of 1954. To go a different route and start Godzilla afresh, I think, is a big mistake. Image: (c) Toho Studios.

A strength of the new Legendary Godzilla movies is they establish an approximate continuity with the original film of 1954. To go a different route and start Godzilla afresh, I think, is a big mistake. Image: (c) Toho Studios.

Death by Falling Rocks and Trees

Long-term readers might recall the book manuscript – written many years ago now – in which I wrote a whole load of text on death, disease and disaster in the animal world. That book had to be abandoned, but every now and again I look at it and attempt to salvage various short sections. And thus, here we are today…

Lammergeier  Gypaetus barbatus , killed in an avalanche, presumably in the Himalayas. Image: (c) Eric Dragesco/Ardea London/Henny (1990).

Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus, killed in an avalanche, presumably in the Himalayas. Image: (c) Eric Dragesco/Ardea London/Henny (1990).

When rocks or blocks of ice fall down hills, cliffs or mountains, or when the roofs of caves collapse, animals may be unlucky enough to be in the way. Such hazards present themselves to animals that dwell in mountainous environments, near cliffs or in caves. Laidler & Laidler (1992) figured a Takin Budorcas taxicolor* killed by rocks whose movement down a hillside was triggered by an earthquake. An adult Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus killed in an avalanche was figured by Henny (1990). At the caves of Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano on the Kenyan/Ugandan border, elephants and other animals walk deep underground to mine and eat the sodium-rich soil. In 1981 the roof of one of the caves collapsed, ostensibly the result of undermining by the elephants. There is speculation that some or many elephants were killed (Sutcliffe 1986).

* I’m actually not sure which Budorcas the specimen might be. According to the Groves and Grubb taxonomy, also used by José Castelló in Bovids of the World, there are several takin species.

Elephants are sometimes killed by falling or toppled trees. This photo of a deceased bull is from   Douglas-Hamilton & Douglas-Hamilton (1975)  .

Elephants are sometimes killed by falling or toppled trees. This photo of a deceased bull is from Douglas-Hamilton & Douglas-Hamilton (1975).

Elephants are also known to have died after the trees they have been destroying have fallen on top of them: Douglas-Hamilton & Douglas-Hamilton (1975) figured a particularly spectacular case where a bull African bush elephant Loxodonta africana was killed when a large, old baobab tree fell on top of it. The tree had been weakened by the actions of many elephants over some considerable span of time. A photo of a poor baby elephant killed by a tree in 1968 can be seen here.

Look carefully — there’s the skeleton of a horse in there, seemingly killed by this falling tree. Image: (c) Lizzy Peat.

Look carefully — there’s the skeleton of a horse in there, seemingly killed by this falling tree. Image: (c) Lizzy Peat.

Close-up of the remains… Image: (c) Lizzy Peat.

Close-up of the remains… Image: (c) Lizzy Peat.

A particularly unfortunate case in the files of accidental death concerns the killing of the very last Pyrenean ibex Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica by a falling tree in Huesca Province, Spain, in 2000 (Anon. 2000). The animal’s skull was crushed in the accident. A rare photo of a free-living domestic horse Equus caballus – a New Forest pony – killed by a falling tree in southern England was passed to me by my friend Lizzy Peat, and is reproduced here (above). Creative googling results in the discovery of various photos of deer (of various species) killed by falling trees.

Deer (a whitetail, at left, and a wapiti at right) killed by falling trees. Both images come from   this hunting site  ; there are other images too.

Deer (a whitetail, at left, and a wapiti at right) killed by falling trees. Both images come from this hunting site; there are other images too.

And it is of course relatively well known that beavers are sometimes killed by falling trees. Kile & Rosell (1996) reported seven cases of beaver death (concerning both Castor fiber and C. canadensis) caused by tree fall as well as several additional cases where beavers were found trapped by fallen trees, mostly by the hindfoot, but still alive. Exactly how much of a risk this really is to healthy beaver populations remains unknown: it seems to be rare enough that it isn’t ordinarily an issue.

Unfortunate European beaver killed by a silver birch, one of several images online of beavers killed by trees. Image: Beate Strøm Jahansen,   from here  .

Unfortunate European beaver killed by a silver birch, one of several images online of beavers killed by trees. Image: Beate Strøm Jahansen, from here.

Lessons From a Dog: a Life With Willow

It’s with considerable sadness that I’m writing this within days of the death of Willow, the older of my family’s two dogs. Willow was 14 years old and had been with us since February 2013. Her loss has hit me far harder than I thought it would. I should have taken the week off work.

Willow on the day we brought her home (though here at my mother-in-law’s house) in February 2013. She has a really foxy look in this photo.

Willow on the day we brought her home (though here at my mother-in-law’s house) in February 2013. She has a really foxy look in this photo.

Willow was a mixed breed dog who was definitely part staffie (Staffordshire bull terrier), the other half of her ancestry probably involving Jack Russell. She was handsome, sleek and with an attractive two-tone colour scheme, though she was initially a bit overweight and had to be slimmed down with a diet. She was smart and could solve simple problems used to test dog intelligence (like escaping from beneath a blanket) extremely quickly, and her attachment to our family unit meant that she would refuse to move on if one or more of us was dawdling behind. She appeared to be concerned if either of the children moved too far away from the group and would circle round to gather them up. She followed basic commands and Toni (my wife) could get Willow to give a distinct three-part bark on command: it sounded like “I love you!”. She was playful and especially enjoyed tug-of-war and attempting to grab her own tail, her jaws closing with an audible snap as she spun in a circle.

life-of-Willow-Willow-2-muddy-at-Swanwick-690px-tiny-May-2019-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

Willow was a rescue dog who, for reasons unknown to us, had been given to a charity (the Blue Cross) by a family who had several dogs and children. We assume that hard times or changing conditions forced that family to give her away, and also that this history was the cause for what appeared to be chronic fear of abandonment: for the first several months of her life with us, Willow would whine loudly (really loudly) when left alone outside shops or other places where dogs can’t be taken. The sound was more of a repetitive screaming wail than a whine, and I sometimes had to assure people nearby that it was this fear that explained her loud complaints. She lost this habit in time, presumably once it was obvious to her that we would never leave her. Whatever her history, she came to us fully trained, wholly used to being walked on the lead, and absolutely compatible with family life. It would have been an absolute tragedy had she never been claimed by new owners and euthanized before her time.

At left: Willow (with rope toy) waits for commands from Toni; a photo from 2014. At right: a trip to the beach.

At left: Willow (with rope toy) waits for commands from Toni; a photo from 2014. At right: a trip to the beach.

The condition of her teats led us to think that she had probably become a mother at some earlier point in her life, but we never had a way of confirming this. She came to us un-neutered, something we fixed as soon as we took ownership of her. Her behaviour with puppies seemed to back up a history of being a mum. When confronted in 2017 with Teddy, our West Highland terrier pup, she took immediately to the role of surrogate mum, enthusiastically cleaning him and allowing him to share her bed for all the time that he was a small puppy. Her tolerance with Teddy – a brand-new dog who always wanted (and still wants) to play, to tussle, to engage in rough-and-tumble and to generally get up to mischief – never ceased to amaze me.

Willow proved to be an excellent carer of Teddy, who was initially a tiny pup. This photo is from September 2017.

Willow proved to be an excellent carer of Teddy, who was initially a tiny pup. This photo is from September 2017.

In fact, Willow’s response to other animals of all sorts was interesting. She never viewed other pets – including our guinea-pigs or Flame the bearded dragon – with predatory interest. At the risk of gross anthropomorphising, her character and personality was one of infinite patience, kindness, tolerance and forgiveness. I cannot forget the times I scolded her or was impatient or angry with her. She always seemed to forgive me, but I regret these things very much and have vowed to be kinder and more tolerant to Teddy and other dogs. Remember this if you live with a dog yourself.

I don’t know if it would be right to describe Flame and Willow as friends, but they certainly tolerated each other. Flame sometimes climbed on Willow’s back.

I don’t know if it would be right to describe Flame and Willow as friends, but they certainly tolerated each other. Flame sometimes climbed on Willow’s back.

Willow got to spend lots of time outdoors and I’m glad that we took her on as many trips, excursions and holidays as we did. The photos of her running about in the woods and on beaches make me happy, especially when her expressions and body language make it look as if she was really enjoying herself.

That hilarious look on her face as she runs - the trademark ‘Staffie grin’.

That hilarious look on her face as she runs - the trademark ‘Staffie grin’.

She liked wading and would often walk into pools, large puddles or the sea, though she never wanted to go deep enough for a swim. She frequently became very muddy on trips to shorelines and damp forests. She loved to run and did so with a hilarious and comical open-mouthed grin. While never wantonly destructive of property or furniture, she loved ripping open and then destroying toys purchased as presents, her aim at Christmas being – seemingly – to rip a dog toy into small fragments within ten minutes of ownership. She hated baths and I would have to thwart her efforts to escape.

Christmas 2013, and Willow proves to be an expert at breaking open Christmas presents.

Christmas 2013, and Willow proves to be an expert at breaking open Christmas presents.

From a zoological, behavioural point of view, several aspects of her behaviour were interesting. After peeing, she would scrape backwards, forcefully, with both hindfeet and leave prominent scores on the ground. This is a great way to gradually kill and destroy a lawn. Her decision to break open and consume deceased whelks on a beach surprised me, though maybe it shouldn’t have.

Ichnology of a domestic mammal. Prominent claw scrape marks made by Willow, 2014.

Ichnology of a domestic mammal. Prominent claw scrape marks made by Willow, 2014.

The strandline of West Wittering beach, on this occasion, was littered with dead whelks which Willow took to cracking open and eating.

The strandline of West Wittering beach, on this occasion, was littered with dead whelks which Willow took to cracking open and eating.

The final part of Willow’s story is a sad one of rapid and startling decline. It became obvious by late 2018 that Willow was losing condition, and unable to regain it. She became distressingly, skeletally thin, despite a good diet, and her muscles withered. Standing appeared painful, her tail was kept perpetually down and pressed close to her rear end, and she was often unable to support her weight, her legs giving way and causing collapse. Trips to the vets and medicines administered for joint health and so on helped for a while. She became incontinent, very obviously suffered from failed hearing, and took to repetitive, excessive pacing about the house, this perhaps being a sign of dementia. The Willow I’m describing is not the dog shown in the photos here, but a smaller, diminished animal, approaching death.

At left: on a 2014 holiday in the Brecon Beacons, Wales. At right: in the New Forest, 2013.

At left: on a 2014 holiday in the Brecon Beacons, Wales. At right: in the New Forest, 2013.

What have I learned from life with a dog as kind, gentle and wonderful as Willow? To be kinder, more patient and more tolerant to dogs and other animals... when they’re gone, you’ll regret the times you were less of these things. To take more photos when times are good, since you’ll never have enough by the time it’s too late. To take time to express love and affection when you can. And to not underestimate the emotional attachment you might have to your fellow creatures.

This photo was taken on a fieldtrip where my son Will and I went to see deer.

This photo was taken on a fieldtrip where my son Will and I went to see deer.

Willow left us on Monday 20th May 2019. When we took ownership of her in 2013, she was thought to be 8 years old, meaning that she was 14 when she died. I miss her so much. Thank you, Willow, for being such an excellent dog and thank you for teaching me so much.

Willow the dog leads Will and Emma the humans.

Willow the dog leads Will and Emma the humans.

Birdwatching in Suburban China

Early this year I spent time in China, specifically in Zigong, Sichuan Province. I was there for day-job reasons (acting as consultant for life-sized dinosaur models), but when not working I went and looked at giant pandas, and at the many amazing skeletons of Jurassic dinosaurs (and other fossil vertebrates) at Zigong Dinosaur Museum. I also did a fair bit of birdwatching, both in the various gardens and green spaces I could get to it but also in the urban and suburban places within easy distance of my accommodation. And I saw a bunch of stuff, which is what I want to talk about here.

Come on - everybody loves White-browed laughingthrushes  Pterorhinus sannio ! More on this species below. Image: Darren Naish.

Come on - everybody loves White-browed laughingthrushes Pterorhinus sannio! More on this species below. Image: Darren Naish.

First things first. To identify the birds of a given region, you need a goddam field guide. Thinking it would be easy and simple to get a ‘Field Guide to the Birds of China’ before setting off, I went to buy one (I recall looking in Foyles in London’s Charig Cross Road, since it has an excellent field guide section) buuut…. nope. Nothing. After looking around online a bit I discovered John MacKinnon* and Karen Phillipps’s 2000 A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Which is great apart from the fact that it costs over £40, and usually over £50, which is above what I consider affordable for books. Goddammit. On this occasion, however, my luck was in since a special sale at NHBS meant that I was able to get it at half price (albeit not until long after my trip had happened).

* Yes, of Saola fame and so, so much else.

MacKinnon & Phillipps (2000),  A Field Guide to the Birds of China .   It’s not the most attractive field guide out there, but it does seem to be the best one. Image: Darren Naish.

MacKinnon & Phillipps (2000), A Field Guide to the Birds of China. It’s not the most attractive field guide out there, but it does seem to be the best one. Image: Darren Naish.

Regular TetZoo readers might have heard me complain about book prices before. Books are horrendously over-priced, a thing I can’t help but feel angry about given that – as someone who’s spent most of their life in relative poverty – it bothers me a lot that knowledge is so frequently locked away unless you’re lucky enough to be able to afford access to it. Anyway, I digress.

Feral pigeons and Whooper swans in China. Discussed below. Images: Darren Naish.

Feral pigeons and Whooper swans in China. Discussed below. Images: Darren Naish.

I should say that this was my first ever trip to China, and that I’d been told (no offence intended to Chinese friends and colleagues) to expect to see nothing in the way of wild animal life in view of relevant environmental issues. While I certainly saw places where pollution was bad and natural spaces were being destroyed or degraded, the good news is that I still saw a fair amount of wildlife – though, birds only. I should also add that the avifauna was – to my western European eyes – an interesting mix of the familiar and commonplace with the obscure and exotic. Aaaaand I should also add that my photos are mostly terrible. The skies were leaden grey and the lighting terrible during my entire time in China, plus birds are fast and my camera is not that great. So, apologies.

Rallids and grebes of China. At top left: Common coot  Fulica atra . At top right: Common moorhen  Gallinula chloropus . Below: Little grebe  Tachybaptus ruficollis . Image: Darren Naish.

Rallids and grebes of China. At top left: Common coot Fulica atra. At top right: Common moorhen Gallinula chloropus. Below: Little grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis. Image: Darren Naish.

Anyway, to business. What did I see? We’ll start with the larger birds. While at the ornamental lake at Chengdu Panda Base (or, more formally: Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding), I saw Whooper swan Cygnus cygnus, Ruddy shelduck Tadorna ferruginea, Common coot Fulica atra, Common moorhen Gallinula chloropus and Little grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis. Coots, moorhens and Little grebes are birds I see regularly here in the UK, but more interesting were the several small raptors circling nearby. I’m not totally sure what they were and my photos are poor, but the small-headed look, extensive barring, dark primaries and lack of transverse bars on the tail make me think that this is either a Buteo or Butastur hawk or a baza. There are several accipiters in Sichuan but I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here. Thoughts?

Small, broad-winged raptor… of some sort. Image: Darren Naish.

Small, broad-winged raptor… of some sort. Image: Darren Naish.

Feral pigeons Columba livia were a thing, which isn’t a surprise but is still something you might need confirming. Then there’s this pigeon…

What is this pigeon… or dove, if you want? Read on. Both photos show the same individual, photographed at Chengdu Panda Base. Image: Darren Naish.

What is this pigeon… or dove, if you want? Read on. Both photos show the same individual, photographed at Chengdu Panda Base. Image: Darren Naish.

It’s a mid-sized, long-tailed, mostly brown, grey-headed, red-legged pigeon that I saw walking on the ground a fair bit. Spots and barring look absent. But... I’m pretty sure that this a Spotted dove Streptopelia chinensis, though I had trouble realising this since the diagnostic spotted patch on the neck isn’t visible in my photos. Or am I wrong?

Shrikes. Now we come to passerines, of which I saw a bunch. I’ll go through them in a very rough sort of phylogenetic order, rather than in the order in which I encountered them. I saw shrikes in several places, often in towns and right next to tower blocks and in very urban settings (so long as there are trees and green spaces, there can be birds). All appeared to belong to the same species, one with a warm brown mantle, grey crown and nape, black wing feathers but for a small, white, rectangular panel on the primaries, and long tail that was dark on its upper surface. Of the 12 shrike species in the region, this description applies only to the Burmese shrike Lanius colluroides, the black (rather than streaked white) forehead further showing that I only ever saw males… which figures, because they were usually singing.

Burmese shrike  Lanius colluroides , two different individuals (the one at left is singing). This species occurs throughout south-east Asia as well as China and is mostly associated with lowland forests. Image: Darren Naish.

Burmese shrike Lanius colluroides, two different individuals (the one at left is singing). This species occurs throughout south-east Asia as well as China and is mostly associated with lowland forests. Image: Darren Naish.

My impression in the field was that I was looking at Red-backed shrike L. collurio – a species I know well from fieldwork in Romania – but the Red-backed (which does occur in China) is quite different, mostly in being shorter-tailed. Furthermore, the Red-backed shrikes in China are restricted to the far north of the country and belong to the pale subspecies L. c. pallidifrons, the mantle of which is washed out relative to the reddy-brown present on Burmese shrikes and Red-backed shrikes in Europe. Shrikes are corvoids, by the way, and thus outside the clade – Passerida – that contains all the other passerines I’ll be talking about.

Sylvioids 1: bulbuls and laughingthrushes. Bulbuls, babblers, laughingthrushes and allied pointy-billed sylvioid passerines are not that typical of western Europe, so it was fairly thrilling for me that my first passerine of the entire trip was the Light-vented bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis, which I saw a lot and often right in the middle of urban areas (again, so long as there were trees).

Light-vented bulbul  Pycnonotus sinensis . Different individuals seen, variously, in an ornamental garden and in a planted region in the middle of a heavily pedestrianised area. Images: Darren Naish.

Light-vented bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis. Different individuals seen, variously, in an ornamental garden and in a planted region in the middle of a heavily pedestrianised area. Images: Darren Naish.

I also saw White-browed laughingthrushes Pterorhinus sannio at many places, including parks and gardens. I was often able to get really close to them. They forage on the ground a lot, often in pairs or small groups, and also hang around in low vegetation. I was also happy to see Red-billed leiothrix Leiothrix lutea in the wild, a small laughingthrush well known outside of Asia as a cage bird. Leiothrixes are among those many passerines where the vernacular name is the same as the scientific one. Other examples include tesias, liocichlas, eremomelas, prinias, cisticolas, hyliotas, batises, tschagras and so on and on.

At left: White-browed laughingthrush  Pterorhinus sannio  singing. At right: Red-billed leiothrix  Leiothrix lutea . Images: Darren Naish.

At left: White-browed laughingthrush Pterorhinus sannio singing. At right: Red-billed leiothrix Leiothrix lutea. Images: Darren Naish.

Sylvioids 2: leaf warblers and bush warblers. Below, we see a leaf warbler (or phylloscopid). There are about a million leaf warbler species in China and they’re notoriously difficult to identify with confidence, certainly so when you’re looking at poor photos and not with the birds in front of you. I initially reckoned that this might be a Yellow-browed warbler Phylloscopus inornatus on account of the two whitish wing bars. However, the bird I saw has a distinct central crown stripe, which is supposed to count that species out. A better match might be Pallas’s leaf warbler P. proregulus (a phylloscopid I always remember from field guides because it’s sometimes positioned close to kinglets, and both this and its specific name imply that it’s a ‘proto-kinglet’, which it totally isn’t). This is in keeping with the small bill and whiteish underside, plus P. proregulus is common across much of China and nearby (MacKinnon & Phillipps 2000).

Definitely a phylloscopid… and perhaps a Pallas’s leaf warbler  Phylloscopus proregulus . Both images show the same individual. Images: Darren Naish.

Definitely a phylloscopid… and perhaps a Pallas’s leaf warbler Phylloscopus proregulus. Both images show the same individual. Images: Darren Naish.

Phylloscopus leaf warblers are familiar birds to me (there are a few TetZoo ver 2 and 3 articles about them, or there used to be…), but I’d never before seen any member of the cettiid warbler genus Abroscopus. This (below) is the Rufous-faced warbler A. albogularis, a fairly common bush warbler of woods and thickets with a set of distinctive facial markings. My impression on seeing this bird in the field was that it was a fulvetta but I became confused when the markings totally didn’t match any known fulvetta species. Please excuse the terrible photo.

Blurry Rufous-faced warbler  A. albogularis , photographed in the gardens of the Zigong Dinosaur Museum. Image: Darren Naish.

Blurry Rufous-faced warbler A. albogularis, photographed in the gardens of the Zigong Dinosaur Museum. Image: Darren Naish.

Bushtits and actual tits. The same applies to my photos of Black-throated tit Aegithalos concinnus, an aegithalid (bushtit or long-tailed tit) I saw several times while individuals, often in mixed flocks with warblers, foraged in vertical and hanging poses. A few very similar aegithalids also occur in China – like the Rufous-fronted tit A. iouschistos and Black-browed tit A. bonvaloti – but the Black-throated has unmistakeable markings. Aegithalids are not really tits at all, by the way, but are instead close kin of phylloscopid and sylviid warblers (Jønsson & Fjeldså 2006, Selvatti et al. 2015) and thus deep within Sylvioidea. True tits (Paridae) appear to be an early-diverging lineage within Sylvioidea.

Black-throated tit  Aegithalos concinnus , showing the head, throat, chest and belly markings diagnostic for this species. Images: Darren Naish.

Black-throated tit Aegithalos concinnus, showing the head, throat, chest and belly markings diagnostic for this species. Images: Darren Naish.

This photo wasn’t taken in China, but in England, and shows an aegithalid species very familiar to European people like myself: the Long-tailed tit  A. caudatus , which also occurs in China. Its long tail is not typical of all members of this group. Image: Darren Naish.

This photo wasn’t taken in China, but in England, and shows an aegithalid species very familiar to European people like myself: the Long-tailed tit A. caudatus, which also occurs in China. Its long tail is not typical of all members of this group. Image: Darren Naish.

Of proper tits, I had good views of what I assumed were Great tit Parus major, a species which does occur across much of southern China. However, the Great tits in China have a white border to the black belly stripe and a single white wing bar, whereas the tit I saw (and photographed, really badly) had a yellow border to its belly stripe and two white wing bars. This means it must have been the Green-backed tit P. monticolus, and perhaps the subspecies P. m. yunnanensis (the more eastern form P. m. legendrei has a much wider black belly stripe, and the other subspecies occur further west or in Taiwan). Harrap & Quinn (1996) made the point that the relationship between Green-backed and Great tits is not well understood, since both have overlapping ecological preferences in some parts of their ranges and can even occur in the same feeding flocks. The Green-backed tit also occurs in places where there are distinct lowland and highland Great tit subspecies on either side, which is confusing. In general, the Green-backed tit seem to be a highland relative of the Great tit, more closely associated with wetter forests.

Really bad photos of a tit which turned out to be a Green-backed tit  Parus monticolus.  Lighting conditions were often against me when I was getting these photos. Image: Darren Naish.

Really bad photos of a tit which turned out to be a Green-backed tit Parus monticolus. Lighting conditions were often against me when I was getting these photos. Image: Darren Naish.

Pipits and wagtails, and sparrows. This (below) is an Olive-backed pipit Anthus hodgsoni, one of several of these birds that I watched foraging in rough ground in a heavily built-up area. Pipits are a really interesting group of passerines that have many adaptations for life in open areas like grasslands, meadows and tundra but there are also species of woodlands, rocky coasts and watercourses. They’re often leggy (for passerines) and with notably long hallux claws.

Olive-backed pipit  Anthus hodgsoni , in characteristic theropod skulking pose. The Olive-backed pipit is a widespread Asian species, occurring from the edge of the Urals to the coasts of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Image: Darren Naish.

Olive-backed pipit Anthus hodgsoni, in characteristic theropod skulking pose. The Olive-backed pipit is a widespread Asian species, occurring from the edge of the Urals to the coasts of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Image: Darren Naish.

Pipits are closely allied to wagtails (both belong together within Motacillidae), and I saw one representative of that group too: the White wagtail Motacilla alba, a species well known for occurring in pedestrianised areas and other places with big, flat expanses of nothing. The White wagtail is well known for being highly variable across its vast range and numerous subspecies have been named (cue debate about which of these warrant specific status…). The one I saw is M. a. alboides, sometimes called Hodgson’s wagtail and associated with Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and the Himalayas as well as the southern half of China (Alström & Mild 2003). Motacillids, incidentally, are part of the passerine clade Passeroidea, which is weird because it means that they’re surrounded in the phylogeny by sparrow-like birds (e.g., Selvatti et al. 2015).

Having mentioned sparrows, I saw Eurasian tree sparrow Passer montanus on several occasions, which is not surprising since this is the sparrow of China. House P. domesticus and Spanish P. hispanicus sparrows occur in China too, but only at comparatively few spots in the far west. China is also home to the Rock sparrow Petronia petronia and several snowfinches (Montifringilla).

At left: two different Hodgson’s wagtail  Motacilla alba alboides , a subspecies of White wagtail. At right: Eurasian tree sparrow  Passer montanus . Images: Darren Naish.

At left: two different Hodgson’s wagtail Motacilla alba alboides, a subspecies of White wagtail. At right: Eurasian tree sparrow Passer montanus. Images: Darren Naish.

Thrushes and Old World flycatchers. Let’s talk briefly about thrushes. The blackbirds in China – here I’m talking about the black thrushes typically called ‘blackbirds’, not the American ‘blackbirds’ included in the group Icteridae – have conventionally been regarded as subspecies of T. merula, the thrush that occurs across Europe, Asia and northern Africa where it’s mostly known as the Common or Eurasian blackbird. However, some authors now regard at least some Chinese blackbirds as belonging to a distinct species: the Chinese blackbird T. mandarinus. Sichuan is apparently home to the subspecies T. m. sowerbyi, so this might be the bird I saw. In the field, the males struck me as being slightly greyer on the wings and browner on the body than the blackbirds at home in England, but the differences were minor.

A blackbird, foraging at the edge of a pond where stones have been stuck into cement. I would have thought that this is a Common or Eurasian blackbird  Turdus merula , but it might be a Chinese blackbird  T. mandarinus . Image: Darren Naish.

A blackbird, foraging at the edge of a pond where stones have been stuck into cement. I would have thought that this is a Common or Eurasian blackbird Turdus merula, but it might be a Chinese blackbird T. mandarinus. Image: Darren Naish.

Thrushes are closely allied to Old World flycatchers, properly called Muscicapidae. China is home to loads of them, among them wheatears, stonechats, forktails and other chats, various redstarts, robins, nightingales, shortwings, bush robins and rock thrushes, many Ficedula and Muscicapa flycatchers, various niltavines, and others. I wasn’t in the right sort of places to see any of these, but I did see an iconic Asian member of the group: the Oriental magpie-robin Copsychus saularis, a familiar species of gardens and forests. Magpie-robins – also called shamas – are unusual enough that (together with the Cercotrichas scrub robins) they belong to their own muscicapid lineage, Copsychini (Sangster et al. 2010). Magpie-robins are sexually dimorphic. Males are strikingly black and white while females are mostly grey on the head and body, and I saw both.

Oriental magpie-robin  Copsychus saularis  male and female (male at top, female below). The male in the images here lived right next to a factory. Image: Darren Naish.

Oriental magpie-robin Copsychus saularis male and female (male at top, female below). The male in the images here lived right next to a factory. Image: Darren Naish.

Another member of the muscicapid clade Copsychini, a male White-rumped shama  Copsychus malabaricus . This one was photographed in captivity in the UK, not in Asia. Image: Darren Naish.

Another member of the muscicapid clade Copsychini, a male White-rumped shama Copsychus malabaricus. This one was photographed in captivity in the UK, not in Asia. Image: Darren Naish.

Starlings. China is inhabited by about 20 starling species, meaning that someone only familiar with the dark, iridescent Common starling Sturnus vulgaris – like me – is potentially in for a real treat. Alas, my only sightings were of the gregarious Red-billed starling S. sericeus. Like many of the Asian Sturnus species, its plumage combines black wing feathers with white patches, a varicoloured look to the body and a distinctly demarcated head. The birds I photographed look darker than those in many images of this species online but that’s mostly because I had to up the contrast to make them usable.

Red-billed starling  Sturnus sericeus  in downtown Zigong. There were about 15 birds in this group; the bird shown at left is the same individual seen at far right in the photo on the right. Image: Darren Naish.

Red-billed starling Sturnus sericeus in downtown Zigong. There were about 15 birds in this group; the bird shown at left is the same individual seen at far right in the photo on the right. Image: Darren Naish.

And that’s it! I emphasise that the birds I’ve discussed here weren’t the sort that people travel half-way round the world to see, or go to remote places to tick off their lists. On the contrary, these were all birds that were easy to see in urban and suburban settings and my seeing of them was mostly opportunistic and done with minimal effort. My point in discussing the birds I saw was to explain what a normal person, interested enough in wildlife to go and look for it but not to spend huge sums of money on dedicated adventures, might bump into. The answer is… quite a lot, even in these times of environmental degradation and destruction. Some of my identifications could well be off, in which case please feel happy to correct me. More birds here sometime real soon, thanks for reading.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see me do more, please consider supporting this blog (for as little as $1 per month) at patreon. The more support I receive, the more financially viable this project becomes and the more time and effort I can spend on it. Thank you :)

 For previous TetZoo articles relevant to the birds discussed here, see…

Refs - -

Alström, P., Mild, K. & Zetterström, B. 2003. Pipits and Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America. Christopher Helm, London.

Harrap, S. & Quinn, D. 1996. Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. A & C Black, London.

Jønsson, K. A. & Fjeldså, J. 2006. A phylogenetic supertree of oscine passerine birds (Aves: Passeri). Zoologica Scripta 35, 149-186.

MacKinnon, J., & Phillipps, K. 2000. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Sangster, G., Alström, P., Forsmark, E. & Olsson, U. 2010. Multi-locus phylogenetic analysis of Old World chats and flycatchers reveals extensive paraphyly at family, subfamily and genus level (Aves: Muscicapidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 57, 380-392.

Selvatti, A. P., Gonzaga, L. P. & Russo, C. A. de M. 2015. A Paleogene origin for crown passerines and the diversification of the Oscines in the New World. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 88, 1-15.

The Fate of Burian’s Styracosaurus

Among the most recognisable staples of popular prehistoric animal books is the multi-spiked North American ceratopsian dinosaur Styracosaurus albertensis, discovered in Alberta in 1913 and described and named later that same year by Lawrence Lambe.

Styracosaurus-literature-montage-960px-98kb-May-2019-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

One of my several memorable childhood encounters with Styracosaurus was in the 1975 movie The Land That Time Forgot, a World War I adventure film based on a 1918 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. If you haven’t seen The Land That Time Forgot, it revolves around the discovery of a lost land called Caprona by the crew of a German U-boat. The main cast are not all German, since they’ve taken aboard a bunch of British people and even an American, all rescued from their own sinking merchant vessel. Doug McClure is the main star.

Screengrab from  The Land That Time Forgot , showing the styracosaur that doesn’t get shot.

Screengrab from The Land That Time Forgot, showing the styracosaur that doesn’t get shot.

At least some of my childhood takes on prehistoric animals and their world were inspired by that film, and one scene I remember in particular is a night-time segment in which two unlucky styracosaurs are fired upon by the U-boat. One is hit (one of its characteristic frill spikes is blasted off) and dies, a symbolic tear trickling from its eye. It was thus a great thrill for me to recently see this model, at the 2019 Portsmouth Comic Con. Yes, it’s the intact one of the two The Land That Time Forgot styracosaurs.

Roger Dicken’s  Styracosaurus , as seen at Portsmouth Comic Con in May 2019. Note the massively wide, deep snout and prominent depressions on the frill. Image: Darren Naish.

Roger Dicken’s Styracosaurus, as seen at Portsmouth Comic Con in May 2019. Note the massively wide, deep snout and prominent depressions on the frill. Image: Darren Naish.

Why was this model at Portsmouth Comic Con? Because movie model-maker Roger Dicken was there, and I got to speak to him. Roger’s IMDB page gives some idea of how many movies he’s been involved in during his long and illustrious career: he made the original Alien chestburster, among many other things. In speaking with him, I was finally able to confirm something I’d always suspected: the styracosaurs in the movie were based very specifically on the ones illustrated by famous Czech palaeoartist Zdeněk Burian (1905-1981) for his grand 1972 book with Zdeněk V. Špinar, Life Before Man (Spinar 1972). Burian illustrated Styracosaurus several times during his career, but this painting (actually produced in the 1940s, not the 70s) is the most familiar and most reproduced. The animal is broad across the muzzle, has distinct sunken regions on the frill, and the spikes on the frill (in the background individual) closely follow the contours of the shoulder and back.

One of so many beautiful and hugely influential scenes of ancient life by Zdeněk Burian. High-quality reproductions of this image reveal far brighter colours than those normally obvious in books (like a red ring around the eyes), and extra details like a scaly fringe to the side of the upper beak. Though best known for versions published in the 1970s, it was produced in 1941. Image: (c) Zdeněk Burian.

One of so many beautiful and hugely influential scenes of ancient life by Zdeněk Burian. High-quality reproductions of this image reveal far brighter colours than those normally obvious in books (like a red ring around the eyes), and extra details like a scaly fringe to the side of the upper beak. Though best known for versions published in the 1970s, it was produced in 1941. Image: (c) Zdeněk Burian.

Burian’s art was – and arguably still is – highly influential, not just because it’s wonderful and looks amazing but also because it was just about the only palaeoart accessible to a large sector of the interested public during the 1960s and 70s. It’s no surprise that the look he favoured for a given animal often became the standard template for the species concerned. But how did Burian himself work out what ancient organisms looked like? He was working at a time when information was scant, experts were few and hard to communicate with, and literature non-existent or highly technical. We know that Burian consulted extensively with Špinar, and also that he used measurements and images of fossils to inform the reconstruction process.

But…

Styracosaurus-Vernon-small-540px-146kb-May-2019-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

As recently realised and brought to my attention by Mark Witton, it turns out that Burian’s take on Styracosaurus wasn’t exactly unique. Look at this image (above) by Vernon Edwards, apparently made during the 1930s. Edwards made a huge number of dioramas depicting prehistoric animals in landscapes, many of which are depicted in books of the early 20th century (my main source for these images being the 1941 The Miracle of Life, which I’ve written about before [images now removed from article, well done SciAm]). The similarities between the Burian and Edwards scenes are many. The composition and landscape is similar, the animals are posed the same way as goes the angles we see, and there are lots of anatomical similarities. All those features I mentioned above are visible, and note also the bulging neck creases visible on the animal we see in profile.

See that dated signature at bottom? The date is ‘41’, and if you’re not convinced, look below…

See that dated signature at bottom? The date is ‘41’, and if you’re not convinced, look below…

A detail of Burian’s best known  Stegosaurus  painting, again showing ‘41’. Image: (c) Zdeněk Burian.

A detail of Burian’s best known Stegosaurus painting, again showing ‘41’. Image: (c) Zdeněk Burian.

So - is this a case of Burian basing his work on that of a previous artist? As noted above, Burian’s styracosaur scene is from 1941 (the date is obvious in good versions of the image; see above). Edwards’s scene is supposedly from the 1930s, but the oldest published version I’ve seen is from 1941. Could it be, then, that Vernon Edwards produced this image in 1941 - not during the 30s - and that it was based on Burian’s scene, not vice versa? I honestly don’t know and haven’t been successful in working out the exact details on what happened.

If Burian did base his work on the image by Edwards, this might be - as Mark stressed in a twitter exchange - the only case in which Burian based his work on that of another palaeoartist. It’s not as if we’re saying that he was a regular plagiariser or anything.

At left, the two Ladybird books discussed below. My copy of the 1974  Dinosaurs  has a bright pink scribble across its cover. At right, a bonus Burianesque styracosaur depicted on the cover of another Ladybird book. Images: Darren Naish,  Arran Alexander Collection .

At left, the two Ladybird books discussed below. My copy of the 1974 Dinosaurs has a bright pink scribble across its cover. At right, a bonus Burianesque styracosaur depicted on the cover of another Ladybird book. Images: Darren Naish, Arran Alexander Collection.

As mentioned earlier, Burian’s work was so influential that it was widely used by other artists. At this point I could write a great deal about Burian-inspired images of this dinosaur, but I’ll finish by discussing one in particular. I don’t know how familiar Ladybird books are outside of the UK (non-UK readers, let me know), but – in the UK – they’re among the most beloved and cherished of books to people who grew up between the 1950s and 90s. My favourite was always, and still is, the 1974 Labybird leader book Dinosaurs, authored by Colin Douglas and illustrated by Bernard Robinson (Douglas 1974). And there on page 38 we find this striking image, featuring a stormy sky and a totally anachronistic Tyrannosaurus (Styracosaurus is some millions of years older than Tyrannosaurus)…

Image: Ladybird/Bernard Robinson.

Image: Ladybird/Bernard Robinson.

Such was the popularity of this book that an enlarged and augmented edition – titled Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals – appeared in 1978, with extra illustrations and much more text (Wellfare 1978). It enabled the art to be shown at larger size but features many of them in cropped form such that their relationship to larger scenes is unfortunately ruined. Anyway, here’s the spectacular styracosaur again. It has a fantastic eagle-like glint and hint of simmering rage in its eye. The spines around the edge of the frill look to be based on Burian’s painting more than on an actual styracosaur fossil, and the scaly edge to the beak - again, inspired by what Burian depicted - is an interesting touch since it shows that the artist was seemingly unaware of the presence of keratinous beak tissue in these animals (a thing they surely had).

Styracosaurus  from the 1978  Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals . Image: Ladybird/Bernard Robinson.

Styracosaurus from the 1978 Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals. Image: Ladybird/Bernard Robinson.

How has the Burian-esque view of Styracosaurus fared in more recent decades? Our improved understanding of ceratopsian musculature and skin texture – combined with our rather more dynamic view of what Mesozoic dinosaurs were like overall – means that any good modern take on Styracosaurus shows a more active beast with more erect limb carriage and more elevated head and neck. The snout shouldn’t be massively wide and turtle-like as Burian (and Edwards) showed, but narrower and deeper, and it should also be more obvious that the spikes around the edges of the frill are distinct, independent structures, not outgrowth of the frill’s main body.

I included a section on Styracosaurus in my 2009 book on the history of our building knowledge on dinosaurs, The Great Dinosaur Discoveries (Naish 2009). It’s a decent potted history of what we know of Styracosaurus, culminating with the revision and redescription of the styracosaurs published by Ryan et al. (2007). Ryan et al. (2007) recognised two Styracosaurus species but the second of these – S. ovatus, named in 1930 – is currently regarded as belonging to the distinct genus Rubeosaurus.

The  Styracosaurus  skeleton AMNH 7372, originally named as the distinct species  S. parksi  in 1937 (but now regarded as synonymous with  S. albertensis ). Image: AMNH/public domain.

The Styracosaurus skeleton AMNH 7372, originally named as the distinct species S. parksi in 1937 (but now regarded as synonymous with S. albertensis). Image: AMNH/public domain.

Little known away from the ceratopsian research community is that the lower jaw and skeleton of Styracosaurus wasn’t collected from the field until 1935 (remember: this dinosaur was named and described in 1913). The nasal horn of the original skull was broken. Lambe thought that this break had occurred half-way along the horn’s length, and reconstructing the missing tip accordingly, the result being a ceratopsian with a very long and straight nasal horn perhaps 60 cm long. More recently discovered specimens show that his assumption – while sensible – was incorrect, and that the horn was actually shorter and blunter than he’d concluded, and that 30 cm would be a more realistic length (Ryan et al. 2007) (caveat: I’m talking here about the bony core of the horn, not the keratinous covering). Old reconstructions therefore exaggerate the length of that horn.

The skull of  Styracosaurus albertensis , as seen from the front. The beak section is narrow and deep, not wide and rounded. This is AMNH 7372 in New York, collected from what’s now Dinosaur Provincial Park by Barnum Brown in 1915. Image:   Claire Houck  , CC BY-SA 2.0 (original   here  ).

The skull of Styracosaurus albertensis, as seen from the front. The beak section is narrow and deep, not wide and rounded. This is AMNH 7372 in New York, collected from what’s now Dinosaur Provincial Park by Barnum Brown in 1915. Image: Claire Houck, CC BY-SA 2.0 (original here).

That’s where we’ll end things for now. There’s tons more to say about how ceratopsians have been depicted in life and on what we think we know about their anatomy and biology. I’ve written a lot about these issues in the past, but nearly everything has been ruined due to the removal of images at ScienceBlogs and SciAm.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see me do more, please consider supporting this blog (for as little as $1 per month) at patreon. The more support I receive, the more financially viable this project becomes and the more time and effort I can spend on it. Thank you :)

For other TetZoo articles on ceratopsians and related palaeoart-themed issues, see…

Refs - -

Douglas, C. 1974. Dinosaurs. Ladybird Books, Loughborough.

Naish, D. 2009. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries. A&C Black, London.

Ryan, M. J. Holmes, R. & Russell, A. P. 2007. A revision of the late Campanian centrosaurine ceratopsid genus Styracosaurus from the Western Interior of North America. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 27, 944-962.

Špinar, Z. V. 1972. Life Before Man. Thames and Hudson, London.

Wellfare, G. 1978. Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals. Ladybird Books, Loughborough.


A postscript…

I’ll just leave this here. The image at top is (c) Robert Bakker, and was produced in 1971. The image below it is by Burian and is dated 1976. Montage from here at Earthling Nature.

Styracosaurus-Chasmosaurus-Bakker-original-Burian-552px-69kb-May-2019-Tetrapod-Zoology.JPG


On May the 4th, Some Star Wars Musings

Today is May the 4th (2019), so what better thing to post at TetZoo than a brief take on Star Wars and its zoology crossovers.

Star Wars creatures. From left to right: tauntauns, opee, wampa, Max Rebo (in ball organ), Sy Snootles, Droopy McCool, Amanaman, rancor. We’ll be talking about some of these creatures below. Image: Darren Naish.

Star Wars creatures. From left to right: tauntauns, opee, wampa, Max Rebo (in ball organ), Sy Snootles, Droopy McCool, Amanaman, rancor. We’ll be talking about some of these creatures below. Image: Darren Naish.

Like most people of my age (I’m a child of the 1970s), the original Star Wars films had a huge influence on me. In fact, I’m a massive Star Wars nerd who knows an inappropriate amount of things about the droids, bounty hunters, planets, characters and plot lines of the original trilogy… aaaand the other films too. Those who listen to the TetZoo podcast will know that I’m gradually working my way through the entire script to The Empire Strikes Back, in part because I’m such a huge fan of AT-ATs and everything else featured in the section of the movie set on Hoth.

While I could easily write vast swathes of useless nonsense on the Star Wars movies and my thoughts on them (fun fact of the fact: Leia calls Luke and Han “moon jockeys” in the original script for Empire), let’s focus on a few things that have some kind of relevance to the TetZooniverse.

That Krayt Dragon skeleton sure looks a lot like a replica sauropod with a semi-fictional head. Now we know why.

That Krayt Dragon skeleton sure looks a lot like a replica sauropod with a semi-fictional head. Now we know why.

The Krayt Dragon. Today it’s fairly well known among movie buffs that the Krayt Dragon skeleton featured on Tatooine in the original Star Wars (today Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope) is actually the same replica skeleton – the exact same prop – that stands in for Diplodocus in the 1975 Disney movie One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing. I’ve written about this at TetZoo, and it’s been covered at SV-POW! as well. Also well known is that the Star Wars crew left some, most or even all of the skeleton out there in the Tunisian desert (wow, epic littering), and that bits and pieces of it have been collected from the site by geologists, palaeontologists and others over the years.

A scene from  One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing . Yup, that skeleton looks familiar. These days it’s funny to think that it’s meant to be one and the same as Dippy of NHM London fame, and that it ended its life a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Image: IMDB.

A scene from One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing. Yup, that skeleton looks familiar. These days it’s funny to think that it’s meant to be one and the same as Dippy of NHM London fame, and that it ended its life a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Image: IMDB.

On the subject of sauropods, also worth noting is that the CG Rontos of the modified editions of episode IV are tweaked versions of the Jurassic Park brachiosaur, but with some additions inspired by Paraceratherium, the giant rhino.

Of wampas and tauntauns. Hoth’s wampa – or, the Hoth wampa, in fact – is one of my favourite Star Wars creatures. It’s assumed that the wampa was inspired by the pop-culture idea of the Himalayan yeti, and designed to be a frightening, hypercarnivorous version of this creature (even though yetis are dark, and not snow-coloured). The wampa of the movie undergoes several radical changes in appearance if you watch closely, a consequence of the fact that various different models, suits and puppets were used for different scenes. The original toy looks very odd in the face, I believe because the Kenner model-makers were given insufficient information on its final look. Oh: why is it that herbivorous tauntauns and hypercarnivorous wampas both have gnarly, curling horns on the side of the face? The real answer is “because it looks cool”, but… is there an in-universe explanation that explains this unusual detail of convergent evolution?

Tauntauns started life as kangaroo-dinosaur creatures, the first concept art by Joe Johnston actually making them look rather like fuzzy theropods (could Johnston have been inspired by the fuzzy dinosaur artwork that had appeared in Bakker’s  Scientific American  article?). Today they’re one of the most-loved creatures of the canon. Image: StarWars.com.

Tauntauns started life as kangaroo-dinosaur creatures, the first concept art by Joe Johnston actually making them look rather like fuzzy theropods (could Johnston have been inspired by the fuzzy dinosaur artwork that had appeared in Bakker’s Scientific American article?). Today they’re one of the most-loved creatures of the canon. Image: StarWars.com.

Reptomammals and reptavians. If you’re curious about the phylogeny of Star Wars creatures, there have been several efforts to devise taxonomic schemes that reflect phylogeny. Wampas, tauntauns and rancors are all reptomammals, apparently. This is a group of animals that combine reptile- and mammal-like traits, and can be furry, scaly, or a combination of the two. Then there are reptavians, which similarly combine reptile and bird traits. My favourite example of a reptavian is the Varactyl, a creature that looks like a giant day gecko but has a hooked bill and a covering of iridescent feathers (Obi Wan rides one, called Boga, in Revenge of the Sith).

Turns out that the species is called a Varactyl, and the individual Obi-Wan is riding is called Boga. Ok. Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Turns out that the species is called a Varactyl, and the individual Obi-Wan is riding is called Boga. Ok. Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

This creature fascinates me because its sprawling locomotion and sinuous flexing of its body during running mean that its ribcage is surely undergoing a lot of shape change, yet it’s yelling its head off all the while. In other words, the Varactyl has circumvented Carrier’s constraint: the biomechanical problem whereby animals that flex their bodies laterally during running have their breathing (and thus vocalising) constrained at the same time.

Back to reptomammal and reptavian affinities… I’m sure there’s some stuff in Star Wars canon about how the members of these clades (are they clades?) came to be widely distributed across planets and even solar systems, but otherwise this always seems to be a stumbling block for the ‘these creatures which are spread across the galaxy all have close evolutionary relationships’ idea common to the Star Wars universe.

Rancors have featured in a huge number of Star Wars stories now. This artwork is pretty badass (the individual shown here is much bigger than the young one Skywalker encountered in Jabba’s palace). Image: reddit (original  here ).

Rancors have featured in a huge number of Star Wars stories now. This artwork is pretty badass (the individual shown here is much bigger than the young one Skywalker encountered in Jabba’s palace). Image: reddit (original here).

While – even today – I have my own fair share of Star Wars toys (virtually all pertaining to the original films alone), I don’t have a vast number of the creatures. Just two tauntauns, a wampa, a rancor, an opee (from The Phantom Menace), and a few of my favourite humanoids, like Amanaman. It’s virtually always possible to recognise which real-world creatures inspired the designs of Star Wars creatures, and if there’s a criticism of the look favoured throughout the various iterations of the franchise it’s that the animals are too Terran. Virtually everything is identifiable as a reptile, bird, mammal or fish of Earthy sort. To take just a few examples… tauntauns are bipedal camels (with a hint of dinosaur), while Amanaman has clear cobra vibes to its look [UPDATE: I was totally wrong on this. Turns out that Amanaman was inspired by flatworms!] . The Opee sea killer is obviously just an anglerfish and crustacean stuck together.

I’ve proudly retained at least some of my Star Wars toys. Image: Darren Naish.

I’ve proudly retained at least some of my Star Wars toys. Image: Darren Naish.

Whitlatch and Carrau’s The Wildlife of Star Wars. Anyone interested both in Star Wars and in imaginary or speculative animals will be aware of Terryl Whitlatch and Bob Carrau’s beautiful book The Wildlife of Star Wars, which features scores of amazing illustrations depicting the animals of the Star Wars universe and such things as their ecological interactions and lifecycles.

Whitlatch & Carrau’s  The Wildlife of Star Wars   , front cover. Image: amazon.co.uk.

Whitlatch & Carrau’s The Wildlife of Star Wars, front cover. Image: amazon.co.uk.

Terryl designed many of the creatures used in the prequel trilogy, and came up with such things as the humanoid amphibian Jar-Jar Binks (and hence his species, the gungans) and the various aquatic predators of Naboo. Among these is the Sando aqua monster, a quadrupedal super-predator that reaches 200 metres in length. Concept art shows that the Sando aqua monster was originally going to be built like an immense, aquatic cat, a really cool idea which I can’t help but think of when I see footage of jaguars foraging and swimming underwater. Alas, someone somewhere didn’t like this, so it was given a wide-mouthed, whale-like head and ended up looking less interesting (in my opinion).

A screengrab from one of those amazing pieces of film that show jaguars swimming underwater. This footage comes from what I think is a Brazilian zoo with a special glass-fronted swimming pool.

A screengrab from one of those amazing pieces of film that show jaguars swimming underwater. This footage comes from what I think is a Brazilian zoo with a special glass-fronted swimming pool.

And while there’s much more I could say, I’ll stop there. And I didn’t once mention the fact that I previously worked with Jez Gibson-Harris, maker and operator (with others) of Jabba the Hutt.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see me do more, please consider supporting this blog (for as little as $1 per month) at patreon. The more support I receive, the more financially viable this project becomes and the more time and effort I can spend on it. Thank you :)

For vaguely relevant TetZoo articles, see…

Sea Monster Sightings and the ‘Plesiosaur Effect’

Regular readers of this blog will almost certainly be aware of what are most sensibly termed sea monster accounts. Throughout recorded history, and throughout the seas and oceans of the world, people claim to have observed gigantic, anatomically remarkable creatures that did not, at first sight, match any animal species known to science.

Sea monsters real and imagined, an old illustration done as a prototype for a mural. Image: Darren Naish.

Sea monsters real and imagined, an old illustration done as a prototype for a mural. Image: Darren Naish.

The view favoured by cryptozoologists (people who investigate ‘mystery animal’ reports) has mostly been that these accounts describe real encounters with real animals, and animals that are scientifically new, exciting and surely worthy of recognition. I’ve written before about the work of Bernard Heuvelmans and his followers and colleagues (see the links below), most recently in my 2017 book Hunting Monsters (Naish 2017). Heuvelmans (1968) argued that sea monster reports could be sorted into nine categories, and thus that (at least) nine new species of gigantic, sea-going vertebrate species were out there and awaiting discovery.

In the most influential book ever written on sea monsters, Bernard Heuvelmans argued for the existence of nine distinct sea monster types, illustrated at left by Cameron McCormick. It was thought for a while that   Heuvelmans (1968)   had done a good job in discovering a valid biological signal in sea monster reports. But… no. Images: Cameron McCormick,   Heuvelmans (1968)  .

In the most influential book ever written on sea monsters, Bernard Heuvelmans argued for the existence of nine distinct sea monster types, illustrated at left by Cameron McCormick. It was thought for a while that Heuvelmans (1968) had done a good job in discovering a valid biological signal in sea monster reports. But… no. Images: Cameron McCormick, Heuvelmans (1968).

Alas, this view is mostly regarded as naïve by the majority of biologists and other scientists. Isn’t it more likely that ‘sea monster reports’ are confused or embellished descriptions of encounters with known animals or objects, like surface-feeding whales, unfamiliar giant fishes, swimming deer, or masses of weed, floating wood or fishing gear? In recent years, several classic reports have been re-evaluated and argued to variously be confused accounts of skim-feeding sei whales (Galbreath 2015), sea lions and other pinnipeds behaving in unpredictable ways (Naish 2017), whales and turtles tangled in rope (France 2016a, b), whales in a state of sexual arousal (Paxton et al. 2004), and even misidentified pipefishes (Woodley et al. 2011).

Classic sea monsters like this one - the  Daedalus  encounter from 1848, involving a creature seen off the coast of Namibia in the south-east Atlantic - have often been regarded as inexplicable, and as evidence for the reality of sea monsters. But they might be explainable after all. Image:  Illustrated London News , in public domain.

Classic sea monsters like this one - the Daedalus encounter from 1848, involving a creature seen off the coast of Namibia in the south-east Atlantic - have often been regarded as inexplicable, and as evidence for the reality of sea monsters. But they might be explainable after all. Image: Illustrated London News, in public domain.

Among those who’ve regarded sea monsters as real and novel animals, there’s a long-running tradition whereby they’re regarded as ‘prehistoric survivors’: as the modern descendants of animals otherwise known only as fossils. This view has been endorsed by cryptozoological authors, but it’s also reflected in sea monster accounts themselves, since eyewitnesses have sometimes likened the creatures they saw to fossil animals they ‘know’ from the popular literature and museum displays. For obvious reasons, such comparisons post-date the scientific discovery of such fossil animals… which raises the question: have descriptions of sea monsters been inspired by people’s knowledge of, or familiarity with, ancient animals known from fossils?

The cryptozoological literature includes many volumes that discuss sea monster reports, and often interpret them within the ‘prehistoric survivor paradigm’ (or PSP). Image: Darren Naish.

The cryptozoological literature includes many volumes that discuss sea monster reports, and often interpret them within the ‘prehistoric survivor paradigm’ (or PSP). Image: Darren Naish.

The idea that sightings of sea monsters might have been inspired by people’s knowledge of, or familiarity with, fossils animals is not new but has been made several times over the years. In 1968, American science fiction author and science writer L. Sprague de Camp (1907-2000) proposed that an increasing awareness of plesiosaurs and mosasaurs led to a change in the sorts of sea monsters people claimed to see (de Camp 1968). Rather than seeing ‘sea serpents’, people were instead now seeing (read: claiming to see) animals of non-serpentine form, sometimes described as having large paddles or an elongate neck. So far as we know, de Camp was the first to propose this idea in print. I propose that we call it the ‘plesiosaur effect’.

Long-necked plesiosaurs - this is Mary Anning’s famous  Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus  of 1824, as described by William Conybeare - became increasingly familiar to the public from the 1820s onwards. Image: in public domain.

Long-necked plesiosaurs - this is Mary Anning’s famous Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus of 1824, as described by William Conybeare - became increasingly familiar to the public from the 1820s onwards. Image: in public domain.

For several years now, my colleague Charles Paxton has been compiling a database of sea monster reports. Already, it’s been used to report historic trends and to analyse such things as how far sea monsters were said to be from their witnesses (Paxton 2009). You don’t have to think of sea monsters as real animals awaiting scientific recognition to see the value in this database. For, if sea monsters are hoaxes, quirks of human perception, or misidentifications of known objects, we might still learn a lot by studying where and when they were seen, how far away they were, how long they were observed for, and precisely what witnesses described. A detailed interest in anomalous phenomena does not mean that you endorse the fringe ideas often associated with said anomalous phenomena – an important point all too often missed!

Quite a few sea monsters were likened by their observers to plesiosaurs and other ancient marine reptiles. This rendition shows the monster seen from the  Umfuli  in December 1893, close to the Cape of Good Hope. Image: in public domain.

Quite a few sea monsters were likened by their observers to plesiosaurs and other ancient marine reptiles. This rendition shows the monster seen from the Umfuli in December 1893, close to the Cape of Good Hope. Image: in public domain.

By cross-referencing sea monster eyewitness data with information on key dates in the scientific discovery of fossil marine reptiles and the dissemination of knowledge on them, we aimed to test de Camp’s idea. Our study was published this week in Earth Sciences History (Paxton & Naish 2019).

Has an increasing familiarity with Mesozoic marine reptiles - like the various sauropterygians, ichthyosaurs and kin shown here - influenced people’s ideas on their sightings of modern sea monsters? These illustrations are among the many I’ve done for my in-prep textbook,   on which go here  . Image: Darren Naish.

Has an increasing familiarity with Mesozoic marine reptiles - like the various sauropterygians, ichthyosaurs and kin shown here - influenced people’s ideas on their sightings of modern sea monsters? These illustrations are among the many I’ve done for my in-prep textbook, on which go here. Image: Darren Naish.

Incidentally, I had no strong feeling which way the data would go. I like the idea that sea monster reports have a genuine biological signal – in part because I’ve always thought that at least some sea monster accounts surely describe encounters with real unknown animals* – and hence don’t have any important correlation with scientific and cultural events. But… my increasing scepticism about the reality of sea monsters as new species means that I’m also keen on the idea that the monsters we claim to see are very much products of our cultural backgrounds, of our ‘expectant attention’ (that is, we ‘see’ those phenomena we expect to see due to our prior knowledge), and on those stories, scientific discoveries and artistic and literary works that we consider relevant to our lives. Indeed, this premise forms the core to my Hunting Monsters (Naish 2017).

* Those familiar with my publications will know that I’ve published many articles endorsing this viewpoint; take that, true believers who hate me for being a vile, biased, ivory tower sceptic.

Have I ever mentioned the book   Hunting Monsters  , available from all good digital retailers and in most book stores? Maybe I have. Image:   Naish (2017)  .

Have I ever mentioned the book Hunting Monsters, available from all good digital retailers and in most book stores? Maybe I have. Image: Naish (2017).

So – what did we find? That sea monster accounts do indeed correlate with the scientific discovery of long-necked marine reptiles (as in: plesiosaurs), since necks are explicitly mentioned or described from the 1850s onwards, and sea monsters were specifically likened to ‘plesiosaurs’ by eyewitnesses. Across the same time frame, those sea monsters accounts that describe the animals as serpent-like decline (Paxton & Naish 2019). In other words: yes, there is a ‘plesiosaur effect’.

Some of our graphs (  Paxton & Naish 2019  ). Eyewitnesses increasingly mentioned ‘plesiosaurs’ and the presence of necks throughout the 1800s. Across the same time frame, references to serpent-like features were in decline. Image:   Paxton & Naish (2019)  .

Some of our graphs (Paxton & Naish 2019). Eyewitnesses increasingly mentioned ‘plesiosaurs’ and the presence of necks throughout the 1800s. Across the same time frame, references to serpent-like features were in decline. Image: Paxton & Naish (2019).

A valid question that might arise at this point concerns public familiarity with the relevant fossil reptiles. The fact that a given fossil animal is ‘known to science’ doesn’t require that it also be ‘known to the public’. We kept this in mind and deliberately paid attention to the appearance of Mesozoic marine reptile fossils in public museum displays, in newspaper articles reporting on those displays, and in popular literature (Paxton & Naish 2019). And we found good indications that the public were aware of, perhaps even comparatively well informed on, animals like plesiosaurs from the 1820s onwards (Paxton & Naish 2019). Numerous specific cases demonstrate our point here, but among those we found especially interesting are a Punch cartoon of 1848 (which shows two inebriated naturalists talking about ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs), and the Crystal Palace models of 1854 (whoops: we say that the Crystal Palace models are at Sydenham, whereas they’re actually in Penge. Sorry).

This 1848 cartoon, from  Punch  magazine, indicates some familiarity among the public of the time with fossil animals like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Image:   Paxton & Naish (2019)  .

This 1848 cartoon, from Punch magazine, indicates some familiarity among the public of the time with fossil animals like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Image: Paxton & Naish (2019).

Does a link between familiarity with fossil marine reptiles and accounts of sea monsters mean that claimed sea monster sightings were not monster sightings at all, but fabrications or hoaxes inspired by this familiarity? Well, maybe. But not necessarily. In supporting the ‘plesiosaur effect’, we’re saying that people were influenced by fossil marine reptiles when interpreting sea monsters, and this remains true whether they saw unusual waves or floating bits of wood or scientifically new giant vertebrate species. Our conclusion is not ‘sea monster accounts were fake all along’.

Fox News coverage of our research. “Loch Ness”? “Dinosaurs”? “Delusion”? Sigh.

Fox News coverage of our research. “Loch Ness”? “Dinosaurs”? “Delusion”? Sigh.

Finally, it’s not surprising that this paper has succeeded in winning broad coverage across news outlets, at least online. A few pieces are responsible and accurately report our findings. But a number do not, stating instead that the discovery of dinosaurs – which emphatically are not the same thing as marine reptiles like plesiosaurs – can be linked to sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. Nessie, it could be argued, is relevant to our research given that ideas about sea monsters have indeed been instrumental to some ideas on what Nessie was like (some authors regarded Nessie as a sea monster that became trapped in Loch Ness). However, it is fundamentally missing the point to state or imply that we were analysing Loch Ness reports, since we absolutely were not. I remain dismayed that journalists of some outlets see terms like ‘sea monster’ and maintain that it can only be translated to the public by changing it to ‘Loch Ness Monster’. NO. Resist the urge to dumb down. We can make the world a slightly better place by seeking to educate, and doing so doesn’t mean making a thing super-complicated, boring or off-putting.

Here are media articles covering our research, if you’re interested…

So there we have it. This work forms part of a minor ‘scientific cryptozoology’ movement whereby those of us involved aim to critically analyse cryptozoological data in objective fashion. There aren’t many people doing this, but what’s always obvious is that public interest in such projects is high.

At least some of us have published technical research, in the peer-reviewed literature, where we aim to evaluate and test cryptozoological claims and hypotheses. In 2011, a re-evaluation of the Hagelund ‘baby Cadborosaurus’ showed that it was most like a misidentified pipefish (  Woodley  et al . 2011  ). Image:   Woodley  et al . (2011)  .

At least some of us have published technical research, in the peer-reviewed literature, where we aim to evaluate and test cryptozoological claims and hypotheses. In 2011, a re-evaluation of the Hagelund ‘baby Cadborosaurus’ showed that it was most like a misidentified pipefish (Woodley et al. 2011). Image: Woodley et al. (2011).

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see me do more, please consider supporting this blog (for as little as $1 per month) at patreon. The more support I receive, the more financially viable this project becomes and the more time and effort I can spend on it. Thank you :)

For previous TetZoo articles on sea monsters and related matters (concentrated on those articles that haven’t been destroyed due to formatting issues at ScienceBlogs and SciAm), see…

Refs - -

de Camp, L. S. 1968. Dinosaurs in today's world. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 34 (3), 68-80.

France, R. L. 2016a. Reinterpreting nineteenth-century accounts of whales battling ‘sea serpents’ as an illation of early entanglement in pre-plastic fishing gear or maritime debris. International Journal of Maritime History 28 686-714.

France, R. 2016b. Historicity of sea turtles misidentified as sea monsters: a case for the early entanglement of marine chelonians in pre-plastic fishing nets and maritime debris. Coriolis: Interdisciplinary Journal of Maritime Studies 6. 1-24.

Galbreath, G. J. 2015. The 1848 ‘enormous serpent’ of the Daedalus identified. Skeptical Inquirer 35 (5), 42-46.

Heuvelmans, B. 1968. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. Hill and Wang, New York.

Naish, D. 2017. Hunting Monsters. Arcturus, London.

Paxton, C. G. M. 2009. The plural of "anecdote" can be "data": statistical analysis of viewing distances in reports of unidentified giant marine animals 1758-2000. Journal of Zoology 279, 381-387.

Paxton, C., Knatterud, E. & Hedley, S. L. 2004. Cetaceans, sex and sea serpents: an analysis of the Egede accounts of a “most dreadful monster” seen off the coast of Greenland in 1734. Archives of Natural History 32, 1-9.

Paxton, C. G. M. & Naish, D. 2019. Did nineteenth century marine vertebrate fossil discoveries influence sea serpent reports? Earth Sciences History 38, 16-27.

Woodley, M. A., Naish, D., & McCormick, C. A. 2011. A baby sea-serpent no more: reinterpreting Hagelund’s juvenile “cadborosaur” report. Journal of Scientific Exploration 25, 495-512.

Usborne’s All About Monsters

I’ve written before about books that influenced me a great deal, and today I want to talk about a book that I remember very fondly from childhood. It’s All About Monsters by Carey Miller, part of the Usborne ‘The World of the Unknown’ series, published in 1977 (Miller 1977). If you know this book as well as I do, you’ll already remember it and know how good it is. If not, prepare for a treat… if, that is, you like beautifully illustrated children’s books on monsters.

Usborne-Monsters-cover-1000px-tiny-April-2019-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

Miller’s All About Monsters is a slim paperback, 32 pages long. It covers monsters from mythology, prehistoric monsters (because why not), sea monsters, and monsters of today (read: cryptozoology for kids). The text is fine – as you’d expect for Usborne, one of the world’s leading publishers of children’s book – but it’s the art that really makes this a wonderful book for me. The credits tell us that John Francis, Malcolm McGregor, Michael Roffe, Christine Howes and Mike Baber illustrated the book, with Francis being the creator of the majority of pieces. Check out the illustration on the cover, shown above. The juxtaposition of a terrifying giant predatory aquatic reptile with a manicured, very ‘British’ landscape is striking, memorable, and exciting.

The Monongahela monster, illustrated as if we actually knew what it looked like: a thick-bodied, serpentine creature that swam with a spiralling action and had homodont, conical teeth. The art throughout the book is fantastic. Image: John Francis/Usborne/Miller 1977.

The Monongahela monster, illustrated as if we actually knew what it looked like: a thick-bodied, serpentine creature that swam with a spiralling action and had homodont, conical teeth. The art throughout the book is fantastic. Image: John Francis/Usborne/Miller 1977.

In keeping with the vibe of conventional monster books – they describe monsters as if they might be real and awaiting scientific discovery – Miller’s book recounts several famous anecdotes and stories as if they’re ‘true’. A ‘serpents in the sea’ spread, for example, discusses the Monongahela report of 1852 (today mostly regarded as a hoax: Roesch 1997), the 1881 Bertie account (in which a group of North Sea fisherman had a frightening encounter with a seaweed-draped monster that glared at them with terrifying eyes) and, best of all, the 1962 Florida account in which five American Air Force skin-divers were picked off, one by one, by a terrifying sea monster lurking in the fog. This is one of my favourite sea monster accounts. The problem? No-one has ever been able to determine that it ever really happened. It seems to be one of those stories that appeared in an unreferenced book (written by the likes of John Keel or Ivan Sanderson) and was then simply copied forevermore by authors implying that the initial report should be trusted. The story was retold, in illustrations, by Randall & Keane (1978).

The best sea monster story, here retold by Randall & Keane (1978). Image: Randall & Keane (1978).

The best sea monster story, here retold by Randall & Keane (1978). Image: Randall & Keane (1978).

Yetis and sasquatches get a few pages. The idea that bigfoot might eat leaves, fish, rodents and stolen doughnuts and chocolate, and a montage that compares its foot anatomy with that of other primates (and bears), all serve to make this creature biologically plausible to the young mind. If you know the crypto-hominid literature, the references to such things as chocolate-eating derive from the writings of John Green, Ivan Sanderson and others.

The yeti - here, very much the  Dinanthropoides  of Heuvelmans - as a hominid of the snows. Image: John Francis/Usborne/Miller 1977.

The yeti - here, very much the Dinanthropoides of Heuvelmans - as a hominid of the snows. Image: John Francis/Usborne/Miller 1977.

The illustration of a sasquatch – I think by John Francis – always made the animal look too rangy and thin-furred for my liking (I much prefer my sasquatches to look super-buff and of lustrous pelt), but then there are at least some descriptions that do talk of creatures of this form.

A gracile, thin-furred, ‘old man’ bigfoot (which is a bit odd, given that the creature is depicted in a snowy landscape). Image: John Francis/Usborne/Miller 1977.

A gracile, thin-furred, ‘old man’ bigfoot (which is a bit odd, given that the creature is depicted in a snowy landscape). Image: John Francis/Usborne/Miller 1977.

Nessie is unashamedly depicted as an elasmosaur (disclaimer: “This is what a lot of people think the Loch Ness Monster might look like”, p. 24), though the green shade of water in the background is misleading. Loch Ness is black. An artistic depiction of the famous 1972 ‘flipper photo’ is also shown, and it looks great – again, biologically plausible if you’re a young reader (and a reader who doesn’t yet know that the original photo features marks made by a paintbrush. It is emphatically not a photo of an animal’s appendage).

Nessie as a plesiosaur. And, at right, the famous flipper depicted as if it might be real. Hey, it was the 1970s. Image: Usborne/Miller 1977.

Nessie as a plesiosaur. And, at right, the famous flipper depicted as if it might be real. Hey, it was the 1970s. Image: Usborne/Miller 1977.

The book finishes with a section on monsters from movies. I never much liked this section because monsters made by people are obviously just not the same as monsters that might exist for real (insert ironic comment about monsters being products of culture and tradition). There’s also a glossary – a brief ‘dictionary of monsters’ – that features some more great artwork. A very attractive blue, white and red griffin, and a classic ‘wolfman’ werewolf feature, among others.

At left: a rendition of John Lambton’s battling of the Lambton worm, an oft-recounted piece of English folklore. Right: a wolfman of the Lon Chaney sort. Image: Usborne/Miller 1977.

At left: a rendition of John Lambton’s battling of the Lambton worm, an oft-recounted piece of English folklore. Right: a wolfman of the Lon Chaney sort. Image: Usborne/Miller 1977.

And that’s where we’ll end things. If there’s one criticism of the book, it’s that it never really emphasises the fact that monsters – whether they be krakens, European lake monsters, yeti-type creatures or whatever – really need to be interpreted within the context of anthropology, sociology and folklore, and not interpreted from the off as descriptions of real but unknown animals.

Tyrannosaurus  as a monster, dripping with blood… which, to be fair, must have happened at times. And yay ducks. Image: John Francis/Usborne/Miller 1977.

Tyrannosaurus as a monster, dripping with blood… which, to be fair, must have happened at times. And yay ducks. Image: John Francis/Usborne/Miller 1977.

I should also note that Beverly Halstead was consultant for this book, which partly explains a few unusual details in the prehistoric animals section. Tyrannosaurus, for example, is said to have “waddled along”, a pet Halstead idea, repeated elsewhere (e.g., Halstead 1975), that was always woefully wrong. Also of note here – given this recent TetZoo article – is the old photo of the Crystal Palace Iguanodon, surely depicting the model’s appearance during the latter years of the 1970s.

The Crystal Palace reclining  Iguanodon , as it looked during the late 70s. Contrast this with the images shown   in the TetZoo article here  . Image: Usborne/Miller 1977.

The Crystal Palace reclining Iguanodon, as it looked during the late 70s. Contrast this with the images shown in the TetZoo article here. Image: Usborne/Miller 1977.

All in all, a fantastically fun book, with illustrations that remain interesting and inspirational to me today. All About Monsters very likely did inspire and foster my interest in monsters, and probably made me want to find out more about them. Did it make be believe in them, or believe in them more? I’m not sure about that. I do, however, think that it did little to hone or improve my nascent skills in scepticism or critical thinking, since one thing that appears wholly lacking from the book is the idea that monster stories should be viewed as social or cultural phenomena more than as descriptions of encounters with real creatures. Indeed, the fact that the various accounts and stories – those of Albert Ostman, Dr Pronin of Leningrad University, Mr and Mrs John MacKay of the Loch Ness region and so on – are stated as facts is somewhat problematic for a book designed to serve an educational role. That said, I retain a great fondness for what remains one of my favourite books.

Water monster from the opening pages of the book. The weed snagged on the teeth is a nice touch (and reminds me of the creatures from the 1975 movie  The Land That Time Forgot ). Image: John Francis/Usborne/Miller 1977.

Water monster from the opening pages of the book. The weed snagged on the teeth is a nice touch (and reminds me of the creatures from the 1975 movie The Land That Time Forgot). Image: John Francis/Usborne/Miller 1977.

If you enjoyed this article and want to see me do more, more often, please consider supporting me at patreon. The more funding I receive, the more time I’m able to devote to producing material for TetZoo and the more productive I can be on those long-overdue book projects. Thanks!

For previous TetZoo articles on cryptozoology (concentrating on articles that haven’t been stripped of their images, thanks ScienceBlogs and SciAm)…

Refs - -

Halstead, L. B. 1975. The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs. Eurobook Ltd, London.

Miller, C. 1977. All About Monsters, Usborne, London.

Randall, N. & Keane, G. 1978. Focus on Fact. No. 5 Unsolved Mysteries. W. H. Allen & Co, London.

Roesch, B. S. 1997. A review of alleged sea serpent carcasses worldwide (part one – 1648-1880). The Cryptozoology Review 2 (2), 6-27.

Cocks-of-the-Rock, Extreme Cotingas

Among the most flamboyant and striking of South American birds are the two Rupicola species, known commonly as ‘cocks-of-the-rock’ (though it looks really odd seeing the name written as a plural like that).

The very first image of a cock-of-the-rock I ever recall seeing. From the cover of   Charles Tunnicliffe’s  Tropical Birds    of 1960. This is one of the famously influential ‘tea card’ books, where you have to collect the cards to complete the book. Image: Darren Naish.

The very first image of a cock-of-the-rock I ever recall seeing. From the cover of Charles Tunnicliffe’s Tropical Birds of 1960. This is one of the famously influential ‘tea card’ books, where you have to collect the cards to complete the book. Image: Darren Naish.

These two species – the Guianan cock-of-the-rock R. rupicola of the Guianan Shield and the Andean cock-of-the-rock R. peruvianus of the tropical Andes (from Venezuela in the north to Peru in the south) – are members of Cotingidae, a large group of South American passerines that’s part of Tyrannides or Tyrannida, a major clade within the suboscines. Suboscines (also called Tyranni) also includes the ovenbirds of the Americas, and the Old World pittas, broadbills and kin.

A much-simplified depiction of passerine phylogeny. Suboscines and oscines form the two great groups. This diagram is one of a huge number produced for my in-prep textbook on the vertebrate fossil record,   on which go here  . Image: Darren Naish.

A much-simplified depiction of passerine phylogeny. Suboscines and oscines form the two great groups. This diagram is one of a huge number produced for my in-prep textbook on the vertebrate fossil record, on which go here. Image: Darren Naish.

I’m mostly writing about them because I’ve essentially never written about cotingas at TetZoo at all, nor about their close relatives (the tityras and kin, the manakins and so on). I have, however, written about an essential book on these birds: Guy Kirwan and Graeme Green’s 2011 Cotingas and Manakins, an indispensable work on these groups. (my review is here, though it’s now missing all the images that originally made it fun to look at, SIGH).

If you’re seriously interested in cotingas and manakins (and their close kin), you should obtain   Kirwan & Green (2011)  . It’s a brilliant book. Image: Christopher Helm.

If you’re seriously interested in cotingas and manakins (and their close kin), you should obtain Kirwan & Green (2011). It’s a brilliant book. Image: Christopher Helm.

Cocks-of-the-rock are unusual enough that they were regarded as worthy of their own family (Rupicolidae) until as recently as the 1970s. Details of the thigh arteries were thought by some experts to indicate possible closeness to tyrant-flycatchers rather than to cotingas but in several aspects of anatomy (like syringeal type), they’re fairly typical cotingas. In 1971, cotinga expert David Snow sent Charles Sibley a cock-of-the-rock egg collected from Guyana, the resulting experiments on the egg’s chemical composition proving, to Sibley’s satisfaction, that Rupicola should be included within Cotingidae (Snow 1973). More specifically, molecular data groups them with Phoenicircus (red cotingas) and perhaps with Snowornis (green pihas) in a clade that’s named Rupicolinae (Ohlson et al. 2007, Tello et al. 2009). It should be noted that Phoenicircus is sufficient unusual for a cotinga – it has carotenoid-rich, saturated red plumage, fused third and fourth toes and a manakin-like gestalt – that it has at times been suggested, erroneously it seems, to be an ally of manakins (Snow 1973).

Guianan red cotinga ( Phoenicircus carnifex ) in hand. What a striking bird. Image:   Etienne Littlefair  , wikipedia, CC BY 2.5 (original   here  ).

Guianan red cotinga (Phoenicircus carnifex) in hand. What a striking bird. Image: Etienne Littlefair, wikipedia, CC BY 2.5 (original here).

Cocks-of-the-rock are birds of tropical and subtropical montane forests, most typically those with rocky gorges and areas where there are caves and large boulders. Such places are crucial for nesting: the nests (which are made of mud, vegetation and a bit of saliva) are constructed on the vertical side of a cave or rock in a shaded location, often close to running water. Nesting is also semi-colonial (Kirwan & Green 2011). Having said that they’re montane forest birds, there’s a single record of a Guianan cock-of-the-rock in the northern savannahs of Surinam, this perhaps being the consequence of a long dry season that forced the bird to move. They’re otherwise mostly sedentary but are powerful, agile fliers.

Images showing  Rupicola  in life virtually always show them in forested settings, but they also frequent caves, the walls of ravines, and boulder fields. These photos, showing a female Andean cock-of-the-rock at her nest and while elsewhere in a cave, were taken in the Cueva del Higueron, Peru. Images:   JYB Devot  , wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 (originals   here   and   here  ).

Images showing Rupicola in life virtually always show them in forested settings, but they also frequent caves, the walls of ravines, and boulder fields. These photos, showing a female Andean cock-of-the-rock at her nest and while elsewhere in a cave, were taken in the Cueva del Higueron, Peru. Images: JYB Devot, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 (originals here and here).

Both Rupicola species are large as cotingas go, with males reaching 33-34 cm in total, and they’re spectacularly red or orange. Sexual dimorphism is pronounced, the most obvious differences involving the big, fan-shaped dorsal crests of males. The crest is formed of two rows of feathers that are in close contact along their middle surfaces. In the Guianan R. rupicola, silky filaments emerge from the rump and back and trail from and over the animal’s sides. Females are darker and browner than males and with a crest that’s more of a tuft than a giant dorsal fan. Both species are lek breeders, the Andean species perching on lianas and other structures some metres off the ground while the Guianan species does its displaying on the ground.

Male Guianan cock-of-the-rock, showing characteristic filaments and ‘orange peel’-like feathers on the back. Image: Aisse Gaertner, wikipedia, CC BY SA 4.0 (original   here  ).

Male Guianan cock-of-the-rock, showing characteristic filaments and ‘orange peel’-like feathers on the back. Image: Aisse Gaertner, wikipedia, CC BY SA 4.0 (original here).

Numerous vocalisations – some likened to chicken crowing and cat meowing, there’s also a bugling ‘assembly call’ – are made at the leks, and also while foraging and when calling attention to the sighting of a predator. A modified tenth primary feather is used by the Guianan species to make a whistling noise.

A captive Andean cock-of-the-rock, photographed at San Diego Zoo. The lush black wings and lack of trailing filaments make this species look very different from the Guianan species. Not all Andean cocks-of-the-rock are the same: there are at least four distinct populations, conventionally identified as subspecies. Image: Jerry Thompson, CC BY 2.0, wikipedia (original   here  ).

A captive Andean cock-of-the-rock, photographed at San Diego Zoo. The lush black wings and lack of trailing filaments make this species look very different from the Guianan species. Not all Andean cocks-of-the-rock are the same: there are at least four distinct populations, conventionally identified as subspecies. Image: Jerry Thompson, CC BY 2.0, wikipedia (original here).

The bill is long, broad-based and slightly hooked but usually mostly hidden by the crest. It’s used to procure both fruit as well as arthropods and small vertebrates. While these birds are best characterised as frugivorous, it’s interesting that they also catch and eat frogs, lizards and small snakes and such items are said to be important in the diet of nestlings (Kirwan & Green 2011). Mice have been eaten by captive Andean cock-of-the-rock. Such raptors as hawk-eagles, accipiters and forest falcons are known to prey on Rupicola (Kirwan & Green 2011). UPDATE: there are also observations of them chasing and eating small passerines, and this might even be a regular habit (Mahecha et al. 2018). Thanks to Max Kirsch for passing on this information.

Male Guianan cock-of-the-rock, in a pose which allows us to see the length of the bill through the lower part of the fan of feathers. Note that this individual is missing part of one of his toes. Image: Juniorgirotto, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 (original   here  ).

Male Guianan cock-of-the-rock, in a pose which allows us to see the length of the bill through the lower part of the fan of feathers. Note that this individual is missing part of one of his toes. Image: Juniorgirotto, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 (original here).

In combining frugivory with large size, marked sexual dimorphism and especially elaborate sexual displays, cocks-of-the-rock are ‘extreme’ cotingas, superficially similar to the distantly related bellbirds (Snow 1973), and in some ways suboscine ‘equivalents’ of the even more distantly related birds-of-paradise (Kirwan & Green 2011).

Museum specimens of  Rupicola  don’t fare well after decades in sunlight, it seems. I’ve never seen a live cock-of-the-rock… so far, only museum specimens like this Guianan one. Image: Darren Naish.

Museum specimens of Rupicola don’t fare well after decades in sunlight, it seems. I’ve never seen a live cock-of-the-rock… so far, only museum specimens like this Guianan one. Image: Darren Naish.

Needless to say, there’s tons more to say about cotingas and their allies, but this, at least, is a start.

For previous TetZoo articles on passerines (concentrating, once again, on the few articles that haven’t been destroyed via the removal of their images), see…

 If you enjoyed this article and want to see me do more, more often, please consider supporting me at patreon. The more funding I receive, the more time I’m able to devote to producing material for TetZoo and the more productive I can be on those long-overdue book projects. Thanks!

Refs - -

Kirwan, G. & Green, G. 2011. Cotingas and Manakins. Christopher Helm, London.

Mahecha, L., Villabona, N., Sierra, L., Ocampo, D. & Laverde-R., O. 2018. The Andean Cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus) is a frugivorous bird predator. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 130, 558-560.

Ohlson, J., Prum, R. O. & Ericson, P. G. P. 2007. A molecular phylogeny of the cotingas (Aves: Cotingidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 42, 25-37.

Snow, D. W., 1973. The classification of the Cotingidae (Aves). Breviora 409, 1-27.

Tello, J. G., Moyle, R. G. Marchese, D. J. & Cracraft, J. 2009. Phylogeny and phylogenetic classification of the tyrant flycatchers, cotingas, manakins, and their allies. Cladistics 25, 429-467.

The New World Leaf-Nosed Bat Radiation

I’ve said a few times here at TetZoo that bats have never really been given adequate coverage. This isn’t because I’m not interested in them: on the contrary, I think about bats more than I think about most other groups of mammals, and I see them and watch them more often than I do most other mammal groups. For a group that includes about 18% of extant mammalian species (using 2019 figures*), I can’t pretend to have ever given bats fair coverage. Having said all that, bats have actually been covered at TetZoo a fair bit: there was an entire 20-part series on vesper bats (properly Vespertilionidae) at ver 3, and I also published several ver 2 articles on the history and evolution of vampire bats, and on much else besides. The fact that all of these articles have been rendered worthless via the removal of their images is mightily dispiriting though, and essentially means that I need to start from scratch.

* c 6495 mammal species, c 1200 bat species.

TetZoo Towers bat library. The several boxfiles of reprints and photocopied articles are not shown. Image: Darren Naish.

TetZoo Towers bat library. The several boxfiles of reprints and photocopied articles are not shown. Image: Darren Naish.

Here, I want to talk about a group I don’t think I’ve ever covered at TetZoo before, namely the phyllostomids, or New World leaf-nosed bats, American leaf-nosed bats or spear-nosed bats. This is a large, American group that contains around 200 living species, making it the third largest bat family (vesper bats are the biggest group, followed by fruit bats). The group has sometimes been called Phyllostomatidae – the vernacular version of which is phyllostomatid – but this is less popular than Phyllostomidae. I have no idea which is really correct here and opt to merely follow majority usage on these sorts of things (insert quote from Gene Gaffney**). It’s not strictly true that I’ve never covered phyllostomids before, since vampires – once upon a time given their own eponymous family (Desmodontidae) – are now universally agreed to be nested within Phyllostomidae, and I have at least written about them.

Chrotopterus , a big spear-nosed bat. Notice how this bat has relatively broad, low-aspect wings and a large, deep uropatagium (the membrane between the legs). Contrast this with some of the images below. Image: George Henry Ford, public domain (original   here  ).

Chrotopterus, a big spear-nosed bat. Notice how this bat has relatively broad, low-aspect wings and a large, deep uropatagium (the membrane between the legs). Contrast this with some of the images below. Image: George Henry Ford, public domain (original here).

Phyllostomids occur from Argentina in the south to the southern USA (Nevada being their most northerly occurrence) in the north, and they’re highly diverse ecologically and behaviourally. They include insectivores, frugivores, nectarivores, palynivores (that’s pollen-eaters), omnivores, animalivores and (of course) obligate sanguivores. Numerous different taxonomic subdivisions have been named. We don’t need to worry about any of this in detail but, in simplified terms, Macrotinae (big-eared bats), Micronycterinae (little big-eared bats) and Desmodontinae (vampires) are outside a much larger clade that includes Vampyrinae (false vampires and kin) and Phyllostominae (spear-nosed bats and kin) as well as the nectarivorous and frugivorous Glossophaginae (long-tongued and long-nosed bats) and Stenodermatinae (American fruit bats, fig-eating bats and kin) (Baker et al. 1989, 2003, 2012; but see Wetterer et al. 2000). Vampyrinae is a clade within Phyllostominae according to some studies, in which case it gets down-graded to Vampyrini (Baker et al. 2003). All of this is depicted in a cladogram below.

Some phyllostomid portraits. At left: Big-eared woolly bat or Peters’s false vampire  Chrotopterus auritus . At right: Hairy big-eyed bat  Chiroderma villosum . Images: both Guilherme Garbino, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 (originals   here   and   here  ).

Some phyllostomid portraits. At left: Big-eared woolly bat or Peters’s false vampire Chrotopterus auritus. At right: Hairy big-eyed bat Chiroderma villosum. Images: both Guilherme Garbino, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 (originals here and here).

Phyllostomids are mostly brownish bats with simple, narrow ears. A nose-leaf – typically simple and spear-shaped – is common but not present in all species, a tragus is always present, and many (but not all) of the species that lack nose-leaves have chin-leaves (or a series of chin ‘warts’) instead. Facial stripes are common, dark dorsal stripes are present in a few species, and such things as white patches at the wing tips and yellow rims to the ears and nose-leaves are present in some (Hill & Smith 1984). The tail is variously long, or short, and even absent altogether in some taxa, and similar variation is present in the uropatagium, or tail membrane.

The tail and uropatagia (the membranes joining the inner sides of the legs to the tail) are reduced, and sometimes highly reduced, in some phyllostomids. Here, we see this reduced condition in (at left) the Toltect fruit-eating bat  Dermanura tolteca  and (at right) in a Little yellow-shouldered bat  Sturnira lilium . Images: M.H. de Saussure, 1860, in public domain (original   here  ); Tobusaru, wikipedia CC BY 3.0 (original   here  ).

The tail and uropatagia (the membranes joining the inner sides of the legs to the tail) are reduced, and sometimes highly reduced, in some phyllostomids. Here, we see this reduced condition in (at left) the Toltect fruit-eating bat Dermanura tolteca and (at right) in a Little yellow-shouldered bat Sturnira lilium. Images: M.H. de Saussure, 1860, in public domain (original here); Tobusaru, wikipedia CC BY 3.0 (original here).

Skeletally, phyllostomids are robust, have a distinctive humerus where the distal end is angled relative to the shaft, and have a prominent secondary articulation between the large bony lump (properly termed the greater tuberosity) at the proximal end of the humerus and the scapula (Czaplewski et al. 2007). That’s right: a number of bat groups have an accessory peg-in-socket articulation involving the humerus and the body of the scapula. This means that the humerus and scapula are locked together during the upper part of the wing stroke (Hill & Smith 1984).

The most prominent exception to the ‘phyllostomids are mostly brown’ generalisation is the Honduran white bat  Ectophylla alba , sometimes likened to a fuzzy ping-pong ball and well known for its habit of constructing tents by biting through leaf ribs such that the two sides of the leaf droop on either side of the central axis. Note the yellow ears and nose leaf! The individual at left is releasing a bit of urine. Images:   Geoff Gallice  , wikipedia, CC BY 2.0 (original   here  );   Leyo  , wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5. (original   here  )

The most prominent exception to the ‘phyllostomids are mostly brown’ generalisation is the Honduran white bat Ectophylla alba, sometimes likened to a fuzzy ping-pong ball and well known for its habit of constructing tents by biting through leaf ribs such that the two sides of the leaf droop on either side of the central axis. Note the yellow ears and nose leaf! The individual at left is releasing a bit of urine. Images: Geoff Gallice, wikipedia, CC BY 2.0 (original here); Leyo, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5. (original here)

Some phyllostomids are really exceptional as goes their anatomical and behavioural novelty. Perhaps the most remarkable are the long-tongued glossophagine flower bats, some of which have extraordinary tubular snouts, remarkably long tongues tipped with papillae, and a highly reduced dentition. The most extreme example of this sort of thing is the Banana bat, Trumpet-nosed bat or Colima long-nosed bat Musonycteris harrisoni of Mexico, an ‘extreme’ mammal as goes snout length. It’s fairly typical for people who aren’t that familiar with bat diversity to confuse glossophagines with the Old World flower-feeding megabats grouped together in Macroglossinae. There’s obviously a degree of evolutionary convergence here, though it hasn’t been that well explored in the literature, to my knowledge. Various glossophagines have symbiotic relationships with sympatric plants. Incidentally, Pallas’s long-tongued bat Glossophaga soricina is able to see UV light (Winter et al. 2003).

Some distantly related (but broadly similar) members of the phyllostomid clade Glossophaginae. At left: a long-tongued champion (though not necessarily the longest-tongued of phyllostomids), Pallas’s long-tongued bat  Glossophaga soricina . At right: Underwood’s long-tongued bat  Hylonycteris underwoodii . Images: Betty Wills, wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0 (original   here  ); Karin Schneeberger/  Felineora  , wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 (original   here  ).

Some distantly related (but broadly similar) members of the phyllostomid clade Glossophaginae. At left: a long-tongued champion (though not necessarily the longest-tongued of phyllostomids), Pallas’s long-tongued bat Glossophaga soricina. At right: Underwood’s long-tongued bat Hylonycteris underwoodii. Images: Betty Wills, wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0 (original here); Karin Schneeberger/Felineora, wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 (original here).

Entirely different specialisations are seen in the short-faced, frugivorous phyllostomids included within Stenodermatinae. These have flattened, broad teeth, typically have white facial stripes (an aposematic warning of their powerful bites?), and are sometimes handsome or even cute, big-eyed bats. One of the strangest of bats – the Wrinkle-faced or Lattice-winged bat Centurio senex – belongs to this group. The naked, wrinkled faces of males are mostly concealed by massive skin flaps when the bat is roosting or sleeping. There are also neck glands that seem to secrete scent, and obvious transverse bands on the wing membranes.

Resting Wrinkle-faced bats  Centurio senex  partially conceal their faces beneath thick skin folds. Translucent patches on the lower of these skin folds seem to allow these bats to detect light-level changes even when their faces are covered. Image: Jplevraud, wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 (original   here  ).

Resting Wrinkle-faced bats Centurio senex partially conceal their faces beneath thick skin folds. Translucent patches on the lower of these skin folds seem to allow these bats to detect light-level changes even when their faces are covered. Image: Jplevraud, wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 (original here).

 My favourite phyllostomids are very different from tubular-snouted flower-feeders and short-face fruit-eaters: they are the robust, more generalised species traditionally lumped together in Phyllostominae (though the name Vampyrinae has also been used for some of them). These are mostly omnivores that eat insects, fruit and small vertebrates, and some are specialised predator bats that variously catch and eat amphibians, mammals (including other bats) and birds. They include Peters’s woolly false vampire Chrotopterus auritus, the Frog-eating bat Trachops cirrhosus – famous for eating frogs and selecting them on the basis of their calls – and the spectacular Linnaeus’s false vampire Vampyrum spectrum, a predatory giant that can, in cases, have a wingspan of over 1 meter.

Vampyrum , the False vampire or Spectral bat (see comments for a hot take on the term ‘false vampire’), has to be considered one of the most awesome of all bats. It’s convergently similar to the distantly related megadermatid bats of Africa, Asia and Australasia, also (confusingly) often called false vampires. Image: Marco Tschapka, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (original   here  ).

Vampyrum, the False vampire or Spectral bat (see comments for a hot take on the term ‘false vampire’), has to be considered one of the most awesome of all bats. It’s convergently similar to the distantly related megadermatid bats of Africa, Asia and Australasia, also (confusingly) often called false vampires. Image: Marco Tschapka, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (original here).

The very impressive skull of  Vampyrum . It is robust, with big, strong teeth, especially prominent upper canines (which have an additional internal cusp) and a prominent sagittal crest. The skull can be 5.1 cm long in total (which is big for a bat). Image: Naturalis Biodiversity Center, wikipedia, public domain (original   here  ).

The very impressive skull of Vampyrum. It is robust, with big, strong teeth, especially prominent upper canines (which have an additional internal cusp) and a prominent sagittal crest. The skull can be 5.1 cm long in total (which is big for a bat). Image: Naturalis Biodiversity Center, wikipedia, public domain (original here).

When this variation in feeding ecology is mapped onto a phylogeny, it would appear that the earliest phyllostomids were insectivorous, that omnivory, nectarivory (or nectivory, take your pick) and palynivory evolved from among these insectivores, and that frugivores evolved from among nectarivores and palynivores (Baker et al. 2012). The highly specialised vampires appear – according to phylogenetic data – to have evolved directly from insectivores (which is a surprise in view of some models proposed to explain vampire evolution) and at least some members of the main frugivorous clade appear to have reverted to insectivory (Baker et al. 2012; but see Wetterer et al. 2000). Of the various evolutionary events that must have occurred here, it’s the transition to obligate frugivory that seems to have been the most successful, since the frugivorous clade is the largest (as in, most species-rich) within Phyllostomidae, containing about 70 species in 20 genera.

A few more vertebrate-eating phyllostomids. At left: California leaf-nosed bat  Macrotus californicus , the most northerly occurring phyllostomid. At right: Fringe-lipped bat  Trachops cirrhosus , a widespread species of Central and South America that eats seeds, fruits, arthropods and lizards in addition to frogs. Images: National Wildlife Service, wikipedia, public domain (original   here  ); Karin Schneeberger/  Felineora  , wikipedia CC BY 3.0 (original   here  ).

A few more vertebrate-eating phyllostomids. At left: California leaf-nosed bat Macrotus californicus, the most northerly occurring phyllostomid. At right: Fringe-lipped bat Trachops cirrhosus, a widespread species of Central and South America that eats seeds, fruits, arthropods and lizards in addition to frogs. Images: National Wildlife Service, wikipedia, public domain (original here); Karin Schneeberger/Felineora, wikipedia CC BY 3.0 (original here).

This is also the radiation that’s seemingly resulted in the greatest, most rapidly evolved amount of morphological variation, since everything here seems to have happened within the last 10 million years and has given rise to taxa that are among the most divergent and specialised of phyllostomids. Also of interest here is that some lineages within this frugivorous clade appear to have evolved in the Antilles before invading the mainland (Dávalos 2007), a case of ‘upstream colonisation’ that contradicts traditional scenarios whereby continental animals give rise (via ‘downstream colonisation’) to island-dwelling forms.

Substantially simplified phyllostomid cladogram, based mostly on Baker  et al . (2003), and using their nomenclature (though they regarded false vampires - as Vampyrini - as nested within Phyllostominae). Images (top to bottom):  Macrotus  = National Wildlife Service, wikipedia, public domain (original   here  );  Desmodus  = Uwe Schmidt, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 (original   here  );  Vampyrum  = Marco Tschapka, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (original   here  );  Phyllostomus  = Karin Schneeberger/  Felineora  , wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 (original   here  );  Platalina  = Juan A. Malo de Molina, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (original   here  );  Sturnira  = Burtonlim, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (original   here  ).

Substantially simplified phyllostomid cladogram, based mostly on Baker et al. (2003), and using their nomenclature (though they regarded false vampires - as Vampyrini - as nested within Phyllostominae). Images (top to bottom): Macrotus = National Wildlife Service, wikipedia, public domain (original here); Desmodus = Uwe Schmidt, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 (original here); Vampyrum = Marco Tschapka, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (original here); Phyllostomus = Karin Schneeberger/Felineora, wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 (original here); Platalina = Juan A. Malo de Molina, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (original here); Sturnira = Burtonlim, wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (original here).

Where in the bat tree? What sort of bats are phyllostomids, and what do we know about their evolutionary history? On the basis of anatomical characters, bat experts have generally thought that phyllostomids are close allies of naked-backed, moustached or ghost-faced bats (Mormoopidae) and bulldog bats and kin (Noctilionidae), the whole lot being grouped together in a clade termed either Phyllostomatoidea or Noctilionoidea (and it’s the last of those terms that should be preferred, so I understand). In turn, this group was thought – again, on the basis of anatomical characters – to be closely related both to vesper bats and their kin (Vespertilionoidea), and to a clade that includes both sheath-tailed bats and kin (Emballonuroidea) and horseshoe bats and kin (Rhinolophoidea) (Smith 1976).