Final Call For TetZooCon 2019

It’s time to remind you once more that TetZooCon 2019 – the sixth Tetrapod Zoology Convention – is happening on the 19th and 20th October, and this is essentially your last chance to book a place*, should you wish to come along. TetZooCon 2019 is, as per the last two years, happening at The Venue, Malet Street, Bloomsbury, London, a difference for this year being that we’re on a different floor from previous meetings and have more rooms in addition to the main hall.

* We don’t send out paper tickets; your name is added to a list.

Scenes from TetZooCon 2018, our biggest and best meeting so far. The 2019 meeting is shaping up to be bigger and better. To those not attending, watch #TetZooCon for live coverage. Image: JCTArtStudio/Jed Taylor.

Scenes from TetZooCon 2018, our biggest and best meeting so far. The 2019 meeting is shaping up to be bigger and better. To those not attending, watch #TetZooCon for live coverage. Image: JCTArtStudio/Jed Taylor.

If you’re seriously interested in prehistoric animals and their evolution, biology and behaviour, in palaeoart and in artistic depictions of animals in general, in the anatomy, ecology, behaviour and biology of such animals as swans, eagles, whales and amphibians, in human-wildlife interactions, in conservation biology, and in natural history film-making, you really should come along. Our talks and on-stage events this year are on a diverse range of tetrapod-themed subjects, but there’s a block on natural history film-making – featuring a range of very talented people from the BBC’s famous Natural History Unit – and another on the palaeobiology of extinct dinosaurs.

I went over to Instagram and…. here’s proof that things are really coming along with respect to merchandise for TetZooCon 2019. These are Rebecca Groom’s palaeoplushies. In previous years, they’ve all sold out within the first few hours of the meeting! Images: Rebecca Groom/palaeoplushies.

I went over to Instagram and…. here’s proof that things are really coming along with respect to merchandise for TetZooCon 2019. These are Rebecca Groom’s palaeoplushies. In previous years, they’ve all sold out within the first few hours of the meeting! Images: Rebecca Groom/palaeoplushies.

Jed Taylor is going to knock it out of the park this year, his stuff looks incredible. Here’s a shot of some of his merchandise. Image: JCTArtStudio/Jed Taylor.

Jed Taylor is going to knock it out of the park this year, his stuff looks incredible. Here’s a shot of some of his merchandise. Image: JCTArtStudio/Jed Taylor.

As per usual, there’s a special palaeoart event led by John Conway (and running in parallel to part of the main event, sorry about that). This includes several talks by palaeoartists, the main theme of this year’s talks being the 3D construction of models. And – breaking news – it now looks like we’re hosting a big, dedicated palaeoart exhibition as well, featuring art by some of the UK’s leading palaeoartists. It should be hosted in its own special room.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the screening of  Walking With Dinosaurs , so it’s especially fitting that Tim Haines - at far right in this image, with your humble blog-author - will be speaking at TetZooCon.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the screening of Walking With Dinosaurs, so it’s especially fitting that Tim Haines - at far right in this image, with your humble blog-author - will be speaking at TetZooCon.

Merchandise, stalls, book signings and palaeoart wares are also a standard part of TetZooCon. Book signings this year include those devoted to Dave Hone’s The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, Jack Ashby’s Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects, Joschua Knüppe’s Palaeostream book, Luis Rey’s Extreme Dinosaurs Part 2: the Projects and Ross Barnett’s The Missing Lynx. Dougal Dixon’s After Man will also be on sale, and I’m pleased to say that Dougal himself will be in attendance on the Saturday.

Luis Rey’s brand-new book will be on sale at TetZooCon 2019. Image: (c) Luis Rey/Darren Naish.

Luis Rey’s brand-new book will be on sale at TetZooCon 2019. Image: (c) Luis Rey/Darren Naish.

TetZooCon ends with a quiz and a post-conference meal.

So that’s that, we look forward to seeing you in London in late October. For the first time, attendees can choose to buy a booking for one day only; there isn’t one flat fee for the whole event. The booking site includes more information, a list of speakers, and a draft timetable. If you’re on Twitter and/or Instagram, follow events at #TetZooCon. See you there!

For previous articles on TetZooCon meetings, see…

Extreme Cetaceans, Part 2

Recall the recent article about ‘extreme cetaceans’? Well, here’s the second one in the series.

Spectacled porpoise. Porpoises – the seven* species of the delphinoid family Phocoenidae – are small, short-beaked cetaceans that mostly live fairly cryptic lives in shallow coastal seas (this description applies to the living species: some fossil porpoises were comparatively large and long-beaked). The species that typifies the group – the Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena – is greyish (except for its white belly), has a low, triangular dorsal fin and is not especially charismatic.

* I’ve followed recent taxonomic decisions and am recognising two species within Neophocaena (N. phocaenoides and N. asiaeorientalis).

Phocoena phocoena , the archtypical member of Phocoenidae. Image:  Erik Christensen , CC BY-SA 3.0 (original  here ).

Phocoena phocoena, the archtypical member of Phocoenidae. Image: Erik Christensen, CC BY-SA 3.0 (original here).

But other porpoises are rather different, and here we’re going to look at a far more flamboyant species, namely the Spectacled porpoise P. dioptrica of the cool and cold waters of the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic seas. This is a very poorly known species, and one of the things said about it most often is that just about nothing is known about it. It’s a 20th century discovery, its scientific debut occurring in 1912.

This species is remarkably pigmented relative to other Phocoena porpoises, being black dorsally, white ventrally, and with dark circles around its eyes. There have actually been a bunch of competing ideas on its exact appearance over the years, authors and artists disagreeing with respect to where the boundary between its dark and white areas are, what colour its flippers and tail flukes are, and so on. It’s distinct enough from the other Phocoena species that some authors have preferred to keep it in its own genus (Australophocoena), but this isn’t fashionable at the moment due to molecular data on its phylogenetic position. The suggestion has even been made that its pattern and colouring give it the ability to mimic killer whales and thus avoid predation. Cool idea, buuuut…. unlikely given that porpoises are so distinct from killer whales in size and surely in vocalisations and in the echolocatory signature that predatory cetaceans use when evaluating potential prey.

Spectacled porpoises photographed in the wild, in the Southern Ocean, in 2001. A male is at back, an adult female is closest to us, and a calf is in the middle. Image: Sekiguchi  et al . (2006).

Spectacled porpoises photographed in the wild, in the Southern Ocean, in 2001. A male is at back, an adult female is closest to us, and a calf is in the middle. Image: Sekiguchi et al. (2006).

The Spectacled porpoise isn’t just remarkable for its pigmentation, however, but also for its shape, and in particular for its dorsal fin. This is ‘normal’ in some individuals, but disproportionally large – strangely so – in some individuals where it looks like an out-sized rounded flag projecting upwards and backwards at a size about twice or three times that you might predict. Like the keels, humps and unusual dorsal fins of some spinner dolphins (see the previous article in this series), this is a sexually dimorphic feature that’s especially exaggerated in mature males. Its presence is therefore presumably a sociosexual indicator of age and sexual status. Another odd thing about the dorsal fin (albeit one not unique to this species within porpoises as a whole) is that there are tiny tubercles along the leading edge (Evans et al. 2001), albeit seemingly not in all individuals. Dorsal fin tubercles are actually known for all porpoises – they’re weird and interesting and I’ll try to remember to come back to them in another article.

Male, female and juvenile Spectacled porpoise, as illustrated by Uko Gorter for Natalie  et al . (2018). The remarkable size of the male’s dorsal fin is obvious. Image: (c) Uko Gorter/Natalie  et al . (2018).

Male, female and juvenile Spectacled porpoise, as illustrated by Uko Gorter for Natalie et al. (2018). The remarkable size of the male’s dorsal fin is obvious. Image: (c) Uko Gorter/Natalie et al. (2018).

This giant dorsal fin isn’t a newly discovered feature – it was reported and illustrated as far back as 1916 (Bruch 1916) – but it hasn’t ben commented upon as often as it might, especially given that it’s one of the most pronounced expressions of sexual dimorphism in cetaceans. Indeed, as Ellis (1983) noted, “only the killer whale manifests such a difference in the dorsal fin” (p. 198); sexual dimorphism of the dorsal fin is known in other porpoises, but isn’t as extreme as it is here (Torre et al. 2014). Apart from the fact that it’s obvious, and looks fairly absurd in the older males that have it, we don’t know much about this fin or its function. Maybe it’s ‘just’ a visual signal of sex, maturity and (perhaps) health and condition. Maybe – recall the comments in the previous article about dorsal fins functioning as thermal windows – it also plays an important physiological role. Whatever it does, it makes this an ‘extreme’ cetacean; an animal that looks surprising, weird and flamboyant.

I’m going to build a montage of the extreme cetaceans discussed in this series. This image will become more cluttered over time. Image: Darren Naish.

I’m going to build a montage of the extreme cetaceans discussed in this series. This image will become more cluttered over time. Image: Darren Naish.

Finally — there’s a adoption scheme for the Spectacled porpoise. Adopt one yourself and aid in the conservation of this poorly known species.

More in this series soon. Here’s some of the stuff on cetaceans that exists in the archives (as always, much of the material at TetZoo versions 2 and 3 has been ruined by the removal of images, though remember that much or all of this is archived at Wayback Machine)…

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 - -

Bruch, C. 1916. El macho de Phocaena dioptrica Lah. Physis, 2461-2462.

Ellis, R. 1983. Dolphins and Porpoises. Robert Hale, London.

Evans, K., Kemper, C. & Hill, M. 2001. First records of the Spectacled porpoise Phocoena dioptrica in continental Australian waters. Marine Mammal Science 17, 161-170.

Natalie, R., Goodall, P. & Brownell, R. L. 2018. Spectacled Porpoise. In Würsig, B., Thewissen, J B. M. & Kovacs, K. (eds) Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, Academic Press, pp. 912-916.

Sekiguchi, K., Olavarría, C., Morse, L., Olson, P., Ensor, P., Matsuoka, K., Pitman, R., Findlay, K. & Gorter, U. 2006. The spectacled porpoise (Phocoena dioptrica) in Antarctic waters. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 8, 265-271.

Torre, J., Vidal, O. & Brownell, R. L. 2014. Sexual dimorphism and developmental patterns in the external morphology of the vaquita, Phocoena sinus. Marine Mammal Science 30, 1285-1296.

Extreme Cetaceans, Part 1

It was while going through my read all the books on the whales of the world phase of the early 1990s, I remember, that I first read of the dolphins – members of the highly streamlined, long-beaked, oceanic dolphin group no less – that have such weird features as deep keels, humps on the back and tailstock, and non-streamlined, forward-canted dorsal fins. Yes, we all know that whales are streamlined, torpedo-shaped animals with sensibly shaped appendages, but they’re not all like this. Quite a few species are weird, possessing anatomical specialisations and peculiarities that are counter-intuitive and little discussed, and most likely related to an unusual ecology, physiological regime, feeding strategy or social or sexual life.

A nice, normal looking group of Spinner dolphins. The obvious dark cape and paler side regions make these look like Hawaiian spinners but they were apparently photographed in the Red Sea. Image:  Alexander Vasenin , CC BY-SA 3.0, wikipedia ( original here ).

A nice, normal looking group of Spinner dolphins. The obvious dark cape and paler side regions make these look like Hawaiian spinners but they were apparently photographed in the Red Sea. Image: Alexander Vasenin, CC BY-SA 3.0, wikipedia (original here).

In this short series of articles – yeah, this is Part 1 – I want to talk about just a few such animals, and I hope you’ll be as surprised by their anatomy and specialisations as I was when I first learnt about them.

Extreme spinners. Everybody knows that dolphins are streamlined, and the oceanic long-beaked dolphins (those conventionally united in the genus Stenella) are streamlined the most. The Spinner S. longirostris – a species that occurs throughout the tropical and subtropical marine waters of the world – is one such animal, its very long beak, torpedo-shaped body and tailstock and well-proportioned fins all appearing like textbook adaptations for swift movement in the pelagic environment. Yet for all this, some spinner dolphins – some specific individuals belonging to some specific populations – are very odd indeed.

One of the very best depictions of an ‘extreme’ male Eastern spinner is this one, from   Shirahai & Jarrett’s 2006  Whales, Dolphins and Seals   . Image: (c) Brett Jarrett.

One of the very best depictions of an ‘extreme’ male Eastern spinner is this one, from Shirahai & Jarrett’s 2006 Whales, Dolphins and Seals. Image: (c) Brett Jarrett.

These animals have arching dorsal humps and massive, bulbous ventral convexities on the tailstock which give them a peculiarly asymmetrical, lumpy appearance, the dorsal fin is not recurved and falcate, but has a straight or even concave anterior margin such that it might even lean forwards, and the tail flukes turn upwards at their outer edges. The exaggerated lump on the lower surface of the tailstock has a name: it’s the post-anal hump. This structure isn’t unique to the Spinner but is also present in other delphinids, like the Delphinus species. It appears to be sexually dimorphic and is especially prominent in mature males (Ngqulana et al. 2017). Perrin & Mesnick (2003) argued that these features - which are variable in spinner populations and most strongly developed in the so-called Eastern and Whitebelly spinners - are linked to testis size and to a polygynous mating system where males need to be highly distinct from their many female consorts, and built to display against, and fight with, other males. In other words, the most ‘extreme’ spinners are the most polygynous.

Adult males differ in appearance across spinner populations, and it seems that the most ‘extreme’ males are those from the most polygynous populations. This diagram (from Perrin & Mesnick 2003) shows - from top to bottom - male Hawaiian, Eastern and ‘whitebelly’ spinners. Image: Perrin & Mesnick (2003).

Adult males differ in appearance across spinner populations, and it seems that the most ‘extreme’ males are those from the most polygynous populations. This diagram (from Perrin & Mesnick 2003) shows - from top to bottom - male Hawaiian, Eastern and ‘whitebelly’ spinners. Image: Perrin & Mesnick (2003).

How and why might this remarkable feature have originated? Spinners and other cetaceans adopt a sinuous, vaguely S-shaped profile when displaying to one another (this has now been seen in diverse cetaceans, mysticetes as well as odontocetes; Helweg et al. 1992, Horback et al. 2010), and one suggestion is that the post-anal hump and a matching convexity on the dorsal surface of the tailstock might serve to accentuate the curves of the S and thereby function in exaggerating this signal. One idea about the S-shaped pose is that it functions in shark mimicry (Norris et al. 1985; some sharks also adopt an S-shaped profile and use it to signal aggressive intentions), but the fact that it’s as widespread in cetaceans as it is – and similar poses are seen in other aquatic vertebrates – indicates that any similarities with non-cetaceans are convergent.

S-shaped postures, depicted (sometimes schematically) in cetaceans of very different sizes and proportions, from Horback  et al . (2010). (A) Spinner dolphin, (B) Beluga, (C) Humpback whale. Evolve dorsal and ventral convexities on the body and tailstock, and you can exaggerate the intensity of this signal. Image: Horback  et al . (2010).

S-shaped postures, depicted (sometimes schematically) in cetaceans of very different sizes and proportions, from Horback et al. (2010). (A) Spinner dolphin, (B) Beluga, (C) Humpback whale. Evolve dorsal and ventral convexities on the body and tailstock, and you can exaggerate the intensity of this signal. Image: Horback et al. (2010).

Anyway… the features discussed here appear intuitively odd because they’re just about the opposite of what you’d predict to be present in a fast-swimming, pelagic predator which has otherwise evolved to be ultra-streamlined. But there you are.

Humpback dolphins are not especially well known, and even less well known is that they’re kept in captivity in a few places and have been trained to do tricks. This individual was photographed in captivity in Singapore. Image:  Tolomea , CC BY 2.0, wikipedia ( original here ).

Humpback dolphins are not especially well known, and even less well known is that they’re kept in captivity in a few places and have been trained to do tricks. This individual was photographed in captivity in Singapore. Image: Tolomea, CC BY 2.0, wikipedia (original here).

The humpback dolphins. Everyone’s heard of the Humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae, but less well known is that there are dolphins with humps too, perhaps four species of them if you follow some studies of molecular variation within the group (the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin Sousa chinensis, Australian humpback dolphin S. sahulensis, Atlantic humpback dolphin S. teuszii and Indian Ocean humpback dolphin S. plumbea). Superficially, Sousa dolphins look something like bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops), and like them they’re coastal animals that prey on diverse fishes and cephalopods. Unlike the Tursiops dolphins, the Sousa species have a long raised section – sitting dorsal to the neural spines and musculature of the back – that extends along the middle part of the dorsal surface. The dorsal fin sits on top of this hump.

Comparatively few people know that there are dolphins with humps, but check it out. These are Tom Ritchie’s illustrations of  Sousa  dolphins, representing adult males identified by   Watson (1981)   as  S. chinensis  (above) and  S. teuszii  (below). Images:   Watson 1981  .

Comparatively few people know that there are dolphins with humps, but check it out. These are Tom Ritchie’s illustrations of Sousa dolphins, representing adult males identified by Watson (1981) as S. chinensis (above) and S. teuszii (below). Images: Watson 1981.

The function of this hump – if it has one – is not well studied and authors have mostly avoided mentioning the possibility that it might have one. Does it function as a visual or acoustic signal of maturity? Does it have some role in buoyancy, hydrodynamics or streamlining? Is it a fat store? The dorsal fins of at least some cetaceans appear to function as so-called thermal windows: as heat-dumping structures, the large and extensive blood vessels of which carry cooled blood to the body interior (Meagher et al. 2002). In males, this cool blood helps lower the temperature of the deeply internal testes (Pabst et al. 1995), which might otherwise be prone to overheating. The humps of humpbacked dolphins, like the dorsal fins, appear to be richly innervated with blood vessels which again transport cooled blood from the animal’s exterior surface to deep within its body (Plön et al. 2018).

(A) Vasculature in the dorsal fin and hump of a humpback dolphin compared with (B) dorsal fin vasculature in a  Tursiops  dolphin. The blood vessels in  Tursiops  are proportionally larger, but there’s a great number of them in the humpback dolphin, thanks to the hump. Image: Plön  et al . 2018.

(A) Vasculature in the dorsal fin and hump of a humpback dolphin compared with (B) dorsal fin vasculature in a Tursiops dolphin. The blood vessels in Tursiops are proportionally larger, but there’s a great number of them in the humpback dolphin, thanks to the hump. Image: Plön et al. 2018.

Could the hump therefore be a thermoregulatory specialisation for this mostly tropical group? Further research is needed, but this could be consistent with the fact that the hump is proportionally largest in adult males, and perhaps proportionally largest in those populations that inhabit the most tropical parts of Sousa’s entire range. A hydrodynamic role for the hump remains plausible but has yet to be investigated (Plön et al. 2018).

And that’s where we’ll end things for now. More in this series soon. I’ll publish a lot more on whales here in the future, but here’s some of the stuff that exists in the archives (as always, much of the material at TetZoo versions 2 and 3 has been ruined by the removal of images)…

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 - -

Helweg, D. A., Bauer, G. B. & Herman, L. M. 1992. Observations of an S-shaped posture in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Aquatic Mammals 18.3, 74-78.

Horback, K. M., Friedman, W. R. & Johnson, C. M. 2010. The occurrence and context of S-posture display by captive belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). International Journal of Comparative Psychology 23, 689-700.

Meagher, E. M., McLellan, W. A., Westgate, A. J., Wells, R. S., Frierson, D. Jr. & Pabst, D. A.. 2002. The relationship between heat flow and vasculature in the dorsal fin of wild bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus. Journal of Experimental Biology 205, 3475-3486.

Pabst, D. A., Rommel, S. A., McLellan, W. A., Williams, T. M. & Rowles, T. K. 1995. Thermoregulation of the intra-abdominal testes of the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) during exercise. Journal of Experimental Biology 198, 221-226.

Norris, K. S., Wursig, B., Wells, R. S., Wursig, M., Brownlee, S. M., Johnson, C. & Solow, J. 1985. Behavior of the Hawaiian spinner dolphin, Stenella longirostris. National Marine Fisheries Service Administrative Report LJ-85-06C.

Ngqulana, S. G., Hofmeyr, G. J. G. & Plön, S. 2017. Sexual dimorphism in long-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus capensis) from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Journal of Mammalogy 98, 1389-1399.

Perrin, W. F. & Mesnick, S. L. 2003. Sexual ecology of the Spinner dolphin, Stenella longirostris: geographic variation in mating system. Marine Mammal Science 19, 462-483.

Plön, S., Frainer, G., Wedderburn-Maxwell, A., Cliff, G. & Huggenberger, S. 2018. Dorsal fin and hump vascular anatomy in the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea) and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus). Marine Mammal Science 35, 684-695.

Shirihai, H. & Jarrett, B. 2006. Whales, Dolphin and Seals: a Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the World. A & C Black, London.

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

Philip J. Senter’s Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs?, the TetZoo Review

Many of us interested in the more arcane side of natural history will be aware of that body of literature that seeks to explain the biology, behaviour and history of living things within the words of a complex, multi-authored work known as The Bible. I refer of course to the creationist literature; to that number of books and articles whose authors contend that animals known from fossils simply must accord with the stories and descriptions of the Bible, and whose authors furthermore contend that the Earth and its inhabitants must have come into being within the last few thousand years.

A smouldering  Parasaurolophus : the cover art for the book, by Leandra Walters. Image: (c) Leandra Walters/Senter (2019).

A smouldering Parasaurolophus: the cover art for the book, by Leandra Walters. Image: (c) Leandra Walters/Senter (2019).

Creationist authors – the most familiar include Ken Ham, Kent Hovind and Duane Gish – have argued that non-bird dinosaurs and other fossil animals were inhabitants of the Garden of Eden, that predatory species like Tyrannosaurus rex ate water melons and sugarcane before The Fall, that humans and animals like Tyrannosaurus lived alongside one another during the early days of the Earth’s creation, that evolution cannot have happened, except when it did as species emerged from their different ancestral kind (or baramins), and that animals like Tanystropheus, tyrannosaurs and pterosaurs were seen and written about by people, and are responsible for the mythological creatures mentioned or described in the Bible and other ancient texts. Leviathan and Behemoth of The Bible, Grendel of the medieval epic Beowolf, the fire-breathing dragons of the Middle Ages and so on must – creationist authors contend – be descriptions of human encounters with giant reptiles otherwise known as fossils. And, yes: you read that right… creationist authors have argued, apparently seriously, that fire-breathing dragons must be descriptions of encounters with animals like dinosaurs and pterosaurs. So… they… breathed fire, then.

The Bible specifically states that the first few books of the Old Testament are not meant to be taken literally. Despite this, a number of Young Earth creationists promote a view of the ancient world where people lived alongside allosaurs and pterosaurs and so on. If you’ve seen a version of this page mentioning lemonade and homosexuality, it’s a spoof (the original text does not include that section of text). Image: (c) Ken Ham,  Dinosaurs of Eden .

The Bible specifically states that the first few books of the Old Testament are not meant to be taken literally. Despite this, a number of Young Earth creationists promote a view of the ancient world where people lived alongside allosaurs and pterosaurs and so on. If you’ve seen a version of this page mentioning lemonade and homosexuality, it’s a spoof (the original text does not include that section of text). Image: (c) Ken Ham, Dinosaurs of Eden.

Over the past several years, Fayetteville State University biologist and palaeontologist Philip J. Senter has published a great many technical scientific articles evaluating the various claims and models of creationist authors; some of his articles are short-form versions of the text included in this new book (cf Senter 2017). His approach is to accept their proposals as valid scientific hypotheses, and not to knock, mock or discount them out of hand from the start. Remember that point; we’ll be coming back to it. This approach means that creationist claims can be considered tested in the empirical sense. It should also be noted that Senter is an Orthodox Christian with qualifications in theology, so his sympathetic and scientifically ‘honest’ approach to creationist claims should not and cannot reasonably be taken as any sort of attack on the Christian faith that the relevant creationists are part of. The fact that Senter is himself religious mean that he can make the argument (should he wish to) that the bad calls and bs put out by creationists is not just ‘bad science’ but ‘bad religion’, too. I’ve heard the same argument from other scientists who maintain an active religious life.

The book reviewed here is not the first time Senter has written about the ‘fire-breathing dinosaurs’ idea. Image: (c) Skeptical Inquirer.

The book reviewed here is not the first time Senter has written about the ‘fire-breathing dinosaurs’ idea. Image: (c) Skeptical Inquirer.

For completion, and for those who don’t know, I should add that Senter is also an experienced and prolific author of studies devoted to more conventional palaeontological fare: descriptions of new dinosaur species, analyses of phylogenetic patterns, interpretations of functional morphology, and so on. The technical papers of his that I’ve found most useful and interesting include Senter et al. (2004) and Senter (2007) on dinosaur phylogeny, Senter (2006, 2009) on palaeobiology, and Senter (2005), Senter & Robins (2005), Senter & Parrish (2005) and Bonnan & Senter (2007) on dinosaur functional morphology.

The handsome cover of Senter (2019).

The handsome cover of Senter (2019).

The early chapters of this book evaluate and discuss the creationist contention in general and the relatively young history of the entire movement. The impact of John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’s 1961 book The Genesis Flood is obvious, as is the fact that their arguments fail evaluation (Senter 2019). Nevertheless, their influence was such that – from the early 1970s onwards – a number of like-minded individuals were promoting Whitcomb and Morris’s vision, and were in particular arguing that ancient and medieval writings and works of art make explicit reference to dinosaurs and other long-extinct animals. Senter (2019) uses the term apnotheriopia (meaning ‘dead beast vision’) to describe the tendency of creationist author to interpret monsters in literature and art as long-extinct reptiles.

If apnotheriopia is one of your guiding principles, it ‘follows’ that the fire-breathing dragons canonical to Eurocentric, Christian mythology should be interpreted as dinosaurs or similar reptiles, and that such creatures were dragonesque fire-breathers. So integral has the whole fire-breathing thing been to these authors that they’ve proposed fire-breathing for dinosaurs of several sorts (most frequently hadrosaurs) as well as for pterosaurs and the giant Cretaceous crocodyliform Sarcosuchus (Senter 2019). You might know of one or two cases in which this idea has been mooted. Senter’s book shows that numerous authors have engaged with this vision and written about it. The sheer quantity of this literature is daunting – I was going to say ‘impressive’ but this absolutely seems like the wrong word – and Senter has clearly gone to some considerable trouble to obtain it. He must own a pretty hefty personal library of creationist volumes, and I’m reminded of a statement he makes in one of his papers, wherein he notes that collecting and reading creationist literature on dinosaurs and other extinct animals is one of his “guilty pleasures”.

Some creationist authors have argued that certain dinosaurs could have functioned just like the living bombadier beetles AND SPEWED FIRE!!!!1! One minor issue: bombadier beetles don’t spew fire, they eject hot liquid. Image: Patrick Coin, CC BY-SA 2.5 ( original here ).

Some creationist authors have argued that certain dinosaurs could have functioned just like the living bombadier beetles AND SPEWED FIRE!!!!1! One minor issue: bombadier beetles don’t spew fire, they eject hot liquid. Image: Patrick Coin, CC BY-SA 2.5 (original here).

Indeed, the bulk of this book – the long section that runs from chapters 5 through 15 – is a chapter by chapter analysis of the different fire-breathing claims made by creationist authors. These people have, I’ve been surprised to learn, come up with six different mechanisms for fire production in extinct archosaurs. Senter (2019) goes through each in turn, in appropriate detail. In some cases, the proposed mechanisms are total non-starters (no, dear creationists, pterosaurs couldn’t house flammable gases inside their head crests) and can be brushed aside quite swiftly. But in other cases, Senter (2019) has to go down the rabbit-hole of gas chemistry, anatomy and biochemistry, and the history of burns and gaseous explosions in human medicine. All fascinating and well-argued stuff, and full of amazing nuggets of information.

Parasaurolophus  - beloved posterchild of the fire-breathing dinosaurs movement - flames an anachronistic  Ceratosaurus , a familiar image from the creationist literature. I believe that this is from one of Ken Ham’s books.

Parasaurolophus - beloved posterchild of the fire-breathing dinosaurs movement - flames an anachronistic Ceratosaurus, a familiar image from the creationist literature. I believe that this is from one of Ken Ham’s books.

The conclusion, overwhelmingly, is that creationists have been spouting ill-informed (or uninformed) nonsense in coming up with their various fire-breathing fantasies. The proposals concerned are inconsistent with biology, chemistry and physics, and cannot have been present in animals governed by the rules that apply to the living things of planet Earth.

It’s well known that the crests of lambeosaurine hadrosaurs were hollow, and contained connected internal tubes and chambers. Were these used in the production of fire? No. Image: Sullivan & Williamson (1999).

It’s well known that the crests of lambeosaurine hadrosaurs were hollow, and contained connected internal tubes and chambers. Were these used in the production of fire? No. Image: Sullivan & Williamson (1999).

The book’s final two chapters are connected to the fire-breathing creationist movement, but tackle rather different topics: the origin of dragons as a whole, and the true identity of the biblical Behemoth (Leviathan is covered too), often said by creationists to be a description of a sauropod or similar dinosaur. These two chapters are among the most interesting and valuable in the book.

Why have creationists been so big on the ‘dragons were fire-breathing dinosaurs’ thing? I think it’s partly an effort to attract children to their cult. It isn’t coincidental that most illustrations of fire-breathing dinosaurs appear in books written for children, like this one by Duane Gish.

Why have creationists been so big on the ‘dragons were fire-breathing dinosaurs’ thing? I think it’s partly an effort to attract children to their cult. It isn’t coincidental that most illustrations of fire-breathing dinosaurs appear in books written for children, like this one by Duane Gish.

Even today, the notion that dragons must surely have been based on giant reptiles or reptile-like animals still unknown to science is not unpopular, and is occasionally promoted in the cryptozoological and conspiracy literature. But it’s wrong: the whole idea of dragons as we mostly imagine them (winged, fire-breathing, horned monsters, clad in armour-like scales and equipped with massive limbs and talons) is a mistake, and one that emerged, incrementally, from more mundane origins.

Senter (2019) shows, via statements made in antiquarian literature and by cross-referencing their use of terms, that the term dragon was used – unambiguously, consistently and repeatedly – for snakes, especially for large kinds like pythons. Yes, dragons were snakes. But how does this explain the limbs, wings, fire-breathing and other embellishments? These were added over time, mostly by medieval European authors who were no longer familiar with giant snakes and had heard rumours that dragons could fly (Senter puts this unfamiliarity down to the rise of Christianity and the closing of pagan temples). Feathered wings were added during the 8th century, which then became membranous wings thanks to inventive artists. By the 13th century, dragons were being depicted as quadrupeds (Senter 2019). What about the fire-breathing thing? If dragons were snakes, then some dragons were venomous, and capable of creating a burning sensation in human tissue. Embellish and augment this idea sufficiently, and the concept of fire-breathing winged mega-snakes has emerged. Chinese dragons, by the way, have an entirely independent origin and were mostly based on mammals; Senter (2019) even says that they shouldn’t even be called dragons.

In this most famous depiction of Leviathan - that by Gustave Doré, dating to 1865 - Leviathan is depicted as a monstrous winged serpent of the seas. Image: public domain ( original here ).

In this most famous depiction of Leviathan - that by Gustave Doré, dating to 1865 - Leviathan is depicted as a monstrous winged serpent of the seas. Image: public domain (original here).

Finally, Senter (2019) also shows – I think convincingly – that the creationist interpretations of both Leviathan and Behemoth of the book of Job are entirely erroneous, but so are the interpretations favoured by the majority of sceptical and ‘mainstream’ authors. I don’t want to steal all of Senter’s thunder, but… Leviathan and Behemoth were both gargantuan mythical serpents, and those authors who have interpreted these creatures as dinosaurs, crocodiles, or big mammals have misunderstood key descriptive phrases, or have been led astray by mistranslations or misinterpretations of the original Hebrew (Senter 2019).

Senter (2019) uses cartoons like this one to emphasise that Behemoth never was a dinosaur, elephant or hippopotamus, but “a demonic entity that the ancient Hebrews envisioned as a serpent” (Senter 2019, p. 142). The caption to this illustration is “Will be real Behemoth please stand up?”. Image: Senter (2019).

Senter (2019) uses cartoons like this one to emphasise that Behemoth never was a dinosaur, elephant or hippopotamus, but “a demonic entity that the ancient Hebrews envisioned as a serpent” (Senter 2019, p. 142). The caption to this illustration is “Will be real Behemoth please stand up?”. Image: Senter (2019).

This book is not that lengthy. There are 201 pages, but 45 of them are occupied by a very voluminous bibliography. Plus the book is hardback (or, this edition is, anyway), so appears bulkier than it would do with soft covers. It’s well illustrated and includes numerous colour photos, diagrams of many sorts, and colour cartoons explaining and depicting Senter’s responses to creationist proposals and arguments. There are two things about the images that I dislike. Firstly, some of the colour photos chosen to depict given extinct taxa are quite anachronistic: things would be improved, I feel, if more contemporary reconstructions took their place. Secondly, the colouring used for many of the cartoons is less than great. I mean, the cartoons themselves – which I assume Senter penned himself (he’s a pretty good and competent artist) – are great, but it looks like they’ve been coloured-in with colouring pencils.

Need to feature a depiction of an extinct animal? I, personally, would prefer it if a more up-to-date and aesthetically pleasing image were used in place of this one. Senter (2019) uses several images of models similar to this one when discussing extinct taxa. Image: I’ve been unable to find a source for this picture; it comes from that bottomless pit of hell called pinterest.

Need to feature a depiction of an extinct animal? I, personally, would prefer it if a more up-to-date and aesthetically pleasing image were used in place of this one. Senter (2019) uses several images of models similar to this one when discussing extinct taxa. Image: I’ve been unable to find a source for this picture; it comes from that bottomless pit of hell called pinterest.

So far I’ve been kind to this book. I enjoyed reading it and think it’s a worthy addition to the literature. But I’m afraid that, by the time I’d finished reading it, I’d taken quite a disliking to it, for three reasons.

The first thing I dislike is the way in which creationist claims and proposals are framed. I’m not exactly a fan of creationism, creationist arguments or creationists themselves and I certainly agree with Senter (2019) that the authors who’ve pushed creationist agendas have been scientifically clueless, and/or have sought to wilfully promote anti-scientific gas-lighting. Senter (2019) even finishes the book with a prayer, praising creationist authors for their dogged promotion and energy but wishing and praying that they might make the world a better place by re-directing their energies to something good or constructive. Fair enough.

I do think, however, that Senter (2019) overdoes it in framing creationists and their ideas as ‘silly’ and ‘ridiculous’; Senter (2019) does this throughout the whole of the book such that its entire approach is “let’s all laugh at those whacky creationists” (the subtitle, I’ll remind you, is The Hilarious History of Creationist Pseudoscience at its Silliest). In my opinion (I’d be interested to know if others agree), the book would have worked better if Senter’s approach throughout was neutral and without the mocking. I’ve mocked creationists myself, for sure (Naish 2017), but I’m not about to write an academic book on the subject of their writings. Indeed, given that I’m familiar with Senter’s  many papers where he tests creationist claims (all are written in scholarly fashion and use language and phrasing typical for peer-reviewed science), I was surprised to see him follow this path, and I had the impression throughout that it was done in an effort to make the text lighter, more fun, and more appealing. I understand the need for that but I’m saying that – surely – there must have been another way.

Senter (2019) compares creationist decisions to those made by a character called ‘Silly Chef’ (the muppet-like individual in the middle) who features in a series of cartoons that appear throughout the book. Image: Senter (2019).

Senter (2019) compares creationist decisions to those made by a character called ‘Silly Chef’ (the muppet-like individual in the middle) who features in a series of cartoons that appear throughout the book. Image: Senter (2019).

Finally on this point, it might be doubtful that the creationists and would-be creationists who are the focus of Senter’s (2019) discussion will ever read this book (it’s abundantly clear that they don’t, or haven’t, read any of the other literature criticising or demolishing their arguments; if they have, they do a good job of making it appear that they haven’t). But by framing the entire book as a “let’s all laugh at those whacky creationists” exercise, the people who might benefit most by reading it will (I assume) be thoroughly put off. Admittedly, this is a moot point anyway in view of my third negative point, but hang on, we’ll get to that in a minute.

The second thing I dislike concerns Senter’s use of humour. This book is well written, and well edited too (I didn’t spot a single typo). But the prose is ruined by Senter’s repeated, very weird forays into simile and metaphor. They are, I’m sorry to say, not just bad, but among the worst examples of writing I can recall. Not only did I not ever find his quips funny, I mostly found them tortuous and daft and I winced every time the text introduced yet another one. I feel bad for saying this and apologise for seeming like a miserable bastard. I disliked this stuff so much that I feel the book would be much improved if all of it was stripped out. And if you’re thinking that – surely – the relevant sections of text can’t be all that bad. Well, here’s one example…

“The misunderstandings and mistranslations necessary to force such an interpretation are almost as bad as those that would be required to infer that the story of David killing Goliath is about a vampire grapefruit preparing a pleasant pile of purple petunias as a fluffy pillow for the happily napping saber-toothed tiger that it keeps as a pet and is convinced for no apparent reason that it is a gigantic German bunny with adorable tiny little ears that wiggle ever so preciously when you gently blow into them” (Senter 2019, p. 144).

There are many other examples of this sort of thing. They ruin the book.

Finally, the third thing I dislike is that great bane of book-buyers from impoverished backgrounds: the price. This book is absurdly expensive; ridiculously so. It’s £69.99 in the UK, $119.95 in the USA (though Amazon is currently selling it at a mere $71.89). As per usual, I appreciate that publishers have to sell books at a given price to cover production costs and to compensate for a sometimes distressingly low number of sales, but I still don’t understand why a slim volume has to cost as much as this one does. Given the price, I fully expected this to be some thick, extremely heavy textbook of perhaps 700 pages or so. But no, it’s a small book of no greater size, production value, academic quality or paper thickness than a great many books half its price or less. I’m extremely pleased to have obtained a review copy but that’s the only way I could ever have obtained it. There is no way I would have purchased it. If a paperback version appears and is reasonably and affordably priced, I apologise for this complaint and may even come back to this review and remove this entire paragraph, but let’s see.

Senter (2019) is not a big book. Here’s a copy with my hand for scale. Image: Darren Naish.

Senter (2019) is not a big book. Here’s a copy with my hand for scale. Image: Darren Naish.

I was expecting a much, much larger book. Image: Darren Naish.

I was expecting a much, much larger book. Image: Darren Naish.

I apologise for ending on such a downer.

Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs is certainly a unique book, and – as someone familiar with Senter’s writings on the creationist literature – it does have a magnum opus, end-of-the-road feel about it. As I’ve stated in this review, it’s well-written, has very high production values, and is of significant interest to those who follow the esoteric literature on Mesozoic archosaurs, and on the history of religiously motivated pseudoscience. But it has issues.

Senter, P. J. 2019. Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? The Hilarious History of Creationist Pseudoscience at Its Silliest. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle Upon Tyne. pp. 201. ISBN 978-1-5275-3042-3. Hardback, refs, index. Here at amazon, here at amazon.co.uk, here from the publishers.

A few other reviews of Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? are online. I deliberately didn’t read them until completing my own review. Having now read them, I see that they make similar points to my own…

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 :)

Refs - -

Bonnan, M.F. & Senter, P. 2007. Were the basal sauropodomorph dinosaurs Plateosaurus and Massospondylus habitual quadrupeds. Special Papers in Palaeontology 77, 139-155.

Naish, D. 2017. Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. Arcturus, London.

Senter, P. 2005. Function in the stunted forelimbs of Mononykus olecranus (Theropoda), a dinosaurian anteater. Paleobiology 31, 373-381.

Senter, P. 2006. Necks for sex: sexual selection as an explanation for sauropod dinosaur neck elongation. Journal of Zoology 271, 45-53.

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

Senter, P. 2009. Voices of the past: a review of Paleozoic and Mesozoic animal sounds. Historical Biology 20, 255-287.

Senter, P. 2017. Fire-breathing dinosaurs? Physics, fossils and functional morphology versus pseudoscience. Skeptical Inquirer 41 (4), 26-33.

Senter, P. J. 2019. Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? The Hilarious History of Creationist Pseudoscience at Its Silliest. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Senter, P., Barsbold, R., Brtii, B. B. & Burnham, D. A. 2004. Systematics and evolution of Dromaeosauridae (Dinosauria, Theropoda). Bulletin of the Gunma Museum of Natural History 8, 1-20.

Senter, P. & Parrish, J. M. 2005. Functional analysis of the hands of the theropod dinosaur Chirostenotes pergracilis: evidence for an unusual palaeoecological role. PaleoBios 25, 9-19.

Senter, P. & Robins, J. H. 2005. Range of motion in the forelimb of the theropod dinosaur Acrocanthosaurus atokensis, and implications for predatory behaviour. Journal of Zoology 266, 307-318.

Sullivan, R. M. & Williamson, T. E. 1999. A new skull of Parasaurolophus (Dinosauria: Hadrosauridae) from the Kirtland Formation of New Mexico and a revision of the genus. New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science Bulletin 15, 1-52.

Whale Watching in the Bay of Biscay

Back in July 2019, myself and a bunch of friends stepped aboard the Pont-Aven for several days of sea-watching in the Bay of Biscay. We were to travel from Plymouth (UK) to Santander (Spain), the event being organised by ORCA, a charity that monitors whales and uses the data for conservation purposes (they’re here on Twitter). ORCA uses cruise liners, ferries and other vehicles as whale-watching platforms. Nigel Marven was a special guest on our trip and it was great to catch up with him.

Our vessel of choice - the Pont-Aven - at port in Santander, Spain. I cannot tell you how much trouble I went to to get to this ship before departure time. I very nearly didn’t make it. Image: Darren Naish.

Our vessel of choice - the Pont-Aven - at port in Santander, Spain. I cannot tell you how much trouble I went to to get to this ship before departure time. I very nearly didn’t make it. Image: Darren Naish.

The man, the legend; Nigel Marven.

The man, the legend; Nigel Marven.

The purpose, of course, was to see whales. The weather was outstandingly good (meaning that I got burnt), but so was the whale watching: I’m pleased to say that we saw literally hundreds of animals of seven or eight species, as you can see from the photos below. My own photos are not great since my camera isn’t exactly the best for fast-moving, far-away animals like whales, so those you see here were mostly taken by my trusty pal Alex Srdic (who’s here on Instagram and here on Twitter). Thanks, Alex.

Several cetaceans have extremely complex markings allowing them to be identified to species and even population. Individuals can be recognised on the basis of their markings too. Image: Alex Srdic.

Several cetaceans have extremely complex markings allowing them to be identified to species and even population. Individuals can be recognised on the basis of their markings too. Image: Alex Srdic.

The Bay of Biscay is a world-famous whale-watching hotspot, famous in particular for Cuvier’s beaked whales Ziphius cavirostris and Sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus. Dolphins of several species are a frequent sight too, as are rorquals of a few species, Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena and pilot whales. A very lucky whale-watcher might get to see Blue whale Balaenoptera musculus, Killer whale Orcinus orca or True’s beaked whale Mesoplodon mirus. In fact, something like 30 species have been recorded in the region. This is phenomenal and mean that it’s theoretically possible for several species of some of the most elusive whale groups – like beaked whales and globicephaline dolphins – to be seen within days or weeks of each other.

In good weather, the blow of a big whale (like a Fin whale - as here - or a Sperm whale) is visible from great distance, and in the case of these two species can be diagnostic. Image: Alex Srdic.

In good weather, the blow of a big whale (like a Fin whale - as here - or a Sperm whale) is visible from great distance, and in the case of these two species can be diagnostic. Image: Alex Srdic.

A dynamic leap by a Striped dolphin. Dolphins of some species appear to be attracted to ships and even to deliberately show off when they get close to them. Image: Alex Srdic.

A dynamic leap by a Striped dolphin. Dolphins of some species appear to be attracted to ships and even to deliberately show off when they get close to them. Image: Alex Srdic.

Why is the Bay of Biscay so good for whales? It’s mostly because the topography is complex, combining large, shallow shelf regions, steep sections of shelf edge – sometimes with impressive slopes and deep, enormous rocky canyons twice as big as the Grand Canyon – and a deep abyssal plain section (Carwardine 2016). Depth varies from 1.7 to over 4.7 km. This variation – combined with the overall productivity of the region and its position relative to the Atlantic and English Channel – means that there’s the chance to see continental shelf species (like porpoises), those that use deep canyons and other shelf-edge habitats (like beaked whales) and true oceanic deep-divers that forage in the deepest waters (like sperm whales).

Back and dorsal fin of a Fin whale, remnants of the blow still hanging in the air. Image: Alex Srdic.

Back and dorsal fin of a Fin whale, remnants of the blow still hanging in the air. Image: Alex Srdic.

As it happens, we were extraordinarily lucky. Fin whales B. physalus are regular animals of the area, and we had amazing, relatively close views of them (by ‘close’, I mean perhaps 30 m from the ship, not alongside the vessel). Fin whales – the second largest extant animal after the Blue – have a blow that’s visible on the horizon and is about 8 m tall. The blow hangs in the air for a surprising time. One of the most remarkable things about the Fin whale is its asymmetrical pigmentation: the right side of the face is marked with a large pale area, as is the right side’s baleen. There are some old TetZoo articles on what this might mean and how it might function – see the links below.

Excellent view of the splashguard - the conical structure surrounding and ahead of the blowholes - and paired blowholes of a surfacing Fin whale. Despite its name, the dorsal fin of the Fin whale is smaller and blunter than that of some other rorquals. Image: Alex Srdic.

Excellent view of the splashguard - the conical structure surrounding and ahead of the blowholes - and paired blowholes of a surfacing Fin whale. Despite its name, the dorsal fin of the Fin whale is smaller and blunter than that of some other rorquals. Image: Alex Srdic.

Two coastal species were seen early on in our trip: Harbour porpoise and Common bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus, though I don’t have good photos of either. The majority of dolphins seen on our trip (as is typical for Biscay whale watching) were Short-beaked common dolphin Delphinus delphis, which were sometimes seen in groups of more than ten. Their distinctive hourglass markings are always visible when they leap – which they often do, sometimes while immediately adjacent to a ship – and we also got to see calves on one or two occasions.

Here’s the whole-body view of the common dolphin shown in detail above. This individual only has one stripe extending from the beak to the flipper, with a large pale area separating the eye and flipper. Different configurations are present in different populations. Image: Alex Srdic.

Here’s the whole-body view of the common dolphin shown in detail above. This individual only has one stripe extending from the beak to the flipper, with a large pale area separating the eye and flipper. Different configurations are present in different populations. Image: Alex Srdic.

As the light begins to fade during the later part of the day, a group of Short-beaked common dolphin carve through a surging wave. Note the calf close to the adult at upper right. Image: Alex Srdic.

As the light begins to fade during the later part of the day, a group of Short-beaked common dolphin carve through a surging wave. Note the calf close to the adult at upper right. Image: Alex Srdic.

We also had excellent views of Striped dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba. They behaved in characteristic acrobatic fashion, leaping high out of the water, making impressive splashes and jumping in the ship’s wake. They typically make a lot more disturbance at the water’s surface than do common dolphins, creating great bursts of spray and rooster-tail patterns when they leap and surge. Striped dolphins are near-globally distributed. They’ve been the source of discussion lately since it’s recently been shown that the Clymene dolphin S. clymene is a naturally occurring hybrid between this species and the Spinner S. longirostris (Amaral et al. 2014).

We had many excellent views of high-leaping Striped dolphin. Note how much spray and splashing is associated with the leaping of this species. Image: Alex Srdic.

We had many excellent views of high-leaping Striped dolphin. Note how much spray and splashing is associated with the leaping of this species. Image: Alex Srdic.

Finally as goes dolphins, we also saw pilot whales, identified on the basis of their black colouration and strongly backswept dorsal fins. These were most likely Long-finned pilots Globicephala melas (it’s more typical of temperate and cold waters than the Short-finned G. macrorhynchus) but we didn’t see any of the key features that allow the two species to be distinguished, and none of our photos are good enough to warrant sharing. A mysterious whale was seen among the pilot whales. It seemed to be very dark and with a short, blunt-tipped, parallel-sided but only weakly curved dorsal fin; I don’t think that its head was seen but I had the impression that it was a shallower-bodied animal than the pilot whales. Several different views were offered on its identity with the most likely (on the basis of dorsal fin shape) being that it was perhaps a False killer whale Pseudorca crassidens. That’s not tremendously likely but not impossible.

The whale most famously associated with the Bay of Biscay is Cuvier’s beaked whale, seen so frequently in the area that it’s regarded as the premier location for sightings of this species, worldwide. I don’t know if you’re guaranteed a sighting of a Cuvier’s while there, but – whatever – we were lucky, since we saw nearly 20 of them, ranging from smooth, clean-bodied youngsters to heavily scarred males.

Cuvier’s beaked whale, seen relatively close to the ship. Image: Alex Srdic.

Cuvier’s beaked whale, seen relatively close to the ship. Image: Alex Srdic.

Heavily scarred Cuvier’s beaked whale, seen at distance and only briefly. We didn’t see any other individuals with scarring as impressive as this. Image: Alex Srdic.

Heavily scarred Cuvier’s beaked whale, seen at distance and only briefly. We didn’t see any other individuals with scarring as impressive as this. Image: Alex Srdic.

Some individuals have markedly pale heads sharply demarcated from the rest of the body, others do not. On occasion, one or two individuals were close enough to the ship that I was able to get a half-decent shot with my mobile phone. Each sighting was a huge thrill. While we were oh so lucky as goes Cuvier’s, we didn’t see sperm whale, alas. We also saw Northern minke B. acutorostrata on perhaps two occasions, though again I don’t have any good photos.

Another plus: amazing sunsets, and sunrises too. Image: Darren Naish.

Another plus: amazing sunsets, and sunrises too. Image: Darren Naish.

Finally, we didn’t just see whales. The same route is also great for seabirds, and we also saw such fishes as tunas and sunfishes. As much as I’d like to start talking about the birds, I’m out of time. Anyway – the trip was excellent: rewarding, fun, and educational. I’ll definitely be doing it again. You should consider supporting ORCA and their work as well.

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!

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 of their images have been removed (and/or they’re paywalled, thanks SciAm). Over time, I aim to build up a large number of cetacean-themed articles here at ver 4.

Refs - -

Amaral, A. R., Lovewell, G., Coelho, M. M., Amato, G. & Rosenbaum, H. C. 2014. Hybrid speciation in a marine mammal: the Clymene dolphin (Stenella clymene). PLoS ONE 9 (1): e83645.

Carwardine, M. 2016. Mark Carwardine’s Guide to Whale Watching in Britain and Europe. Bloomsbury, London.

Books on the Loch Ness Monster 3: The Man Who Filmed Nessie: Tim Dinsdale and the Enigma of Loch Ness

The story of the Loch Ness Monster is not a zoological one, no matter how desperately those who support the alleged existence of the monster wish it were. It is, instead, the story of people. Of people who tricked others into thinking that they saw or believed in a monster, of people who really thought they had seen a monster, and of people who wrote about, and theorised about, the thoughts, beliefs and adventures of others who’d thought or claimed they’d seen a monster.

Tim Dinsdale with his own reconstruction of the Loch Ness Monster (a clay model, held in place on a painted wooden board). I presume this photo was taken on the set of the BBC  Panorama  studio. Image: (c) Tim Dinsdale.

Tim Dinsdale with his own reconstruction of the Loch Ness Monster (a clay model, held in place on a painted wooden board). I presume this photo was taken on the set of the BBC Panorama studio. Image: (c) Tim Dinsdale.

One of the most important characters as goes popularisation of the monster and promotion of its ostensible reality remains aeronautical engineer Tim Dinsdale (1924-1987). Over the three decades in which he was involved in the Loch Ness Monster story, he wrote four Nessie-themed books (Dinsdale 1961, 1966, 1973, 1975; not counting later editions), produced the text for a map (Dinsdale 1977), procured what remains the most famous piece of Nessie-based camera footage, and was deeply and closely involved in several campaigns and schemes to have the Loch Ness Monster formally recognised as a genuine animal species deserving legal protection.

Covers of Dinsdale’s Loch Ness books - though not depicting all editions. Image: Darren Naish.

Covers of Dinsdale’s Loch Ness books - though not depicting all editions. Image: Darren Naish.

Those familiar with Dinsdale’s writings will already know the basics as goes his involvement in the Nessie saga. However, a lengthy work dedicated to his life and adventures was always needed, and I’m pleased to say that this gap in the literature was filled in 2013 by Angus Dinsdale’s The Man Who Filmed Nessie: Tim Dinsdale and the Enigma of Loch Ness (A. Dinsdale 2013). This second Dinsdale is Tim Dinsdale’s son, who has written an affectionate but never overly sentimental review of his father’s life.

My review here is the third and final part of the connected series on recently published books about the Loch Ness Monster (the other parts are here and here), though rest assured that it certainly won’t be the last thing I say on the subject since there are several other recently published works that warrant review as well (Ronald Binn’s 2019 The Decline of the Loch Ness Monster will likely be next). I appreciate that it might seem a bit odd to review a book published more than six years ago, but better late than never.

Dinsdale’s 1977 map is meant to be about Loch Ness in general. It is, of course, quite heavy on monster promotion (  Dinsdale 1977  ). Image: Darren Naish.

Dinsdale’s 1977 map is meant to be about Loch Ness in general. It is, of course, quite heavy on monster promotion (Dinsdale 1977). Image: Darren Naish.

The Man Who Filmed Nessie begins with several biographical chapters on Tim Dinsdale’s family background and early adult life. It is partly autobiographical, discussing the Dinsdale adventure as seen through the eyes of his son, but also includes long quoted sections from Dinsdale’s writings. In the text that follows, any mention of or reference to ‘Dinsdale’ should be assumed to refer to Tim Dinsdale, not Angus.

The story of how Dinsdale became seduced by the allure of the Loch Ness Monster is familiar to those who’ve read his books (Dinsdale 1961, 1975) and those written about him (e.g., Witchell 1975, Binns 1983, 2017, Campbell 1986, Williams 2015). For a level-headed person with a ‘practical’ background as an engineer, it’s remarkable how quickly Dinsdale became essentially convinced by the monster’s reality. This revelation wasn’t achieved after a personal encounter with the beast, nor after he’d spoken to some number of sincere witnesses. No: he read a single article in a popular magazine (Everybody’s magazine), titled ‘The Day I Saw the Loch Ness Monster’ (A. Dinsdale 2013, p. 42).

Dinsdale’s identikit rendition of what the Loch Ness Monster must look like, reconstructed by taking averages from the various eyewitness encounters he’d read. Image: Dinsdale (1960).

Dinsdale’s identikit rendition of what the Loch Ness Monster must look like, reconstructed by taking averages from the various eyewitness encounters he’d read. Image: Dinsdale (1960).

Inspired and excited, he decided that he had to go to Scotland to see the beast for himself, so off he went. Aaaand… immediately saw Nessie! Yes, on the very first day of his arrival at Loch Ness (16th April 1960), Dinsdale thought that he’d seen Nessie. It turned out to be a floating tree trunk (A. Dinsdale 2013, p. 51). On 21st April 1960 (the fourth day of his scheduled expedition at the loch) – shortly after spending time with water bailiff and Nessie oracle Alex Campbell – he again saw, and this time filmed, Nessie: “a churning ring of rough water, centring about what appeared to be two long black shadows, or shapes, rising and falling in the water!” (A. Dinsdale 2013, p. 62). And on the final and sixth day of his expedition (23rd April 1960) he again saw and filmed Nessie, this time procuring the famous Foyers Bay footage, featuring a humped object – Dinsdale likened it to the “back of an African buffalo” – moving across the loch. After obtaining control footage of a boat (albeit at a different time of day, in different lighting conditions, and with a white-hulled boat obviously different from the mahogany ‘monster’), Dinsdale immediately messaged the British Museum, his reasoning being that the leading zoological institution of the country should hear about it first. After having the film developed, he waited, honestly expecting an excited cadre of professional biologists to beat a path to his door. After about seven weeks of silence, he gave up waiting and went to the press, his ultimately successful plan being to have the footage screened on the flagship BBC news programme Panorama.

A screengrab from the approximately 1 minute long Dinsdale film of April 1960. The dark object was thought by Dinsdale to be the mahogany brown, ‘peaked’ back of a massive aquatic animal. Image: (c) Tim Dinsdale.

A screengrab from the approximately 1 minute long Dinsdale film of April 1960. The dark object was thought by Dinsdale to be the mahogany brown, ‘peaked’ back of a massive aquatic animal. Image: (c) Tim Dinsdale.

He brought along a clay monster model he had made, the fact that it had been kitted out with three humps now appearing inconsistent with the monster shown in the footage. Alex Campbell also featured on the same TV show. To Dinsdale’s eyes, the Panorama experience was not merely crucial as goes the promotion of his case, but valuable in the scientific sense since the “increase in definition and contrast” made to the film by the TV people improved its clarity and shed additional information on the appearance of the Loch Ness animal.

A key character in the Loch Ness saga is water bailiff and journalist Alex Campbell. While at Fort Augustus, I got to see his waterside home, Inverawe. It’s the building at far right here. Dinsdale spent time with Campbell immediately before seeing and filming his ‘monster’ of April 1960. Image: Darren Naish.

A key character in the Loch Ness saga is water bailiff and journalist Alex Campbell. While at Fort Augustus, I got to see his waterside home, Inverawe. It’s the building at far right here. Dinsdale spent time with Campbell immediately before seeing and filming his ‘monster’ of April 1960. Image: Darren Naish.

Our view of Dinsdale’s film today is that it isn’t impressive and almost certainly doesn’t depict a monster. There were surely viewers at the time who must have been equally unimpressed and Dinsdale’s view that the scientists and specialists who viewed the film in secrecy displayed nothing but apathy (A. Dinsdale 2013, p. 73) is, of course, a biased take since he simply expected them to agree with his interpretation. The object he filmed was no giant unknown aquatic animal, but a boat (Binns 1983, Campbell 1986, Harmsworth 2010, Naish 2017; and see Dick Raynor’s page on the footage here).

Loch Ness is often a beautiful and serene body of water, but I can’t help feeling that it must seem remote and lonely at times of the year. This photo was taken in the Spring of 2016. Image: Darren Naish.

Loch Ness is often a beautiful and serene body of water, but I can’t help feeling that it must seem remote and lonely at times of the year. This photo was taken in the Spring of 2016. Image: Darren Naish.

Prior to reading this book, my feelings about Tim Dinsdale were tempered by the fact that I thought him odd for abandoning his family for long stretches while engaging in the esoteric pursuit of an alleged mystery beast in a part of the country far from home. Furthermore, my idiosyncrasies mean that I’m automatically jealous or resentful of anyone who gets to engage in an expensive hobby at what appears to be infinite leisure.

Few people seriously interested in the Loch Ness Monster can claim to have spent as much time on, or close to, the waters of the loch as Dinsdale did. But many people familiar with Dinsdale’s writings have sought to follow his footsteps, at least in part. Image: Darren Naish.

Few people seriously interested in the Loch Ness Monster can claim to have spent as much time on, or close to, the waters of the loch as Dinsdale did. But many people familiar with Dinsdale’s writings have sought to follow his footsteps, at least in part. Image: Darren Naish.

It turns out that none of these things are true. Dinsdale’s monster-hunting came at great personal expense and involved some degree of hardship. Furthermore, he deliberately included his family in his monster-hunting expeditions. I particularly liked Angus’s description of the childhood tradition in which he would procure the largest available carrot from the supermarket; this was to accompany his father on an expedition, the plan being that it would be fed to Nessie once she and Angus’s dad had made friends (A. Dinsdale 2013, p. 86). Whatever Dinsdale’s legacy, the lives of his children were surely enriched by their regular trips to Scotland and their involvement in something as unusual as the pursuit of the Loch Ness Monster, though I have to admit that my personal circumstances while reading this book – I was working in China and missing my family – probably influenced my sentimental feelings on this issue.

You’ve probably read that the water of Loch Ness is tea-coloured. This is what it looks like when the bottom is less than 1 m away. Get to a depth of 10 m, and there’s essentially no light and nothing but darkness - at least, as far as the human eye is concerned. Image: Darren Naish.

You’ve probably read that the water of Loch Ness is tea-coloured. This is what it looks like when the bottom is less than 1 m away. Get to a depth of 10 m, and there’s essentially no light and nothing but darkness - at least, as far as the human eye is concerned. Image: Darren Naish.

While monster hunting, Dinsdale occasionally checked the shoreline. He was aware of the land sightings of Nessie and kept in mind the possibility that he might see the beast on land himself. I should mention here that refractory Nessie fan and blogger Roland Watson has recently published an entire book on the subject of land sightings, titled When Monsters Come Ashore. It’s written in extremely large font and in the bombastic and childish style characteristic of True Believers and is surely not a fair continuation of the level-headed and restrained, respectful tone of Dinsdale’s writings. In other words, poor Tim would not be happy with the state of Nessie promotion occurring among those few who might consider themselves his modern disciples.

One of the most interesting sections of the Nessie story concerns the arrival of the Americans and the use of assorted high-end bits of mechanical and photographic kit. While it might have seemed that Dinsdale and other British Nessie-hunters could have been gradually edged out of the quest, Robert Rines and his colleagues were on good terms with Dinsdale and even helped win him a lecture tour of the US, and ultimately to appear on big-hitting TV shows like The David Frost Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (A. Dinsdale 2013).

A Loch Ness scene, fortuitously featuring a waterbird (in this case, a Mute swan  Cygnus olor ) and a boat. Both objects have undoubtedly contributed in no small part to the phenomenon known as the Loch Ness Monster. Image: Darren Naish.

A Loch Ness scene, fortuitously featuring a waterbird (in this case, a Mute swan Cygnus olor) and a boat. Both objects have undoubtedly contributed in no small part to the phenomenon known as the Loch Ness Monster. Image: Darren Naish.

Indeed, Dinsdale’s fame reached its peak during the early and mid 1970s, as did the quest for Nessie in general. The mounting excitement that something was surely there and due to be confirmed – a belief fuelled by all that fancy American technology – inspired the idea that Nessie-like animals might lurk in other, nearby bodies of water. The book recounts Dinsdale’s expedition to Loch Morar, a place very different from Loch Ness but also said to have its own monster, called Morag. The main point of interest here to monster nerds is that the Dinsdales happen to meet a Mrs Parks, sister to one of two men who claimed a close Morag encounter.

Dinsdale was never explicit about the zoological identity he favoured for the Loch Ness Monster, but he clearly favoured the idea that it was a living plesiosaur, albeit one that had undergone a fair amount of change since the end of the Cretaceous. The legend of the late-surviving plesiosaur - reflected in this model, made for a TV show and photographed at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in 2005 - owes something to Dinsdale’s writing. Image: Darren Naish.

Dinsdale was never explicit about the zoological identity he favoured for the Loch Ness Monster, but he clearly favoured the idea that it was a living plesiosaur, albeit one that had undergone a fair amount of change since the end of the Cretaceous. The legend of the late-surviving plesiosaur - reflected in this model, made for a TV show and photographed at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in 2005 - owes something to Dinsdale’s writing. Image: Darren Naish.

The story – recounted in several monster books – is famous because the two men (Duncan McDonell and William Simpson) apparently had to use an oar to fend Morag away from their boat, and so vigorous was the interaction that the oar snapped. The story usually ends there. Another Nessie-themed book, however, explains how the individuals concerned had been poaching deer and were trying to discard an unwanted skin which, despite being filled with stones, refused to sink. Eventually it had to be whacked with an oar, and here we find what is claimed to be the actual explanation for the oar-breaking event (Harmsworth 2010, p. 218).

The ‘two people in a lake come so close to a monster that they have to hit it with an oar’ trope has been taken seriously enough to inspire this re-enactment, this time involving the Lake Storsjö monster of Sweden. The man with the oar is Ragner Björks. Image:   Bord & Bord (1980)  .

The ‘two people in a lake come so close to a monster that they have to hit it with an oar’ trope has been taken seriously enough to inspire this re-enactment, this time involving the Lake Storsjö monster of Sweden. The man with the oar is Ragner Björks. Image: Bord & Bord (1980).

In places, Dinsdale’s story arc is a melancholy one. He wrote of his realisation, years after his initial forays in boats on Loch Ness, that he had become an experienced and confident boatman, his long, quiet stretches involving grey water, and rain. He never was to experience anything again as thrilling as his 1960 filming of the ‘monster’s hump’, nor did this footage receive the accolade he hoped it would. The decline and demise of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau during the early 1970s marked “the end of an era” (A. Dinsdale 2013, p. 200), and even the 1975 scientific symposium – the high water mark of Nessie’s scientific respectability, convened to discuss the sonar traces and photos obtained by Rines and his colleagues – was regarded as a disappointment (A. Dinsdale 2013, p. 217). As scientific interest in Nessie waned during the 1980s, Dinsdale complained in 1987 that scepticism had taken over, that “Nessie in the 80s has, if anything, been going backwards” (Williams 2015, p. 202). A planned sequel to 1975’s Project Water Horse, intriguingly titled Loch Ness and the Water Unicorn, and said in the 1982 edition of Loch Ness Monster to be partly written, never appeared in print (Binns 2019).

Scientific interest in Nessie might have waned during the 1980s, but this was the decade that gave us this fantastic book cover. You might doubt that encounters as close and thrilling as this ever occurred. It belongs to the sixth edition of this book, published in 1982.

Scientific interest in Nessie might have waned during the 1980s, but this was the decade that gave us this fantastic book cover. You might doubt that encounters as close and thrilling as this ever occurred. It belongs to the sixth edition of this book, published in 1982.

Some authors, especially those championing the Loch Ness Monster’s existence, have framed Tim Dinsdale as the most brilliant, wise and relevant authority on the Loch Ness Monster (pro-Nessie author Henry Bauer is an example). It’s easy to be convinced from Dinsdale’s writings, and his son’s, that he was indeed sincere, honest, and trying as best he might to stir scientific and mainstream interest in something that he regarded as unquestionably real. And his underlying methodology was scientific. But he seemed never to grasp why the official response was one of apparent disinterest and apathy. It wasn’t down to “stubbornness … indifference … [and] arrogance” (A. Dinsdale 2013, p. 232), but to the fact that the evidence just wasn’t good enough, and that there never was a good reason to believe in a monster. That Dinsdale became almost fixated on the monster’s existence after reading a single popular magazine article does not – I have to say it, forgive me – seem consistent with someone who might be deemed wise, level-headed and of the most sceptical, rational approach.

The Peter O’Connor photo of 1960 - this is a low-res, cropped version - has appeared several times at TetZoo over the years and is almost certainly a hoax, most likely an overturned kayak and a model head and neck (  Naish 2017  ). Dinsdale included it in early editions of his book  Loch Ness Monster  but it - and any accompanying prose devoted by Mr O’Connor - is absent from the fourth edition and those that appeared afterwards. Image (c) Peter O’Connor.

The Peter O’Connor photo of 1960 - this is a low-res, cropped version - has appeared several times at TetZoo over the years and is almost certainly a hoax, most likely an overturned kayak and a model head and neck (Naish 2017). Dinsdale included it in early editions of his book Loch Ness Monster but it - and any accompanying prose devoted by Mr O’Connor - is absent from the fourth edition and those that appeared afterwards. Image (c) Peter O’Connor.

On that note, and while it again shames me to say it, I’m impressed – if that’s the right word – by Dinsdale’s naivety when we look at specific parts of his Loch Ness experience. Take his interaction with Tony Shiels, the self-proclaimed Wizard of the Western World. In 1977 Shiels claimed to capture on film the most remarkable colour photos of Nessie ever taken, an object affectionately known today as the Loch Ness Muppet. Any familiarity with Shiels and his adventures quickly reveals that he has, and seemingly always has had, a tongue-in-cheek, jovial take on monsters and how they might be seen. They’re not really meant to be undiscovered animals lurking in remote places, but interactive pieces of quasi-surreal art akin to open-air theatre, the ensuing cultural response in literature and news being as much a part of the event, if not more, as the claimed sighting and photo. While I undoubtedly write with the benefit of hindsight (and, dare I say it, some quantity of insider information), Dinsdale was seemingly unable to perceive this. And thus the muppet photo appears – as a legit image of the Loch Ness animal – on the cover of the fourth edition of Dinsdale’s The Loch Ness Monster, a decision that speaks volumes.

The infamous 1977 Shiels muppet photo. Exactly what it depicts (a plasticine model superimposed on a scene showing water? A floating model posed in the loch?) remains uncertain. Image: (c) Tony Shiels.

The infamous 1977 Shiels muppet photo. Exactly what it depicts (a plasticine model superimposed on a scene showing water? A floating model posed in the loch?) remains uncertain. Image: (c) Tony Shiels.

The Man Who Filmed Nessie: Tim Dinsdale and the Enigma of Loch Ness is an essential read for those seriously interested in the history of monster searching and the people who engage in it. The book has very high production values and impressive design and editorial standards, and includes an excellent colour plate section. I enjoyed reading it and think that Angus Dinsdale has produced a book that his late father would have been proud of, and moved by. Many interesting people have contributed to the lore of the Loch Ness Monster, and Dinsdale was without doubt one of the most important and influential. I leave you to judge whether this was time wasted, or a life enriched and made remarkable.

Dinsdale, A. 2013. The Man Who Filmed Nessie: Tim Dinsdale and the Enigma of Loch Ness. Hancock House, Surrey, BC Canada. pp. 256. ISBN 978-0-88839-727-0. Softback, refs, index. Here at amazon. Here at amazon.co.uk.

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!

Nessie and related issues have been covered on TetZoo a fair bit before, though many of the older images now lack ALL of the many images they originally included…

Refs - -

Binns, R. 1983. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved. Open Books, London.

Binns, R. 2017. The Loch Ness Mystery Reloaded. Zoilus Press.

Binns, R. 2019. Decline and Fall of the Loch Ness Monster. Zoilus Press.

Bord, J. & Bord, C. 1980. Alien Animals. Granada, London.

Campbell, S. 1986. The Loch Ness Monster: the Evidence. The Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, UK.

Dinsdale, A. 2013. The Man Who Filmed Nessie: Tim Dinsdale and the Enigma of Loch Ness. Hancock House, Surrey, BC Canada.

Dinsdale, T. 1961. Loch Ness Monster. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Dinsdale, T. 1966. The Leviathans. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Dinsdale, T. 1973. The Story of the Loch Ness Monster. Target, London.

Dinsdale, T. 1975. Project Water Horse: the True Story of the Monster Quest at Loch Ness. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Dinsdale, T. 1977. The Facts About Loch Ness and the Monster. John Barthlomew & Sons, Edinburgh.

Harmsworth, T. 2010. Loch Ness, Nessie and Me. Harmsworth.net, Drumnadrochit.

Naish, D. 2017. Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. Arcturus, London.

Williams, G. 2015. A Monstrous Commotion: the Mysteries of Loch Ness. Orion Books, London.

Witchell, N. 1975. The Loch Ness Story. Penguins Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.