PZ put up a YouTube video on Pharyngula today that is absolutely amazing; some behind-the-scenes footage from the Walking With Dinosaurs Live show! Unfortunately it looks like it’s only scheduled in Australia at the moment, but hopefully it’ll make it to the Meadowlands or Madison Square Garden in the not-too-distant future. Have a look for yourself;
As anyone who’s seen ALIENS, John Carpenter’s The Thing, or even the Jurassic Park series, puppets usually look a lot better than CGI creatures; I really don’t know why so much time and money is spent on badly-rendered CGI creatures (see Deep Blue Sea, for example) when puppets look and act like the real thing. The “Utahraptors” need a little work, but the other dinosaurs (especially the ceratopsian) look absolutely lifelike, almost making me forget how much I didn’t like the BBC documentary series the live show is based on. Sure, I’ll watch anything with dinosaurs in it, but the quality of the CGI and puppets in the series(s) (including all the Nigel Marvin spin-offs) wasn’t that impressive and I didn’t care for the format at all. I would have much rather seen the fossils themselves, interviews with experts, and good reconstructions rathat then fanciful storylines steeped in speculation (and even outright incorrect information). This isn’t to say that speculation isn’t allowed (we’re dealing with the fossil record, after all) but it should be put in context and not presented as outright fact, not only so that science can be presented respecibly but also to prevent creationists rushing in and bastardizing the attempt of the show to reflect a part of earth’s natural history.
I also found something interesting over in the comments of the Pharyngula post; paleontologist Thomas R. Holtz, considered one of the leading experts on Tyrannosaurid systematics (he wrote the chapter specifically about the family for the indispensible tome The Dinosauria) decided to chime in on some of the WWD inaccuracies. From his comment:
They are truly putting on a magnificent production. But sadly, they are doing “the stage version of Walking with Dinosaurs 1999”, rather than “an updated live action dinosaur show.” Hence some of the errors that were there in the original documentary are being repeated. Some of these errors–the lack of feathers on the dromaeosaurids, for instance–were due to limitations of the CGI at the time.
I was somewhat perplexed by this statement, knowing that it’s indeed fashionable to depict dromeosaurid (“raptors” for the non-paleontological folk) with feathers on, but I was not aware that feathers were considered ubiquitous within the family. Hence, I reached over and cracked open my 2nd edition (2004, so it’s a little dated) copy of The Dinosauria to the chapter on the Dromeosauridae by Norell and Makovicky. Indeed, while there are certainly members of the Aviale that have been found with feathers, the only dromeosaurids Norell and Makovicky describe as having “integument” are Sinornithosaurus millenii and an as-then unnamed dromeosaurid from the Jiofotang Formation (now known as Cryptovolans pauli according to the Wikipedia entry). Although Sinornithosaurus seems to be more ancestral to other dromeosaurids like Deinonychus, Velociraptor, Utahraptor, etc. I don’t feel quite comfortable asserting that all of these more derived dinosaurs must have had feathers by association. Indeed, while Deinonychus, Utahraptor, and Sinornithosaurus were all Early-Cretaceous dromeosaurs, Velociraptor lived during the late Cretaceous, leaving plenty of time to either lose the feathery structures or enhance them. Even among the dromeosaurids that seemed to live around the same time, they may be separated by millions of years, plenty of time to lose a trait such as feathery integument (or, again, derive it even further). The taphonomy involved makes the determination of which dromeosaurids had feathers problematic, being that feathers do not often preserve unless exceptional preservation occurs such as in various locales in China.
It is also important to note that although dromeosaurids may be more “derived” in their characteristcs when related to modern birds than Archaeopteryx, birds were present alongside the dromeosaurs, whatever derivation or evolution leading to actual birds capable of flight having already occurred by time Sinornithosaurus arrived on the scene. Gansus, Yanornis, members of the Enantiornithes, and Confuciusornis (I’m n ot including Protoavis since it’s affinities are still mysterious) were all present in the Early Cretaceous alongside dromeosaurs, suggesting to me that if we are to find the origin of flight we are going to have to find it in the Mid-Late Jurassic, perhaps in Asia somewhere. The point of this seemingly off-tangent observation is that some dromeosaurs had feathers, but said feathers could have been easily lost between the Early Cretaceous and the End-Cretaceous extinction event. Hell, by the Late Cretaceous there were some toothed birds, like Hesperornis that had essentially lost their wings, making the loss of basal, “integument”-like feathers seeming like a small step by comparison. Perhaps in some instances having such feathers could be maladaptive, or even neutral (thus not being a loss if they disappeared as a result of mutation or even sexual selection). Then again, feathers on dromeosaurids could have served physiological and behavioral purposes that we will never be privy to, perhaps being a trademark of the group. My point is this; among the dromeosaurids we have two that are known to have feathers (or at least feather-like coverings) and depicting those dinosaurs as feathered is just. However, saying that all dromeosaurids had feathers merely because one less-derived member had them is nothing but speculation and certainly can’t be regarded as a “fact,” only being an argument from inference and not from actual observation.
I love dinosaurs as much (if not more) than the next guy, but I often get pissed off at the rampant, seemingly unrestricted speculation that occurs and is allowed into the realm of “scientific observation.” While fossils do tell us a lot, there are some things we will never know, so it would be responsible to be honest about assumptions & inferences when talking about the reconstructions (mental or otherwise) of a long-extinct animal. When some dinosaurs were first found to have feathers, feather-mania struck the reconstruction crowd, every theropod (and even some ornithiscian) dinosaur sporting a striking feather pattern. They may very well have had these colors and feathers, but how do we know? I’m not trying to limit imaginations, but some academic honesty isn’t too much to ask. Sure, everyone’s got their pet hypotheses and images of dinosaurs (need I go into the Tyrannosaurus scavenger vs hunter debate?) and the idea of feathered, bird-like dromeosaurids hunting in packs is alluring, but sometimes I feel that the myth has overcome fact, every dromeosaurd being a starkly colored gregarious pack hunter, intelligently stalking prey. Could is be some of these animals were loners, going after mammals that were scurrying through the night? Perhaps; no one knows. Either way, they are not less real and no less frightening, and I hope that over time the truths about dinosaurs will overcome their fantastic mythology.