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Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Dinosauroids revisited, revisited

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Regular readers of Tet Zoo - especially those who have been following things since ver 1 of 2006 - will recognise hypothetical ‘smart dinosaurs’ as a sort of Tet Zoo meme that have been visited again, again, and again.

Much has happened since things started in 2006, and in fact I’ve since published a popular article on the subject (Naish 2008), as has Jeff Hecht (Hecht 2007). For starters, Cevdet Kosemen’s alternative smart dinosaur – the hypothetical big-brained maniraptoran Avisapiens – has become the centre of its very own alternative, speculative culture and even its own world, populated by other maniraptoran species and even by members of wholly distinct dinosaurian and non-dinosaurian lineages.

A scene from 'Dinosapien' (yeah, yeah: should really be 'Dinosapient' or such), showing Eno and Lauren (= Brittney Wilson). Yikes, so scaly! From IMDB.

Then there’s the whole 2007 BBC Horizon debacle (no, I still haven’t seen this episode) whereby Simon Conway-Morris explained how smart, humanoid dinosaurs would have been a sort of evolutionary inevitability, and might have evolved alongside humans and even co-operated with them. There’s the 2007 children’s TV series Dinosapien: it featured a big-brained dromaeosaurid called Eno and peculiar, big-brained, semi-bipedal ankylosaurs, all living in the woods of modern-day Canada. Greg Paul was involved in the design of the creatures, and I think it can be assumed that the people behind the series were very much aware of the ‘smart dinosaur’ literature. 2009 saw Richard Dawkins’s ‘coming out’ in apparent support of Russellian dinosauroids while Brian Switek, in his 2010 book Written in Stone: the Hidden Secrets of Fossils and the Story of Life on Earth, described how belief in the ‘inevitability’ of a humanoid dinosaur betrays belief in the idea “that the emergence of Homo sapiens ... [is] woven into the very fabric of the universe itself” (Switek 2010, p. 268). Finally, substantial interest in the intellectual abilities of real-world maniraptorans resulted in John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s excellent 2012 book Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans. I’m still reading that book and will be reviewing it here in due time. Anyway, crippled by an inability to produce anything new for Tet Zoo, I here offer this old, old Tet Zoo classic, from way, way back in 2006…

Real-world smart dinosaurs: Gifts of the Crow. I love this book.

Pretty much everyone interested in dinosaurs, in the history of life, or in such matters as the evolution of intelligence and/or brain size, will be familiar with the various speculations on ‘humanoid dinosaurs’ that have made their way into the literature. During the 1970s it became widely accepted that one group of Cretaceous theropods – the troodontids (known at the time as saurornithoidids) – were relatively big-brained, with encephalisation quotients overlapping those of modern birds and mammals. In reality, troodontids might therefore have been as ‘smart’ as bustards, emus or opossums. The notion that these dinosaurs were ‘big brained’ and therefore ‘intelligent’ seems to have given rise to a myth, however: that these were really smart dinosaurs, approaching the anthropoid level in terms of their ability to solve problems and understand the world around them. At least one book on earth mysteries and the paranormal states that some dinosaurs were “probably as intelligent as primitive man” – a quote almost certainly based on studies of troodontids. In Jurassic Park (the book), the dromaeosaurids are said to be intellectually on par with chimpanzees.

Inspired by new data on troodontid brain size, Carl Sagan speculated about intelligent dinosaurs in The Dragons of Eden (1977) and posed the question: what if non-avialan dinosaurs hadn’t become extinct? If Cretaceous forms were already so ‘smart’, what would have happened given another 60-odd million years of evolution? His question seems to have inspired a number of science fiction stories that appeared soon afterwards. Among the most important data on troodontid brain size was that published by Dale Russell, then of the National Museum of Natural Sciences (Ottawa), and besides publishing several key studies on troodontid anatomy and functional morphology, in 1982 he did a rather peculiar thing. Co-operating with taxidermist and model maker Ron Séguin, he produced the article ‘Reconstruction of the small Cretaceous theropod Stenonychosaurus inequalis and a hypothetical dinosauroid’.

While part of the article discussed how a life-sized model Stenonychosaurus (presently regarded as a junior synonym of Troodon) was reconstructed and made, the rest was devoted to a thought experiment in which Russell & Séguin (1982) reconstructed a hypothetical ‘evolved’ troodontid that had reached an encephalisation quotient similar to that of humans. Most of us are familiar with the look of the finished product, dubbed the dinosauroid, but some of the decisions Russell & Séguin (1982) made in creating the creature have not been mentioned or discussed outside of their paper.

Troodontids and other non-avialan maniraptoran theropods were fully feathered and wholly bird-like. This reconstruction, by the excellent Emily Willoughby, shows a foraging pair of the small Chinese troodontid Mei long. Used with permission.

Dinosauroid skull, from Russell & Seguin (1982). A small antorbital fenestra is still present: not entirely clear what's going on posterior to the postorbital bar, but I think that the opening there is for the ear, since they state in the text that the laterotemporal opening has become closed.

They reasoned that an enlarged brain would result in a shortened facial region, and they used the cranial proportions of a chick embryo as a guide (Russell & Séguin 1982). Based on the idea that troodontids had a reduced dentition compared to other theropods, and on the notion that big-brained primates have a reduced dentition compared to smaller-brained forms, they made the dinosauroid toothless. They further argued that a big-brained head would need to be supported directly over the body, and that a short neck and vertical human-like posture would evolve (Russell & Séguin 1982).

The vertical posture meant goodbye to the tail (reduced to a stump in the dinosauroid), and the need to give birth to big-headed babies led them to imagine a broad, human-like pelvis (Russell & Séguin 1982). Dinosauroids were imagined to be viviparous, so the model is equipped with a navel. Because human legs obviously work well for humans, Russell & Séguin (1982) proposed that human-like legs would also work for a human-like dinosauroid, and they gave the creature plantigrade feet. Interestingly, they used tree kangaroos as a model, and the feet of the dinosauroid are not tridactyl and clawed as usually shown in drawings, but four-toed, with nails rather than claws, and with the two medial toes smaller than the lateral ones.

All in all, the dinosauroid is disturbingly human-like and, I think, too human-like. While Russell & Séguin (1982) made efforts to justify their chain of logic, they may as well have looked at life restorations of hominids, and just ‘reptilised’ them a bit. Essentially the message is that the human body plan is the ‘best’ body plan for a big-brained tetrapod. But Russell & Séguin (1982) knew that they would be accused of this, and they ended their discussion by wondering if they had been directed by bias, or if the humanoid shape really would crop up convergently, as do so many other body shapes. Are they wrong, and would things have been different? Well, the last line of their article is: “We invite our colleagues to identify alternate solutions” (p. 36).

Who brought the concept of 'smart troodontids' to the mainstream? Even before Dragons of Eden and the debut of the dinosauroid, we have Adrian Desmond (in his 1975 The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs) presenting this ugly, dragonesque troodontid as possessing "avian intelligence, stereo vision and manipulative fingers".

Understandably, the unveiling of the dinosauroid model in 1981 resulted in a huge media furore, with Dale Russell in the middle. Some people liked it, others hated it. Today it seems well-known, but I don’t think many people really understand what the point of it was. This isn’t helped by the fact that tabloid newspapers have often used images of it in stories about reptilian aliens or lizard-men, or whatever. Most amusing are those cases where the dinosauroid was completely misunderstood, as is the case in the obscure little book Dinosaur Mysteries (O’Neill 1989). Accompanying some illustrations of Dale Russell, and both Russell and Séguin’s troodontid and dinosauroid models, O’Neill’s text stated…

In 1969, a scientist named Dale Russell found some bones of a small, meat-eating dinosaur called Stenonychosaurus … This dinosaur’s skull showed that it had been small, but with a large skull. The skull also showed that Stenonychosaurus’s eyesight worked like ours. Stenonychosaurus also had hands that resembled humans’. It had thumbs that could be turned inwards to grasp things. This is unusual among animals.

Russell put together a startling model of Stenonychosaurus. He showed it standing upright, like a human. The model was 1.2 (4 ft) tall and weighed about 40 kilograms (90 lb). Russell called this human-like model a “dinosauroid”. People were amazed by this dinosaur which seemed so advanced for its time (p. 24).

John Sibbick's dinosauroid, from David Norman's 1985 Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs.

I told all of this to Adrienne Mayor while she was researching the dinosauroid for inclusion in her The First Fossil Hunters (2000). She regarded the dinosauroid as an interesting palaeontological fiction echoing the tritons and satyrs made in ancient Greece, and noted that - like tritons and satyrs - the dinosauroid is deemed realistic enough by some for it to be misidentified as real, hence O’Neill’s mistake.

The reactions that palaeontologists have had to the dinosauroid have been mixed. Some have been fairly positive about it. David Norman (1985) considered the dinosauroid in a favourable light, concluding that “Such an idea is an obviously fanciful, though provocative thought” (p. 55). On the same page, an illustration of the dinosauroid by John Sibbick (which looks a bit scarier than the Russell and Séguin model, and also differs from it in foot anatomy) is accompanied by a caption that is even more favourable. After listing the morphological changes required to turn a Cretaceous troodontid into a dinosauroid, it ends by stating that “given the right conditions, such changes would be quite feasible”. ‘Feasible’? Note that the captions in the book were not written by Norman, so he shouldn’t get the blame for that (I will refrain from saying who did write the captions... a noted British palaeontologist with the initials MJB).

Emma Norman inside Peter Minister's dinosauroid suit, from David Norman's 1991 Dinosaur!

Another of David Norman’s books, the 1991 Dinosaur!, discusses the use of a real, live dinosauroid in the Granada television TV series that the book was written to accompany (Norman 1991). Played by a person in a suit* (obviously), the dinosauroid from Dinosaur! had a more reptilian look to it than Russell and Séguin’s model: it had far scalier-looking skin, snake-like ventral scales, and a vivid green and red colour scheme. The series concluded with the dinosauroid acting as narrator. Another positive interpretation of the dinosauroid came from Cristiano Dal Sasso (2004) in his Dinosaurs of Italy. He seems to have accepted Russell & Séguin’s (1982) idea as if it were universally agreed as likely, which it isn’t.

* 2012 UPDATE: Emma Norman was that person, and I’ve only just noticed that the suit itself was constructed by my friend Peter Minister. I’ve worked with Peter on several book projects over the past few years and had no idea he previously made dinosauroid suits.

One of my favourite pictures of the dinosauroid. It appeared online in 2008, I think at Mike Ryan's blog. The tie is decorated with Zeta Reticulans.

Other palaeontologists have been negative, however. At least one reviewer of Russell & Séguin (1982) wrote that “I do not see much value in the extremely speculative ‘dinosauroid’ discussion” (Russell 1987, p. 127). In Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, Greg Paul (1988) found the dinosauroid to be “suspiciously human”, and he argued that – were theropods to evolve big brains and ‘intelligence’ – we should instead expect them to retain horizontal bodies and long tails. Theropod expert Tom Holtz has stated much the same, and so far as I can tell from discussion, most dinosaur workers feel this way too.

There really isn’t any reason to think that big-brained dinosaurs would have evolved in the first place (recall that even ‘big-brained’ Troodon was, at best, on par with ostriches and opossums). Even if they had, there is also no reason to think that they would have ended up looking like scaly people... or feathery people, given that we now know that troodontids were feathered. On the subject of feathery troodontids, look at the excellent colour illustration of a foraging Mei long pair by Emily Willoughby, shown above, and the brooding Troodon below, by Jason Brougham. As a researcher and writer who specialises on dinosaurs, I still encounter resistance to the idea that maniraptorans like troodontids were fully feathered and bird-like. It is obvious that the people doing this resisting have somehow managed to stay several decades behind advances in human knowledge.

Troodon on its egg-filled nest, by Jason Brougham. Used with permission.

The reason that we humans have the body shape that we do is not – I think – because it’s the ‘best’ body shape for a smart, big-brained biped to have, it is instead the result of our specific lineage’s evolutionary history. Given that, so far as we know, the humanoid body shape has evolved just once, we simply have no way of knowing whether it’s a particularly ‘good’ morphology or not. Furthermore, the humanoid body shape is not a prerequisite for the evolution of big brains given that brains proportionally as big as, or bigger than, those of hominids are found in some birds and fish (that's right: humans do NOT have the proportionally biggest brains).

Darren Naish interacts with Southern ground hornbill.

With this in mind, my feeling on dinosauroids and intelligent theropods and so on is that – if they were to evolve – they wouldn’t look like scaly, or feathery, people, but would instead be far more normal from the theropod point of view. A horizontal body posture, not a vertical one. Digitigrade feet, not plantigrade ones. A long tail, not a reduced one. The main theme here might be familiar to regular blog readers given that I’ve covered much of this before in articles on ground hornbills. While they aren’t particularly big-brained, ground hornbills can be regarded as avian pseudo-hominids, their evolution paralleling our own in several respects. The concluding paragraph of a ground hornbill article I wrote in 2006 was…

No, post-Cretaceous maniraptorans wouldn’t end up looking like scaly tridactyl plantigrade humanoids with erect tailless bodies. They would be decked out with feathers and brightly coloured skin ornaments; have nice normal horizontal bodies and digitigrade feet; long, hard, powerful jaws; stride around on the savannah kicking the shit out of little mammals; and in the evenings they would stand together in the trees, booming out a duet of du du du-du, a deep noise that would reverberate for miles around.

And here we come to the whole reason for the appearance of this post. Inspired by what I wrote I guess, the unique Cevdet Kosemen has come up with a new dinosauroid, and it is, I am pleased to say, a million miles away from scaly green humanoids. Dubbed Avisapiens saurotheos, it is of clear dinosaurian ancestry, and I like it. Thanks, Cevdet: awesome stuff!

UPDATE: if you like speculative zoology, you really might want to check out the All Yesterdays book launch, happening in London on December 7th. More on that subject here soon.

Refs - -

Hecht, J. 2007. Smartasaurus. Cosmos 15, 40-41.

Mayor, A. 2000. The First Fossil Hunters. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Naish, D. 2008. Intelligent dinosaurs. Fortean Times 239, 52-53.

Norman, D. B. 1985. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs. Salamander Books, London.

- . 1991. Dinosaur! Boxtree, London.

O’Neill, M. 1989. Dinosaur Mysteries. Hamlyn, London.

Russell, D. A. 1987. Models and paintings of North American dinosaurs. In Czerkas, S. J. & Olson, E. C. (eds) Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume I. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press (Seattle and Washington), pp. 114-131.

- . & Séguin, R. 1982. Reconstruction of the small Cretaceous theropod Stenonychosaurus inequalis and a hypothetical dinosauroid. Syllogeus 37, 1-43.

Switek, B. 2010. Written in Stone: the Hidden Secrets of Fossils and the Story of Life on Earth. Bellevue Literary Press, New York.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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