Tuesday, December 25, 2007
This is Unacceptable
That's a pretty cool looking oviraptorosaur, right? That's Hagryphus giganteus, an animal first published in 2005 in JVP, and restored above, by the good Michael Skrepnick. That's the picture that accompanied a minor flood of news items at the time, anyway. It looks a bit like Citipati, with emphasis on the head, hands, and tail. In fact, I'd hazard to guess that really is Citipati. Sadly though, Hagryphus is a far different animal. How different? Well, aside from size, it's hard to say. Why?
Because this hand, and some scraps from the foot, are all that paleontologists have of Hagryphus. Now, by itself, Hagryphus is a very interesting beastie. It is from Utah, and it's 30-40% larger than the largest specimen of Chirostenotes. The range of oviraptorosaurs doubled in North America with Hagryphus' discovery. The bones of the hand are also proportionately thicker and larger, which isn't surprising given the probable larger size of Hagryphus.
Remember a few posts back when I was rambling about how I can't stand it when paleoartists restore animals known from scrappy remains (Masiakosaurus)? This incident may be the worst case I've ever seen. You cannot generalize an oviraptorosaur. Citipati is actually a fairly unique genus, and it may be what we used to call Oviraptor! Here are just a few reasons why Mr. Skrepnick's beautiful picture may not be attributable to Hagryphus:
1) Not all oviraptorosaurs had crests. In fact, only a few Asian taxa did.
2) There are significant proportional differences between Asian (Oviraptoridae) and North American (Caegnathidae) oviraptorosaurs. Citipati is a good representative of the former, but Caegnathus or Chirostenotes are more typical of the latter.
3) Based on their horrible record of preservation, caegnathids are difficult to restore with good confidence. Citipati is known from excellent remains (even embryos!). Chirostenotes...not so much.
So I truly question assigning Mr. Skrepnick's Citipati to Hagryphus, given its extemely fragmentary remains. I think it's a tough call whether to put a crest on Gigantoraptor or not (as the skull was not found). How should I illustrate an animal based solely on a hand and bits of the foot? I shouldn't, and here's why.
The public takes dinosaurs in visually, as do we all. You can spout out a bunch of words Joe Shmo won't understand as to why this new dinosaur is awesome, but you know what they say: a picture is worth a thousand words. That's why Sereno's Nigersaurus press release was accompanied by a beautiful picture. But Sereno has a complete skull and like 95% of the skeleton. For Nigersaurus, the lack of a good illustration would be idiotic. At least for me, if I cannot draw an animal, I don't know what it looks like. At least give me a skeletal restoration! That's what I'm going to base my drawings off of anyway! In this case, the worst offenders are Coria & Currie, who handily forgot to include kind of skeletal restoration in their 40-odd-page description of Mapusaurus roseae, even though virtually every bone was accounted for.
However, giving the public a picture of a complete animal that's known only from scraps is insulting, and it skews the public perception of the paleontology and science behind a discovery. I don't think that Hagryphus really deserved a press release, honestly, because aside from extending the known range of North American oviraptorosaurs, it's not that exciting. But in an age where press release = publicity = funding, I'm sorry to say that every minor find has to be treated like it's the next Microraptor gui.
I'd appreciate it if my readers chimed in on this issue. Do you think that even fragmentary finds warrent a complete illustration? Does doing so injure or help public perception of paleontology? Am I totally missing the boat on Hagryphus' significance? Let me know!
Clark, J. M., Norell, M. A. & Rowe, T. (2002). Cranial anatomy of Citipati osmolskae (Theropoda, Oviraptorosauria), and a reinterpretation of of the holotype of Oviraptor philoceratops. American Museum Novitates 3364.
Coria, R. A. & Currie, P. J. (2006). A new carcharodontosaurid (Dinosauria, Theropoda) from the Upper Cretaceous of Argentina. Geodiversitas 28(1): 71-118.
Zanno, L. E. & Sampson, S. D. (2005). A new oviraptorosaur (Theropoda, Maniraptora) from the Late Cretaceous (Campanian) of Utah. JVP 25(4): 897-904.