Tuesday, December 25, 2007

This is Unacceptable

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
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.


Matt said...

Excellent post, Zach, and I'm also interested to hear what others have to say about reconstructing/restoring incompletely known animals.

My own views on the topic are somewhat more open. I tend to think that life restorations are worth doing even with incomplete remains and a near certain chance of inaccuracy.

This is, in part, because there is no "completely known" in the fossil (or living, for that matter) record, and any line drawn between complete and incomplete would be arbitrary and imperfect.

To me, it's less important that the viewers/readers see exactly what the animal looked like than that they see as much as it's possible to know about what the animal looked like.

Provided you have an understanding of what an oviraptorosaur is and have seen at least one oviraptorosaur restoration, the phrase "Hagryphus is a new type of big oviraptorosaur" allows you to conjure up a rough mental picture of Hagryphus in life.

A life restoration is the best tool there is for translating that mental picture into an actual picture that (hopefully) can impress a wider audience unfamiliar with oviraptorosaurs. It may not be a perfect restoration of Hagryphus, but it's as much as anyone knows.

If the restoration is presented as a specific animal, ideally it should reflect what is known about the animal, and portray the unknown in a way that is biologically plausible. Not necessarily conservative, but plausible.

The Hagryphus restoration appears on Michael Skrepnick's website as Nomingia, so I'd guess that it was reused or co-opted as a generalized oviraptor for the Hagryphus stories. If that's the case, it seems to be more of an issue of presentation than of restoration. Perhaps a caption explaining that "Hagryphus was an oviraptorosaur like the Nomingia/Citipati pictured here," would have been better.

Jerry said...

Do you think that even fragmentary finds warrent a complete illustration? Does doing so injure or help public perception of paleontology?

For the sake of generating press, I don't have a problem with it. Keep in mind that many of the people making these discoveries and/or describing them are also (in addition to their research and/or teaching gigs) charged with bringing attention and noteriety to their institutions. (In some cases, this is such an important job component that it is part of whether or not one gets tenure.) Particularly where museums are involved, press often translates into revenue (by bringing in people who read about a find into the museum), which is what is required to keep the museum in business! In order to have a new discovery, particularly a fragmentary one, get a good deal of widespread press, yes, an illustration will have to be part of it. Sometimes an illustration of the fossil will do, but if it's a foreign enough organism, then a life restoration is warranted to not only get the point of the discovery across, but also draw attention to the article (in whatever medium). A recent example: Indohyus. If they had just said it was a raoellid artiodactyl, and put in pictures of a few bones, most people would have no idea what the hell kind of organism it was. Carl Buell's picture, on the other hand, either by itself or accompanying pictures of the bones, makes it a lot clearer what "raoellid artiodactyl" means. Granted, Indohyus wasn't fragmentary, but the point is the same. To most people, saying Hagryphus was an "oviraptorosaurian theropod" wouldn't mean anything; even if it was explained that "theropod" meant "meat-eating dinosaur," then people would look at the picture of the hand bones and think something along the lines of Tyrannosaurus, which obviously would be something very different than what the animal was. It would take a fair amount of text to explain what an oviraptorosaur is, and that's not the kind of thing that the media is interested in publishing anyway, so rather than risk having the whole press release ignored because it's too technical, it's easier to just stick in a representative illustration to take the place of that text, and devote the text instead to the catchy and important stuff.

Now, there have been instances where someone has reconstructed a poorly-known (or poorly-described) taxon and then proceeded to make new conclusions about that taxon based on what turned out later to be an erroneous hypothesis, and in such cases, I agree that it's not a good idea.

A bigger pet peeve (for me, at least) is when there are perfectly good references and specimens out there, and people (generally non-paleontologists) can't be bothered to even look at them in order to restore the animals correctly, let alone ask a paleontologist for some advice! (I'm looking at you, Hollywood!)

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.

But keep in mind that the details of the find that are interesting to paleontologists are generally not the things that will be of interest to the public. Given how undereducated the majority of the public are, they will never notice these kinds of details. I'm willing to bet that, except for the head (and maybe some details of tail length), the rest of the body in the picture used to illustrate Hagryphus would be fine and dandy, so really, the picture is almost entirely accurate. I agree that the head will probably not look quite like that, but so what? Trust me, I get as annoyed as the next paleontologist when I see dinosaurs presented to the public that aren't accurate in this or another detail, and yes, it's especially annoying when it's an attempt at a scientific restoration (versus, for example, Barney or some crappy, cheesy attempt at making a goofy dinosaur for kids' bedsheets), but remember that presenting a 100% accurate restoration of the animal wasn't the point of having the picture with the press release. The point was to bring attention to the article, the researchers, and the institution that has the specimen.

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.

OK, then who should be the arbiter of what deserves a press release and what doesn't? What criteria should they use? If a specimen/find can't be hyped, why should its discoverers/describers be funded?

Am I totally missing the boat on Hagryphus' significance?

No, I don't think so -- I agree that it's not an Earth-shattering discovery that's going to overturn paradigms and rewrite textbooks, but it's a cool animal, and one not seen before in Utah (where the press was, of course, centered). The importance of it to the public is very different from its importance to you and me, and the purpose of a press release isn't necessarily to say "We have discovered exactly what this animal looked like" (which, as Matt said above, can't really be claimed for any fossil organism!).

Scott said...

"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 disagree; if anything, a reconstruction clarifies far more than it obscures, as has been mentioned. It's not as if the artist is deliberately trying to mislead or has an axe to grind: reconstructions often must allow analogues to fill gaps in what is known, otherwise you have no image, and no means of connecting a general audience with your research.

Photography of fossils are often meaningless to outsiders to paleontology (presence counts for rather more, though); for e.g., the number of tentacles Ammonites may have had is irrelevant in its reconstruction. What is relevant is that people see the Ammonite as more closely related to squids than to slugs.

Insisting on a particular (arbirary) resolution for a reconstruction leaves you less to go on than you might think. Say you're planning a scene. Do you set the picture in day or night? Does fossil evidence tell us whether our animal is diurnal or nocturnal? What about plants or the landscape? How can you be sure the mountains would have appeared in a partiuclar way? Artists are keen to fill in blank spaces on a canvas, and it is an opportunity to present life as it is largely known; gaps will exist, yes, but to leave them blank then leaves precious little left over to paint. You may as well stay home.

But then what would the point in omitting the exercise altogether be?

Brad said...

A couple of things-

The illustration by Skrepnick was originally published in Barsbold et al., 2000, "A pygostyle from a non-avian theropod," Nature 403: 155-156, which describes the specimen later named Nomingia. But since we don't have any cranial material of Nomingia, you may be right that it is based mainly on Citipati.

There is no evidence that any North American caenagnathid lacked a crest, and at least one famous but unpublished skeleton does appear to have a crest- look up the "Triebold caenagnathid", and you'll find some images of it.

I wonder if any of the crestless oviraptorids from Asia could turn out to be juveniles of crested species, like the domeless pachycephalosaurids...?

Zach Miller said...

Thank you everyone, for your responses. I agree that a picture should accompany a press release...

(sidenote: The very fact that press releases are almost a requirement for funding, tenure, etc. for the most inconsequential finds is an ENORMOUS pet peeve of mine. Single sauropod vertebrae are in the news all the time, as are fragmentary theropods. This is a rant for another time, though.)

...but Matt is right--it's the presentation that often irritates me. Restorations are often presented without any hedge words at all, so the general public, not knowing any better, will come to believe that Citipati=Haegryphus. The SV-POW guys did a nice job of hedging their sauropod sillhouette for Xenoposeidon, noting that it might not look like this!

And Brad, caenagnathids appear to differ significantly in hand proportions and overall head shape. Their beaks, in particular, are unique. I wouldn't be surprised if the head crest is a sign of sexual maturity, but maybe the crestless forms are females? You never know until more complete specimens are found! :-(