Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Defending Velociraptor

Velociraptor maquette from the exhibition Les Géants du Jurassique. Photo by Dominique Pipet.

In my interview with Chris Masnaghetti this week, I shared his wonderful Velociraptor infographic. He bemoaned the animal's status in pop culture, calling it the "most misinterpreted dinosaur ever," putting heavy blame on Jurassic Park. Seems right to me: those scaly beasties have become the theropod equivalent of Brontosaurus: a placeholder for dinosaurkind in general, whether or not they represent current paleontological thinking. Combine a catchy name with innumerable pop culture references, and you've got a dinosaur ambassador to the public that more often than not serves to obscure the wonders of paleontology as it is actually practiced.

The web is vast, and while some of us are brave and persistent enough to try to kill all the "unsinkable rubber ducks" of paleontological myths that get repeated in comment thread arguments ad nauseum, we'll never root them all out. There will always be people who believe that Triceratops is doomed, that the invalid status of Brontosaurus is pure scientific bullying, and perhaps most pernicious of all, that feathers on Mesozoic non-avian dinosaurs are like, totes lame.

Example: this recent Tumblr post from someone who just finished a college course on dinosaur paleontology:
i think the most important thing i’ll take away from my dinosaur class (other than pterodactyls are not actually dinosaurs and my entire life has been a lie) is that velociraptors were covered in feathers. and dog-sized. but mostly
covered in feathers
can you imagine that shit in jurassic park??
What followed was an unattributed image of a feathered Velociraptor sculpture.

I reblogged the post, adding the comment, "Funny how no one maligns wolverines by saying they could just 'kick them away.' Small does not equal harmless!"

You've got to feel sorry for either the student for having a teacher who failed to impart a greater level of appreciation for paleontology; or for the teacher for having such a closed-minded student. Knee-jerk dismissal of feathered dinosaurs is nothing new. Nor is the widespread misunderstanding of all dinosaurs as little more than bloodthirsty Kaiju monsters. Both are rubber ducks we'll probably always be annoyed by.

My first point in writing this post, beyond ragging on another feather-hater, is that more strongly than ever, I think that what we really need is a big, stupid, pulpy piece of entertainment that makes feathered dinosaurs scary and cool. Televised documentaries won't do it. It doesn't have to be perfectly accurate, but if it can at least achieve a rough approximation of what dinosaurs could have looked like - combining the "All Yesterdays" approach with pulp fiction, perhaps - public opinion could well swing our way. Especially as the Dinosaur Train generation grows up.

Ferocity and general badassness will drive public popularity of dinosaurs, but my second point is that after writing my "wolverine" rebuttal, I realized I'd inadvertently fallen into a similar trap as the original poster. My defense of a more accurate Velociraptor relied on the animal being vicious. Viciousness is certainly a trait of some animals, but when it's focused on as a particular special or admirable trait, it reduces animals to mere robotic killing machines (see any sensationalized story about shark attacks). Velociraptor is super cool, even if in life it was as docile as Nummymuffincoocolbutter. I formally apologize for this grievous error. Now I'm going to find a wolverine to cuddle.

29 comments:

  1. Well-stated, sir! I'd like very much to see increased public regard for dinosaurs as real animals. Unfortunately, even with modern animals, it seems like there's an inclination to assess them based on how likely they are to kill a person.

    As a side note, I think that image is a photographic composite, not an actual model.

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    1. You're right, it was a composite. Hadiaz nailed the attirbution below. Alain Bénéteau created it.

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  2. "... putting heavy blame on Jurassic Park."

    The blame is on the closed-minded public actually.

    And what the world needs is the "All Yesterdays" approach done in a 'The Future is Wild' style documentary. We need a series that make dinosaurs unlike the animals of today's days and not roaring, reptilian versions of lions, wolves, etc.

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    1. We do need that documentary, and I've wanted it for a long time... but the public at large will respond to a big, dumb B-movie. They have their place.

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  3. I think that you may be on a hiding to nothing here Dave - not that we should not try. All popular dinosaurian media and culture is geared up to present these animals in a way that appeals to the general masses and, it does not matter whether it is a popular film or the latest documentary, to try and have dinosaurs (and other prehistoric life) presented in a perhaps more natural light will be difficult.

    Your other point about feathered dinosaurs is also well taken but I got a fairly public slaughtering because I prefer my dinosaurs scaly which I maintain was unjustified. Dinosaurs were feathered - fact. And to me they are still very cool animals and, the way it is going, more more of them are likely to be so. Let me emphasise - THIS IS AWESOME AND I LOOK FORWARD TO MANY MORE DISCOVERIES IN THE FUTURE!!!

    BUT, at the same time time, I still prefer scaly dinosaurs. I guess its because you grow up with them, understand them as best you could and they become a constant in your life and for many many years the only feathers around were on Archaeopteryx, Hesperornis and Ichthyornis. So it is very much a purely personal thing. The important thing is not to deny the science (which I certainly do not)and I will continue to report the facts on these wonderful feathered animals. As I have always said - they are still the most awesome animals ever to walk the planet.

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    1. The difference is that you're thoughtful about your preference and don't bang on about it just to raise a ruckus. No slaughtering coming from me.

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    2. Appreciate that David - thanks!

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  4. This reminded me of a post I churned out back in February (a thinly-veiled excuse to post some turkey pictures...): http://chasmosaurs.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/nightmares-of-six-foot-turkey.html

    I'm with Mark in that I think getting dinosaurs to be presented in a more naturalistic light will be difficult. That's what the discussions around All Yesterdays and the 'soft revolution' in dinosaur art (that it's popularising) are all about.

    We need to start with BETTER feathered dinosaurs in commercial art. We're drowning in them online, but walk into eg. the Natural History Museum in London and you will see some truly hideous, hideous stuff plastered all over posters, books and other paraphernalia.

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    1. Yes, the institutions are a very important target, and though they can be forgiven to some extent because of dire financial times, they should be striving to update all of their public material. No excuse that someone in the marketing department should be using outdated imagery just because they can't bother to check with the people down the hall.

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    2. I'm not talking about what's on show in the actual exhibits, but what's in the gift shop! The Natural History Museum uses the same, shockingly bad CG stock images over an awful lot of its dinosaur merchandise. The Velociraptor is a 'gorilla suit' theropod with bunny hands and a scaly lizardy face, while the T. rex has a misshapen skull and uniform, blunted teeth. Hideous stuff.

      Of course, they're far from the only (or worst) example, but came to mind as I visited recently.

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    3. Oh, I got your point, which was why I aimed at the marketing people, though I could have been more clear about it.

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  5. It's also up to the artists to create interesting and accurate images of these critters.

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    1. I think that part is pretty well handled, as the newer generation of artists rises in prominence.

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  7. Round of applause. And you were certainly a lot easier on that incredulous 'student' than I would've been.

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  8. I have to say that my love of Monsters has swayed me a lot into rebelling against feathers, but I've since been able to separate the lovely monsters I grew up with called dinosaurs are something wholly different than the animals that walked the earth millions of years ago. We are still so far away from finding out all there is to know about these critters that it's exciting to think of what we might discover next. This thought alone keeps me from stagnating my ideas of what a dinosaur should be.

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  9. @David Orr

    "What followed was an unattributed image of a feathered Velociraptor sculpture."

    It's a manipulated photo by Dustdevil ( http://dustdevil.deviantart.com/art/Velociraptor-24862163 ).

    "I reblogged the post, adding the comment, "Funny how no one maligns wolverines by saying they could just 'kick them away.' Small does not equal harmless!""

    Just a little nit-pick, but I think you should've said, "Small & fluffy does not equal harmless". Also, I think a lynx would've made for a better analogy, given that it's more Velociraptor-sized. Otherwise, good reply.

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    1. Ah, it's Alain's! Thank you for clearing that up. It's a really convincing manipulation.

      Lynx would work just fine, wolvies were the first thing to pop into the noggin.

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    2. Yes it is mine, a pretty old photo manip now but still working ;) Thanks to the great Gypaetus barbatus!

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  10. Out of interest, what was the time-lag between, say, the realisation that T.rex walked with a horizontal posture, and its depiction as such in Jurassic Park? I'm just trying to get a baseline for the time it takes for a change in scientific consensus to filter through into popular dino depictions.

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    1. For what it's worth, there are still "man in a suit"-looking tyrannosaurs and "really big lizard"-looking dinosaurs in "Land Before Time" (1988), though nobody drags their tails.

      I heard once that as much time has passed between now and the release of "Jurassic Park" as had passed between "Jurassic Park" and "Land of the Lost". It's true, according to a quick IMDB check, and it gives me a headache.

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    2. 1970; see B.H. Newman's research here http://bit.ly/129DwO0

      Abstract:
      "A study of the stance and locomotion of Tyrannosaurus was made for the mounting of the partial skeleton at the British Museum (Natural History). This shows that the posture was much more bird-like than is indicated by previous mounts, and also the tail is shorter. During walking the vertebral column was held nearly horizontal with the tail clear of the ground. The fore-limbs acted as struts to stop the body sliding forward as the animal raised its body from the resting position."

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  11. I wonder if primatologists in the '50's had to deal with friends and relatives who were shocked -shocked I tell you- and saddened by the fact that real gorillas aren't anything like in "King Kong"?

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  12. I agree. That's the beauty of science, there are no dogmas, only knowledge backed up by evidence

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