Analysing palaeobehaviour

With the recent publication of a new paper on pterosaur ecology it seems like a good time to strike up on the vexed topic of determining (or trying to) the palaeobehaviour of many animals. Actually there is not much to say about it that is not covered in some detail elsewhere (there are a few links here, but obviously check out Tet Zoo and Mark Witton’s site) but I can use the opportunity for another wild stab at people who come up with wildly inappropriate statements about palaeobehaviour. One point that gets repeatedly hammered by the authors is the endless statements (well speculations really) made in the past about pterosaur behaviour when not only were they not backed up by the slightest bit of evidence, but also were obviously false and could be shown to be, as it flat contradicted the basic morphology of the animals under study, or the principles being invoked. This happens alot, and not just with pterosaurs.

I understand that when you have described a new taxon or have been working on some functional aspect of an animal, you will want to try and interpret it and put it into context. But that is not a license to write whatever you want, without giving it proper thought and research. It might be a very minor part of the paper, but it should still be treated in a scientific manner. If you have an interesting idea about how an organisms might be acting or what a certain functional model might allow behaviour wise, its relatively simple (especially in the Google Scholar age) to hunt for a few papers on that area in extant taxa for comparison. If the basic principles are funamentally violated by your concept, or the extant organisms practicing it show none of the adaptations your taxon has, it is time to rethink the idea. Sadly, this does not seem to happen as often as you might think. The paper demonstrates this admirably (and Darren comments on it on his blog too) that some ideas just will not die, no matter how much evidence you can provide that rebutts it, or how obviously that concepts flat contradicts our understanding of the funamental biology.

The real problem for me, is that these ideas then get picked up and perpetuated in the literature until they become some kind of common consensus, without any back-up at all. Skimming by pterosaurs is a classic example that it taken apart rather ruthlessly by Witton & Naish. Even before the recent paper refuting skimming in pterosaurs on energetic and mechanical grounds, it should have been pretty obvious that no pterosaur really bears even the slightest resemblance even in gross morphology to extant skimmers. That does not rule it out of course, animals can evolve to do similar things in very different ways on occasion (though the rampant convergence of many groups shows that there is often is only one really good way of doing somehing – look at formicivores) but one would expect at least some of the highly specialised adaptations to appear in pterosaurs as they are going to be under similar pressures and experienceing similar problems, and they are easy enough to look for. So why did no-one check, at any point, and instead just recycled the idea again? And then why did other people not notice that this had not been checked and check it themselves, rather than just repeating the idea? It does all get a bit tiring when you keep seeing these unjustified or supported speculations attached to papers.

There is nothing wrong with concluding a piece of work with ‘I don’t know’, ‘We can’t tell’, ‘There is no obvious analogy for this’ or ‘This unusual feature is hard to interpret’, and it is certainly better than coming up with some unjustified specualtion that is not only transparently incorrect, but will then be recycled itself. It might seem frustrating that 20 or 30 pages of excellent work could end with ‘Don’t know’, but is that really worse than something incorrect? At the very least researchers (and once more, referees and editors) need to tighten up on this and not let unjustified speculation creep through into print. If you have a good idea, check it. The literature is available and some basic comparisons (like skull shape, foot size, neck length, whatever) can form a very simple basis for comparison and allow the elemination of at least a few concepts and the support of some others. It need not be in depth, that is not the point, but it should at least be supported and currently the opposite is far more common that it should be.

This is a modified Mk.1 post, to see the original with comments etc., go here.

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