Reasonably unusual reconstructions

I’ve written before about the probability and plausibility of various artistic reconstructions but this can extend beyond simple soft tissues and to the heart of behaviour and lifestyles. Dinosaurs were, in general, highly diverse and lived in many varied environments and different ecosystems over a long period of time. We are still digging into the diversity of dinosaurs and while ‘oddities’ like Pelicanimimus, Limusaurus and the alvarezsaurs as a whole have turned up, there are very likely more interesting and unusual things to come. Even taxa that are already described might turn out to be rather more odd than realised with further discoveries.

Now this is all a bit ephemeral and no you can’t really put numbers on these kinds of assessments but as an example, I think it far more likely than not that *one* of the known big theropods was a dedicated scavenger (or rather perhaps, much more of a scavenger than any other large theropod). I does make ecological sense that the odd carnivore was rather more jackal or hyena-like than its relatives and exploited a different nice. We might not ever get any good evidence for this from the fossil record. The putative anatomical specialisations might be confounded by preservation or evolutionary history. But I think it’ll be there.

From a scientific perspective therefore, I don’t think you can say much more than “based on what we know of living ecosystems, diversity and evolution, it’s likely that something out of the allosauroids, tyrannosaurs and abelisaurs was a behaviourally specialised scavenger”. You certainly can’t name one species over another as a likely candidate, and it’s extremely unlikely that all of a group had gone down this route. However, if you want to draw this kind of thing then I’d have no problem with that and I don’t think many people necessarily would, or should.

No, based on the available you can’t say “this is Carnotaurus the scavenger” but what’s wrong with “Carnotaurus may have been a scavenger”? In terms of producing interesting and thought provoking artwork, I think this should be encouraged. After all, if you stick to what is absolutely known or is very likely true for most dinosaurs there’s quite a limited set of things. The only real trick is to stick to probabilities – nothing wrong with say a largely featherless ornithomimid say, but if you only ever draw bald ones then you’ve probably gone too far. Exceptions to the rule occur, but exceptions shouldn’t be the rule.

11 Responses to “Reasonably unusual reconstructions”

  1. 1 Ilja Nieuwland 20/03/2011 at 8:46 am

    ” I think it far more likely than not that *one* of the known big theropods was a dedicated scavenger (or rather perhaps, much more of a scavenger than any other large theropod”.

    Dave, I think that the whole idea of an large terrestrial obligate scavenger should be put to rest. The fact that there are none (apart from insects) today should give you some clue. Contrary to popular myth, a scavenging existence is not a happy-go-lightly feast a non-stop banquets of dead stuff. Existing scavengers can only sustain by being *extremely* energy efficient, vultures being a good case in point. Likewise, the concept of a dedicated NON-scavenger, if I may so put it, seems slightly ridiculous: no meat eater will leave a pile of meat alone. There are exceptions in modern nature, but they are very rare indeed.

    • 2 David Hone 20/03/2011 at 10:15 am

      But I didn’t actually say that, did I. As you even quoted me, I self-corrected to say “well more than the others”. I explicitly did NOT say that there were any dedicated scavengers, more that *one* of them *might* come much closer to that the others at *some* point in their history. And there are exceptions, this is my point! (vultures are dedicated, and obligate scavengers) and since there are exceptions you need to be careful about blanket statements that ‘group X did Y’. And indeed one has also top be careful when only looking at large extant carnivores – there are really only a handful of big species (a couple of dozen cats, dogs and bears) and that’s not necessarily a good basis for working out how ‘all large terrestrial carnivores ever’ operated.

      All I’m saying is that I wouldn’t be surprised if one existed and I think it’s reasonable to say it might have done, even if the evidence is wholly lacking, because you have to also allow for the unseen vagaries of evolution and the actually really very high diversity in time, space, ecology and morphology of the various lineages. And since exceptions exist and many fossils are fragmentary, those might be there already but we don’t realise. And wrt the palaeoartists, I think they can be allowed a bit of freedom to at least explore those possible exceptions.

      In short I agree with you entirely, but I thought that I had actually made that relatively clear in this post, and certainly my writings in the past, and even my papers, say that.

      • 3 Ilja Nieuwland 21/03/2011 at 7:37 am

        Hi Dave, granted. Matt makes a good argument as well, and one that got me thinking. In a blog such as this, I’m much more likely to interpret ‘may have’ as ‘did’ than I would in a scientific paper, because of the modalities of the medium.

        In this particular case the field has been considerably muddied by the fact that the issue has been played out as a ‘dialectic’ between theropods as *either* obligate scavengers or full-time hunters. Reading your post again, you do not, thankfully. Apologies.

      • 4 David Hone 21/03/2011 at 7:55 am

        No worries. And I do know what you mean. I’ve always considered this issue a false dichotomy (yeah, almost noting is one or the other, though some run both very close) and the rhetoric around it doesn’t help. But I was trying to draw out a hypothetical example that would be familiar to many.


  2. 5 mattvr 20/03/2011 at 12:25 pm

    I think the public perception of science is one of definitions. Science is seen as giving us definitive answers, neat and compartmentalised.
    ‘May have’ and ‘evidence suggests’ are heard as ‘Did’ and ‘In Fact’.
    Exceptions and diversity appear contrary to this idea, despite the fact science actually embraces these things.
    Judicious use of art to pick away at this perception isn’t such a bad thing, at least within the realm of possibility.

    • 6 David Hone 20/03/2011 at 2:14 pm

      Yeah, that’s rather what I was circling around. It is, I think, OK to push the boat out a little and maybe go for the exceptions if it gets the point across or does something interesting, but at the same time, don’t go too far, or assume that an oddity is the norm.

  3. 7 Mark Robinson 21/03/2011 at 7:49 am

    I hear what you’re saying. I’m not a proponent of the T. rex=scavenger thing but it doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine that some individuals might have sourced a substantial percentage of their nutrition from already dead animals.

    Tyrannosaur: “Oi! You lot nick – nick off!”
    Assorted troodonts: “We were just leaving…”

    The ability to crunch up bones would certainly be an advantage if you often turned up late to a meal.

    • 8 David Hone 21/03/2011 at 7:58 am

      I agree. If anything was a candidate for the “predomianntly scavenging” ecotype, based on anatomy alone, the bigger tyrannosaurs would fit this. We already know that even the big ones were active predators though which of course scuppers an “absolute scavenging” model.

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