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Friday, 17 May 2019

The science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, part 2: Teleosaurus, pterosaurs and Mosasaurus

It's time to continue our palaeoartistic discussion of the famous 1850s Crystal Palace prehistoric animal sculptures. As you'll know if you've read part 1 of this series, I've been supplying artwork and palaeoart notes to the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs charity for their new 'about the statues' web pages. What started as a small project has ballooned into several weeks of illustration, research and writing based around these charming and fascinating early palaeoartworks, culminating in this series of blog posts. As before, we'll be reviewing the models in roughly sequential order. Previously, we looked at the Dicynodon, "Labyrinthodon" and marine reptiles, and today we'll be covering the Jurassic Teleosaurus, the Jurassic and Cretaceous pterosaurs, and the Late Cretaceous Mosasaurus. Those familiar with the Crystal Palace prehistoric menagerie will recognise a dinosaur-shaped hole in that line-up but, have no fear: we'll be covering them next time, and then the mammals after that.

As before, I want to point out that the following notes are expanded and referenced versions of content I've provided for the Friends of Crystal Palace website, and readers are encouraged to check out those pages to supplement the dedicated palaeoartistic assessment provided here. Also, while I don't want to labour the need for increased interest and investment into the Crystal Palace sculptures - there's lots of that in the introduction to part 1 - I want to remind readers that these models, now approaching 170 years old, need a lot of care and maintenance. Efforts to restore the models are underway, and you can help by donating money or volunteering your time to keep the site maintained.

Teleosaurus

The Crystal Palace Teleosaurus sculptures as seen from the Secondary Island. Both Teleosaurus have been restored recently and look very handsome, the aim is to get all the models looking this good in the next few years. Note that these models are meant to be surrounded by water, but last year the entire site was covered in lush vegetation. Photo from 2018.
Two Teleosaurus bask on the banks of the Secondary Island as part of the Jurassic Oolite scene that also includes Megalosaurus and (before they went missing) small pterosaurs. As superficially crocodylian-like animals, Teleosaurus was perhaps the most straightforward fossil reptile for Hawkins to restore. The two Teleosaurus models are, in terms of detailing, some of the finest reptile restorations in the Crystal Palace arrangement. The general proportions of Teleosaurus are captured correctly with its short limbs, long body and narrow, gracile jaws, and their depiction as basking on a shoreline is consistent with predictions of teleosaurid habits. Teleosaurids were part of a marine radiation of crocodylian-line reptiles but they still bore limbs instead of flippers, and they lacked well-developed tail fins. In not being as specialised for an open water existence as subsequent marine crocodylomorphs, it’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that teleosaurids returned to shore for rest and procreation.

There are several anatomical peculiarities about Hawkins’ teleosaurids that not only conflict with modern understandings of these animals, but also those of Victorian Era palaeontologists. Owen (1854) stressed the great similarity between teleosaurs and modern crocodylians - specifically the gharial - and it appears that modern crocodylians ultimately informed Hawkins’ take on these marine crocodylomorphs more than their actual fossils. Teleosaurid scalation was quite different from all modern crocodylians in that their dorsa bore two medial rows of large scutes from their necks to their tails, and their bellies were covered with a shield of interlocking scutes. This was well known to Victorian anatomists (e.g. Owen 1842), but Hawkins seems to have used Crocodylus scute arrangements instead, depicting several rows of smaller dorsal scutes and omitting any trace of belly armour. Over at Tetrapod Zoology, Darren Naish has suggested that saltwater crocodiles may have been specifically referenced for this arrangement. Gharial cranial proportions seem to have been used to model the posterior head, this region being short and narrow (like a gharial) instead of long and expanding outwards towards the back of the skull (as in teleosaurs).

Lemmysuchus obtusidens, a teleosaurid of similar size as the Crystal Palace Teleosaurus, but the skull and dentition are more robust. Note the osteoderm arrangment along the back and proportions of the skull - teleosaurids had a much longer and broader temporal region than Hawkins captured, perhaps because of his referencing living crocodylians. As an aside, note that this artwork has a pretty obvious homage to another classic piece of Victorian palaeoart, John Martin's 1840 The sea dragons as they lived.
The result is a blend of crocodylian and teleosaurid anatomy, and it is not obvious why Hawkins did not reflect the anatomy of teleosaurids more faithfully when this effort was made for other models. Subsequent artworks by Hawkins (e.g. his 1862 posters produced for the Department of Science and Art - see Rudwick 1992) show the same erroneous interpretations, so he may have simply been misinformed or unaware of what teleosaurids really looked like. To be fair to Hawkins, he is far from the only palaeoartist to apply scalation patterns from modern crocodylians to their ancient, distant relatives. Perhaps he just assumed - as many still do today - that all crocodylian-like animals are and were pretty much alike. It’s more interesting that Owen knew the precise nature of teleosaurid scale arrangement - even down to the differences between species - and yet Hawkins’ models turned out as they did. Did Owen not tell him? Did Hawkins ignore him? Was there a practical reason for why the design couldn't be altered? Even more intriguingly, despite Owen being unafraid of pointing out aspects of the models that he disagrees in his 1854 sculpture guide, he made no mention of this error. Is this evidence of Owen not having much regard for these models, or maybe not wanting to draw attention to a mistake he could have fixed? I'm not sure we know what happened there, but this obvious difference between Hawkins' models and Owen's knowledge certainly fits wider evidence that Owen gave very little input to the Crystal Palace project (Secord 2004; Dawson 2016).

Pterosaurs

Two sets of pterosaurs were created for the Crystal Palace display: two larger individuals representing pterodactyloids from British Cretaceous Chalk deposits, and two smaller animals from the Jurassic Great Oolite Group. As originally positioned, these models flanked the dinosaur sculptures in the centre of the Geological Court. Alas, the original models of the smaller pterosaurs went missing in the 1930s (McCarthy and Gilbert 1994) and fibreglass replacements installed in 2002 were stolen and destroyed by vandals in 2005. The larger models are still standing but are in disrepair, owing to both their relative delicacy and continued vandalism.

The large Chalk Pterodactylus models of Crystal Palace, as photographed in 2018. The models are replete with fine anatomy that cannot be appreciated from afar, such as variable scale sizes and individually crafted digits. Close inspection reveals many obviously avian-inspired features, and I suspect they were not closely based on the excellent pterosaur fossils known to early 19th century palaeontologists.
Images of the pterosaur models in their prime show that all four shared a similar bauplan: long necks terminating in smallish, toothed heads; scaly skin; large torsos; crouching hindlimbs and - of course - enormous, membranous wings supported by long forelimb bones and hypertrophied wing fingers. In this respect Hawkins’ pterosaurs were fairly typical of pterosaur restorations from the 1800s, and they are somewhat different to how we imagine them today. Contrary to Owen’s confident and entirely unfounded guidebook assertion that pterosaurs were scaly (Owen 1854), the German zoologist Georg August Goldfuss had recorded solid evidence of pterosaurs having a fuzzy, hair-like covering as early as 1831. The absence of fibrous integuments on Hawkins’ pterosaurs is not an example of Owenian arrogance, however. Just about everyone ignored Goldfuss’s claims about pterosaur skin and it was not until the 1970s that pterosaur fuzz would be an accepted fact of their palaeobiology. Goldfuss has recently been vindicated by modern fossil imaging techniques proving beyond all doubt that his soft-tissue interpretations were accurate (Jäger et al. 2018). This is one of two places were Goldfuss’ research could have enhanced the portrayal of prehistory at Crystal Palace had some of his papers not been so widely ignored by other researchers (see discussion of Mosasaurus, below).

The rarely seen posterior end of the remaining complete Chalk Pterodactylus. Note the deep chest and pelvic region, bird-like limb posture and blunt, deep tail. This is the body of a bird, not a pterosaur. The triangular structure on the left of the image is the wing of the neighbouring pterosaur. Photo from 2018.
Less explicable mistakes in the pterosaurs are their overall proportions. The very first pterosaur fossils known to scientists were complete skeletons showing that their heads were longer than their bodies, and yet Hawkins - like virtually all artists of the 1800s - restored them with small heads and massive torsos. My assumption is that this reflects Hawkins modelling his pterosaurs with an avian physique rather than with exacting attention to fossil material. Close inspection of his models reveals many bird-like details that are inconsistent with pterosaur remains, such as an emphasis on ventral flight muscles, deep bellies, horizontally-held thighs, an extensive pelvic region with a short, poorly defined tail, and a proportionally small head. It is also noteworthy that Hawkins anchored the wing membranes to the body alone, leaving the hindlimbs free. This creates the impression of a bird-like wing arrangement, even though most of his peers were illustrating more accurate bat-like membranes that stretched all the way to the hindlimb (e.g. see illustrations by Soemmerring (1817); Newman (1946) and even Owen (1859)). Though Hawkins observed some aspects of pterosaur form correctly - such as posing one animal quadrupedally, and placing the full length of the foot on the ground - the overall impression is of a goose or swan-like creature with pterosaur features, not a precise reflection of the fossils he had available to him. Hawkins was not alone in making such mistakes, and very few pterosaur restorations from the early decades of palaeontology have accurate body proportions. Indeed, it took a full century before pterosaurs were restored in ways that reflected their anatomy more precisely (Seeley 1901).

A modern take on Cimoliopterus cuvieri, the large toothed Chalk pterosaurs imagined by Hawkins for Crystal Palace. It took us years to get there (and some of us are still in transit), but the message that pterosaurs have enormous skulls and tiny bodies is finally being reflected in art.
The exact identification of the Chalk pterosaurs is left somewhat vague by Owen (1854), but he indicates that large bones (indicating 5-6 m wingspan individuals) of animals such as “Pterodactyluscuvieri were influential on the models. The Oolitic species, in contrast, are precisely identified as “Pterodactylus bucklandi”. None of these taxa were well known in the 1800s (and, indeed, they remain poorly known today) so it’s likely that Hawkins based all four models on complete Pterodactylus antiquus skeletons known from Germany. Aspects such as the long necks and low, homodont teeth are consistent with this hypothesis. Today, we recognise that the species informing the Crystal Palace models are distantly related to Pterodactylus and had very different proportions. The large Chalk species were long-winged soaring specialists with sophisticated dentition adapted for snagging fish, as in Cimoliopterus cuvieri, above. “P. bucklandi” was probably a long-tailed, short-necked animal with procumbent teeth, although the fossils bearing this name are too poor to consider it a valid species (O'Sullivan and Martill 2018). Whatever “P. bucklandi” was, it may have looked somewhat like the contemporary Oolite species Klobiodon rochei, below.

Hawkins' Oolite pterosaurs were based on scrappy material once referred to "Pterodactylus bucklandi", which later became subsumed into the genus "Rhamphocephalus". We now know that "Rhamphocephalus" has little taxonomic utility, being based on teleosaurid fossils and containing no valid pterosaur species. The Oolite species Klobiodon rochei is a rhamphorhynchid, the sort of animal that the "Pterodactylus bucklandi" material likely represents.

Mosasaurus hoffmanni

Lurking behind the dinosaurs and pterosaurs, sometimes almost out of sight, is a partial restoration of the giant mosasaur Mosasaurus hoffmanni. The choice to depict a mosasaur at Crystal Palace was unusual and very progressive. Although their skulls have been known since the 1700s mosasaurids were rarely depicted in palaeoart in the early 19th century, probably owing to being overshadowed by the better-known ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Mosasaurs would become more routinely featured in artwork after palaeontologists excavated their skeletons from the American midwest in the 1860-70s, but it’s rare to see a restoration of a mosasaur of 1850s vintage. Indeed, I’m fairly certain that the Crystal Palace Mosasaurus is among the first attempts at restoring the life appearance of one of these animals. Hawkins’ take was influential enough that other artists heavily referenced his sculpture (e.g. see 1860s work by Louis Figuier), but the discovery of superior mosasaur fossils just two decades after Crystal Palace Park opened dated the model relatively quickly.

A view of the Crystal Palace Mosasaurus that Luis Rey would approve of. Note the pterygoidal teeth, left forelimb and extensive body - there is a lot more to this model than just a head, as is sometimes reported. The low water level exposes the uniquely incomplete nature of the restoration. This could reflect a lack of complete mosasaur skeletons in the 1850s, but Hawkins also made complete Dicynodon despite just having skulls, so a lack of material may not have phased him. Photo from 2018.
The holotype of Mosasuarus hoffmanni is an enormous, disarticulated skull, and it was this material that largely informed the Crystal Palace reconstruction. The Mosasaurus is the only deliberately incomplete restoration in the entire Geological Court, comprising just a head and neck, a nondescript back, and a single flipper. This is sometimes attributed to Hawkins not having sufficient material to complete his restoration, and yet his Dicynodon, which were also only known from skulls at the time, were given entirely speculative limbs, bodies and tails. An absence of fossil material was no deterrent to Hawkins' vision, and the fact that he made one forelimb suggests he had ideas about what the front end of the animal should have looked like at least. The idea that Hawkins was attempting to hide unknown anatomy underwater is inconsistent with his otherwise bold reconstruction approach, so might other factors - perhaps time and money - have influenced the execution of this model? We know that the models were not ready for the opening of Crystal Palace Park in 1854 (McCarthy and Gilbert 1994), so it’s not inconceivable that Hawkins might have been looking to cut corners somewhere.

The head of Hawkins' Mosasaurus is wide and boxy, consistent with Owen’s (1854) interpretation of the holotype skull dimensions being 2.5 x 5 feet. As with “Labyrinthodon”, Hawkins accurately captured the palatal teeth of Mosasaurus. He seems to have modelled the soft-tissues on monitor lizards, these being realised as close relatives of mosasaurs as early as 1800. Extensive lips, voluminous tissues around the eye socket, and laterally-facing, posteriorly-positioned nostrils are obvious monitor features, and the skin texture of the body shows large ossicles surrounded by smaller basement scales. This recalls the osteoderm-studded skin of certain large and robust monitor species, including komodo dragons and white throats.

Mosasaurus hoffmanni, as restored in 2019. Our understanding of mosasaur life appearance has changed in recent years: rather than crocodile-like swimming lizards, they were highly convergent with whales, sharks and other strongly pelagic fish. The dorsal fins in this restoration are conjectural, but based on their presence in numerous large marine vertebrates.
Hawkins’ take on M.hoffmanni is pretty insightful given the material he and Owen had to work with. Though wide of the mark with many anatomical details, he was on the right track by essentially interpreting them as giant, waterborne monitor lizards. Today we understand mosasaurs as being fully committed to a marine existence - the lizard equivalent of toothed whales. Among their many marine adaptations were shark-like caudal fins, streamlined paddles and smooth skin formed of tiny scales (e.g. Lindgren 2013). But hindsight shows there were some aspects of Hawkins’ sculpture that could have been more precise. In 1845 Georg August Goldfuss described a near complete and undistorted skull of “Mosasaurus maximiliani” (now classified as M. missouriensis) from the midwestern United States. This skull demonstrated a narrower cranial profile than assumed by Hawkins and Owen, and also that the nasal openings were on the dorsal surface of the snout. Williston (1914) reports that scholars generally ignored Goldfus’s Mosasaurus work for decades, with his observations effectively being repeated by Leidy, Cope and Marsh as they uncovered American fossil vertebrates in the 1860s and 1870s. This might absolve Owen and Hawkins for overlooking this important find, though it was nevertheless a second occasion where Goldfuss' work could have futureproofed some of the Crystal Palace models.

That rounds up this entry in the series, but come back soon for part 3: a post dedicated to the least famous and popular Crystal Palace models, the dinosaurs. 

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References

  • Dawson, G. (2016). Show me the bone: Reconstructing prehistoric monsters in nineteenth-century Britain and America. University of Chicago Press.
  • Goldfuss, A. (1831). Beiträge zur Kenntnis verschiedener Reptilien der Vorwelt. Nova Acta Physico-Medica Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino-Carolinae Naturae Curiosorum, 15:61-128.
  • Goldfuss, A. (1845). Der Schädelbau des Mosasaurus, durch Beschreibung einer neuen Art dieser Gattung erläutert. Nova Acta Academa Ceasar Leopoldino-Carolinae Germanicae Natura Curiosorum 21:1-28, pl. VI-IX.
  • Jäger, K. R., Tischlinger, H., Oleschinski, G., & Sander, P. M. (2018). Goldfuß was right: Soft part preservation in the Late Jurassic pterosaur Scaphognathus crassirostris revealed by reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) and UV light and the auspicious beginnings of paleo-art. Palaeontologia Electronica, 21(3), 1-20.
  • Lindgren, J., Kaddumi, H. F., & Polcyn, M. J. (2013). Soft tissue preservation in a fossil marine lizard with a bilobed tail fin. Nature Communications, 4, 2423.
  • McCarthy, S., & Gilbert, M. (1994). The Crystal Palace dinosaurs: The story of the world's first prehistoric sculptures. Crystal Palace Foundation.
  • O'Sullivan, M., & Martill, D. (2018). Pterosauria of the Great Oolite Group (Middle Jurassic, Bathonian) of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, England. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 63(4), 617-644.
  • Owen, R. (1842). Report on British fossil reptiles, part II. Report for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Plymouth, 1841, 60-204.
  • Owen, R. (1854). Geology and inhabitants of the ancient world (Vol. 8). Crystal Palace library.
  • Owen, R. (1859). On a new genus (Dimorphodon) of pterodactyle, with remarks on the geological distribution of flying reptiles. Report for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 28, 97-103.
  • Rudwick, M. J. (1992). Scenes from deep time: early pictorial representations of the prehistoric world. University of Chicago Press.
  • Secord, J. A. (2004). Monsters at the crystal palace. In: de Chadarevian, S, & Hopwood, N. (eds). Models: the third dimension of science, Stanford University Press. 138-69.
  • Seeley, H. G. (1901). Dragons of the air: an account of extinct flying reptiles. Methuen & Company.
  • Williston, S. W. (1914). Water reptiles of the past and present. University of Chicago Press.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

The science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, part 1: marine reptiles, Dicynondon and "labyrinthodons"

The southerly approach to one of the most spectacular collections of historic palaeoartworks on the planet: the Crystal Palace prehistoric animals. Over 30 sculptures depict Victorian takes on prehistoric faunas in a remarkable and unique feat of engineering, artistry and scientific outreach. Much about how the models were assembled and the specific science informing their anatomy is lost to history, leaving us to piece it together from written accounts, surviving draft artwork, and the models themselves. This photo is from 2013, some of the models have been restored since then.
The Crystal Palace Prehistoric Park is one of the most spectacular and historically significant pieces of palaeoart in the world. Unveiled in 1854, it features more than 30 models of over 20 extinct species captured in concrete, brick and steel. Each model was crafted by a team of sculptors lead by the zoological artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under the guidance of Britain's preeminent Victorian naturalist, Sir Richard Owen. The Crystal Palace depictions are often overlooked or dismissed in coverage of early palaeontological history, which is entirely unfair. The scale, ambition and success of the project made it a milestone in not only palaeontological outreach but scientific communication in general, and they had a clear impact on future depictions of fossil animals, both scientifically and educationally (Rudwick 1992; McCarthy and Gilbert 1994; Secord 2004). Most of the models still survive today thanks to ongoing work by conservators and the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs charity, and a trip to Crystal Palace Park is thoroughly recommended if you're a fan of palaeoart or the history of science. The models are National Heritage Grade 1 Listed Monuments but, on account of their age, exposure to weather and vandalism, they are in continuous need of repair. Phases of renovation have been carried out since at least the 1950s (McCarthy and Gilbert 1994) and are ongoing today. Such work is expensive (conservation began in 2015 is expected to cost £1.2 million when completed) so please consider supporting the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs if you can. The FOCPD also appreciate volunteers to maintain the landscape around the models, which is a great way to visit them up close - keep an eye on their website for opportunities.

Part of the enduring appeal of the Crystal Palace sculptures is the mysteries of their construction. While the generalities of the project are well documented (e.g. Rudwick 1992; Doyle and Robinson 1993; McCarthy and Gilbert 1994; Secord 2004, also see this FOCPD summary), few documents are known specifying how the sculptures were built, and the scientific rationale behind them. Some details of their construction can be deduced by examination of the models themselves, and both Hawkins and Owen put their general scientific approach on record (Owen (1854) in particular reads like a modern summary of palaeoart practises), but it remains difficult to ascertain exactly how Hawkins decided on the form of each species. Adding depth to the mystery are suggestions that Owen's contributions may have not have been as substantial as generally assumed, and that his expertise was only sought as the designs approached their final phase and full-size construction was set to begin - too late, perhaps, for major revisions to Hawkins' drafts (Secord 2004). Moreover, while Hawkins' attention to Owen's work is clear, he also evidently relied on other sources of information and his own intuition on many occassions. This may explain why Owen sometimes distanced himself from aspects of the models in a 1854 guidebook to the models, as well as in newspaper interviews (Secord 2004). Nevertheless, documents authored by both Owen and Hawkins suggest mutual respect and admiration for one another (Owen 1854; Hawkins 1854), although it's interesting that each eventually claimed to be the greater intellectual influence on the project (Secord 2004).

Scene from Benjamen Waterhouse Hawkins' temporary workshop: a large wooden structure in the grounds of Crystal Palace Park. Images like this - which feature (clockwise from top left) Palaeotherium, Iguanodon, Hylaeosaurus, Dicynodon and "Labyrinthodon" - give valuable insights into the creation of the Crystal Palace Prehistoric Park, but shed little light on the science influencing their restoration from fossil bones. Note the corvid and rodents in the foreground: written accounts suggest Hawkins' workshop was not always a luxurious place to be. Illustration by Philip Henry Delamotte, 1853, image in public domain.
Recently, I've been working with the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs to restore the Crystal Palace extinct animals as we know them today for their website. As part of that process, I've been providing notes on how accurate the models are to current science as well as against fossil data available to Hawkins in the early 1850s. This has proven fascinating, confirming Hawkins' talents and insight while also raising several questions about his process and palaeoart philosophy. We may never know Hawkins' thought process in detail, but we might be able to 'reverse engineer' his models back to specimens known pre-1854 and, through clues worked into his models, establish what science, artworks and extant species influenced his designs. Over the next three posts, I thought it would be of interest to share some of these thoughts, as well as my modern takes on the Crystal Palace species. Edited versions of these notes also appear at the Friends of Crystal Palace Website, and more will follow in the near future as we wrap up this project up. I'm going to tackle the sculptures more or less as they appear in the park as you walk from the geologically oldest models (the Dicynodon) to the youngest (Megaloceros).

Dicynodon

The Crystal Palace Dicynodon, as seen in 2013. The larger model in the top photo, and the focus of the lower photo, is D. lacerticeps, the smaller sculpture is D. strigiceps. Note the turtle-like bodies and long tails, but also the presence of obvious clawed feet instead of flippers.
There are two Dicynodon sculptures in Crystal Palace, one large, one small. Particulars of their bodies and size indicate that they are meant to be different taxa. Owen (1854) indicates that the larger statue - "with the bulk of a walrus" - is D. lacerticeps, but he did not specify the identity of the smaller animal. He provides a clue, however, in stating it is a species with somewhat owl-like facial features. This must indicate that the smaller model is D. strigiceps, a species Owen named in 1845 that literally translates to 'owl-faced Dicynodon'. D. lacerticeps is the type species of Dicynodon and remains valid today, but strigiceps was regarded as a nomen dubium by Kammerer et al. (2011). The identification of D. lacerticeps as the large animal is peculiar, as it is not a large species - its skull was just over 15 cm long. We know that Hawkins attempted to capture the size of his animals accurately (Hawkins 1854), so perhaps other Dicynodon material factored into this decision.

The Crystal Palace Dicynodon are famously turtle-like in form, a circumstance reflecting Dicynodon being almost entirely represented by cranial material in the 1850s. These skulls demonstrated the basic shape of the skull and their strange turtle-meets-walrus nature but, as noted by Owen (1854), the rest of the sculptures are purely conjectural. Owen regarded dicynodonts as amphibious (Owen 1845, 1854) and Hawkins seems to have ran with this concept, presumably also inspired by the turtle-like features of the skull. Details of the sculptures' feet show that Hawkins was probably modelling these creatures on more terrestrially-adept turtles, and I wonder if the three ridged, sculpted keels, developed claws and long, scute-lined tails specifically indicate influence from snapping turtles. As we'll see, Hawkins often took inspiration, and entire anatomies, from living species in his work.

Today, we imagine dicynodonts very differently to our Victorian colleagues. This image shows Aulacephalodon bainii (the larger species, an animal known to Owen, and possibly referenced in the size of the D. lacerticeps sculpture) and the smaller dicynodont is Cistecephalus microrhinus (a species only distantly related to D. lacerticeps and A. bainii). This image will be featured in an upcoming book, also themed around historic palaeoart.
Dicynodont anatomy is now very well known and contrasts markedly with Hawkins’ sculptures. While their heads are reasonable proxies for dicynodont crania and consistent with contemporary reconstructions (e.g. Owen 1845), they seem a little ‘snouty’ compared to the short, shear-faced muzzles we now known from well-preserved dicynodont skulls. More obvious differnces are that dicynodonts have robust limbs adapted for terrestrial life, and many species were burrowers: they accordingly had rotund, longish torsos, not wide, flat ones. Though no dicynodonts had shells or armour, we are still uncertain what sort of skin they had. Given their relationship to mammals some artists restore dicynodonts with fur, but we have yet to find any evidence of this integument type so deep within our evolutionary history. The recovery of hair from a Permian coprolite (Bajdek et al. 2016) suggests some synapsids from this time may have been furry, but the most parsimonious candidates are our closest Permian ancestors, the cynodonts, not the more distantly related dicynodonts. We still think, as demonstrated in Hawkins’ model, that dicynodont snouts were largely covered with a cornified beak sheath however, with the tusks projecting either side (Kammerer et al. 2011).

“Labyrinthodon”

A trio of "Labyrinthodon", photographed in 2013. There are two species here, the larger being "L. salamandroides", the smaller "L. pachygnathus". Note the palatal teeth in the right animal and the similarity between L. salamandroides and an Owen sketch of Labyrinthodon as the Chirotherium trackmaker.
The three Crystal Palace “Labyrinthodon” reconstructions are attempts to rationalise several pieces of unrelated fossil data, so it is unsurprising that the results are far from the reality of the species they are meant to represent. But while some of the most dated models scientifically, they raise some interesting questions about how Hawkins approached his reconstructions.

Depicted as giant frog-like creatures, Hawkins’ sculptures show close attention to illustrations of “Labyrinthodon” as interpreted by Owen (e.g. Owen 1841a, 1842; also see Benton and Gower 1997) and capture some details of the skull and tooth material then referred to this genus. Particularly notable are the palatal teeth - this excellent attention to anatomical detail, especially given that visitors have to be right next to the sculptures (or looking with binoculars) to see them. Their mix of smooth and warty skin is surely based on living amphibians, and serves to distinguish the models of “L. pachygnathus” (smaller, warty-skinned) from “L. salamandroides” (the larger, smooth-skinned model) (McCarthy and Gilbert 1994). Owen famously linked "Labyrinthodon" with trackways now referred to pseudosuchians, but in doing so rationalised and illustrated the trackmaker as making prints with opposite limb sets, so the left prints were made with the right feet, and vice versa. This detail is absent from Hawkins’ models, despite his general attention to Owenian ideas. Perhaps even he struggled to make this bizarre hypothesis a reality.

Modern takes on “Labyrinthodon” are very different to the creatures displayed at Crystal Palace. What Owen and Hawkins considered “Labyrinthodon” is now rightfully called Mastodonsaurus, the former name being Owen’s attempt to replace Mastodonsaurus with a title he thought better suited the animal (Owen 1841a). Of the depicted species, “L. salamandroides” has been subsumed into M. jageri, and the fossils referred to “L. pachygnathus” are a mix of mastodonsauroids and archosaurian remains (Benton and Gower 1997; Damiani 2001). The latter point vindicates Hawkins' now archaic-looking approach to restoring Mastodonsaurus. The idea of a sheep-sized prehistoric frog seems outlandish in the 21st century, it was an entirely sensible interpretation of Owen's take on the available fossil material, from the proportions of the body to the upright limbs. I find the capturing of the "L. pachygnathus" jawline and dentition especially commendable.

Mastodonsaurus jageri, the 'real' "Labyrinthodon", striking at the rhynchosaur Fodonyx spenceri. Far from being an oversize frog, M. jageri occupies anatomical space somewhere between a salamander and alligator.
We now know that Mastodonsaurus resembled a giant salamander more than a frog, though in truth no living amphibian is a close analogue for this often giant Triassic form. A large, flattish head dominates a long, slender body with reduced limbs. The skull is covered with sculpted and textured bones somewhat reminiscent of crocodylian skull surfaces, and detailed investigation suggests this records a tight, tough facial skin (Witzmann 2009). Also like crocodylians, Mastodonsaurus eye sockets are situated on the top of the skull, not the sides as depicted at Crystal Palace. This was a peculiar decision from Hawkins, given that good Mastodonsaurus skulls were known in the early 1800s (e.g. Plieninger 1844), and that Owen knew about them (1854). Hawkins older illustrations and draft Labyrinthodon model (which was presumably shown to Owen) also show flatter heads. Do the fleshy-faced, side-eyed Crystal Palace amphibians reflect Hawkins paying more attention to frogs than Mastodonsaurus fossils? It may, as there are several other examples of Hawkins' models overriding fossil data with extant animal form, as we'll see throughout this review. Alternatively, were they errors? A misguided revision suggested by Owen or someone else? Was Hawkins simply following the illustrations of others, such as that presented in Owen's (1854) guide? Whatever the cause, this is a clear example of Hawkins not using fossil data where he could have done, in contrast to his sometimes exacting reproductions of anatomy in other areas.

Ichthyosaurs

In terms of scientific credibility, Hawkins’ three ichthyosaur statues have probably held up best of all his non-mammalian sculptures. This undoubtedly pertains to ichthyosaur skeletons being entirely known from very early in palaeontological history, as well as their familiar whale- or fish-like form. I consider them a good measure of Hawkins’ skill as a palaeoartist because it puts him on a more equal footing with modern practitioners, and suggests that when he had comprehensive datasets and suitable modern analogues he was able to produce very reasonable interpretations of fossil forms. It was largely a lack of information, not poor knowledge of anatomy and zoology, that lead to the inexactitude of the Crystal Palace models. There are three species of ichthyosaur on display, each distinguished by size and proportions, and once all considered different taxa of Ichthyosaurus. In modern parlance, they are Ichthyosaurus communis (the mid-sized ichthyosaur model), Temnodontosaurus platydon (the largest) and Leptonectes tenuirostris (smallest).

The Crystal Palace icthyosaurians in various states of visibility and repair. Top, Leptonectes tenuirostris as photographed in 2018 (I don't have any good photos of this model on account of it being hard to access and, when I was able to see it properly, the site was overgrown with lush vegetation); middle, Ichthyosaurus communis in 2018; bottom, Temnodontosaurus platydon (another 2013 photo, but this reflects the current state of the model - notice the contrast with the restored sculptures).
Much about Owen’s views on ichthyosaurs, and much of how Hawkins rendered them, remains accurate today. Owen (1854) specifically mentions the presence of smooth, scale-less skin, predicts some sort of fin at the end of their tails (identified in by Owen in 1840(a), though he was uncertain of the shape) and large eyes in these animals. We still restore ichthyosaurs in this way, albeit with some additional guidance and confidence from fossilised ichthyosaur body outlines and soft-tissues (e.g. Lindgren et al. 2018). Major additions to post-Crystal Palace reconstructions include the presence of a dorsal fin, tall and crescent-shaped tail fins, and more generous allocations of soft-tissue across the body as befitting fully marine, whale-like creatures. The presence of large eyes was then, as now, deduced not from large eye sockets but from the enormous scleral bones found in fossil ichthyosaur skulls. Owen’s statement that the function of these bones was supporting and protecting the eye is also correct, although it’s unlikely that the sclerotic ring was conspicuous in life as Hawkins depicted it. Plenty of living animals have large sclerotic rings, but they are hidden beneath eyelids and other anatomy.

An unusual property of the Crystal Palace models is the skin on their flippers, which has a very obvious scaly appearance. This reflects the Owenian hypothesis that the bones of the flippers were somehow reflected in the overlying skin scales (Owen 1841b), which Hawkins faithfully reproduced on his models. This seems unlikely given what we now know of fossilised ichthyosaur skin and the relationships between bone texture and skin anatomy. Hawkins was not solely guided by fossils in his restorations however, with details of the ichthyosaur faces reflecting whales and dolphins. This is particularly evidenced by the dolphin-like grooves and lips along their jaws, and seems entirely reasonable given what we know of ichthyosaurian skulls and the relationship between jaw bone surfaces and facial features.

A modern restoration of Temnodontosaurus eurycephalus (the larger, strand-feeding species) and Ichthyosaurus breviceps (the prey animals). In many ways, not so different from Hawkins' take.
Two aspects of the models date them firmly to palaeontology's early years. The first is that they are meant to be crawling around in shallow water, not swimming along the water surface (Owen 1854). This reflects a now long-abandoned view these reptiles could come ashore to sleep or for reproductive purposes. Secondly, all three ichthyosaur models have a great degree of flexibility in their tails, which is no longer considered plausible. The three sculpted species likely had varied capacity for tail flexion in life, with two species (Temnodontosaurus and Leptonectes) probably having more flexible tails than the relatively thunniform ('tuna-like') Ichthyosaurus communis. None had an ability to attain the eel-like tail shape reflected in the Crystal Palace models, however. This was not a mistake unique to Hawkins, but a fairly typical way of restoring ichthyosaurs in th early 1800s.

Plesiosaurians

Complete plesiosaurian skeletons allowed Hawkins to reconstruct them in a generally credible light, though the results were not as precedent as his takes on ichthyosaurs. To be fair, plesiosaurians are not as intuitive to reconstruct as ichthyosaurs and many aspects of their anatomy and functionality are debated even today. Making three-dimensional plesiosaurian sculptures just decades after their fossils were found was no mean feat, and Hawkins' models no less credible than other mid-19th century takes on these animals. Three models were created and, though similar, they have varying proportions and sizes on account of representing three species. Today, we classify these as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, “Plesiosaurusmacrocephalus, and Thalassiodracon hawkinsi.

Plesiosaurians of Crystal Palace. These are all restored to their former glory now (as per the top image) but, as with the ichthyosaur images above, I'm forced to use older, shoddier photos for two models because of all that fantastic greenery. Top, “Plesiosaurus” macrocephalus in 2018; middle, Thalassiodracon hawkinsi (2013 - note missing flipper, now replaced); bottom, Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus (2013). I've taken these identifications from McCarthy and Gilbert (1994), but I'm not sure they're correct. Surely the middle is the short-necked macrocephalus? Owen's guide is not entirely clear on the matter, unfortunately.
The proportions of Hawkins plesiosaurs are not exact to fossil data, a fact especially obvious for "P." macrocephalus, which lacks its characteristically large skull. They capture the main characteristics of plesiosaurians however, with “P”. macrocephalus - undersized head aside - being especially pleasing with its robust, deep tail and powerful-looking shoulders (see this blog post for a run down on plesiosaurian life appearance). These attributes make it the most ‘modern looking’ of all three sculptures. Additional fine details include the eyes being angled upwards, and might the obvious teeth reflect a suggestion that they were permanently visible? I’m not sure where we are regarding ideas about plesiosaurian facial tissues, but it’s not unreasonable to assume liplessness, or at least lipless regions, for some or most plesiosaurians (and it seems near certain for some taxa, like pliosaurids). The presence of smooth skin does not entirely align with what we now know of plesiosaurian anatomy, but it’s not a bad inference given that their scales were actually tiny - just millimetres across (Frey et al. 2017). It’s difficult to imagine how the materials available to Hawkins and his team could have been crafted to show such fine detail even if such data was available to them.

There are several major differences between Hawkinsian plesiosaurians and our modern takes. The most obvious of these is their thin, highly flexed necks, which recall those of long-necked birds or snakes even down the obvious neck/skull junction. It is highly unlikely that plesiosaurians could bend their necks as depicted at Crystal Palace, nor do their neck vertebrae imply a light covering of musculature (Noè et al. 2017). Today, we assume plesiosaurians were capable of a reasonable degree of neck flexion, but perhaps only to the extent of forming broad arcs, not multiple tight curves. The Crystal Palace plesiosaurians also have slender, flexible bodies, more like those of lizards (to which they were often compared in early palaeontological literature) than their actual stiffened, barrel-shaped torsos. The P. dolichodeirus and Thalassiodracon hawkinsi models are particularly afflicted with this issue, and their long, flexible tails accentuate their lithe forms further. We can perhaps rationalise this by the holotypes of these plesiosaurs having relatively narrow torsos (a taphonomic influence is probable in both cases) as well as the prevalent early-19th century idea that plesiosaurians were more closely related to lizards than other marine reptiles ("Plesiosaurus", roughly translated, means "allied to lizards" - Owen 1854). Unbeknown to Hawkins and Owen, we would eventually find soft-tissue outlines of plesiosaurians showing substantial soft-tissue around their tails, perhaps reflecting hindlimb musculature (assuming they anchored some major leg muscles on their tails, as is the case for most reptiles) as well as body-contouring fatty tissues (Frey et al. 2017). Their flippers were also augmented with soft-tissue expansions, something Owen knew about for ichthyosaurs, but would not be apparent for plesiosaurians until the late 19th century.

George Scharf's illustration of "P. macrocepahlus", featured in Owen (1840b). The skull is obviously very large in this species, but Hawkins did not capture this in his model.
Further contrast with modern plesiosaur reconstrusions concerns the attitude and flexion of the statues' flippers. They are shown as having ample fore and aft motion as well as obvious elbow and knee joints. This was pretty typical of plesiosaurian art in the 19th century, and probably reflected Victorian assumptions of a turtle-like locomotory capacity in these reptiles. Today, we regard plesiosaur flippers as having more limited flexion. They had no joints along their length, and forward and backward motions were the most limiting axes of their shoulder and hip articulations (e.g. Carpenter et al. 2010; Liu et al. 2015). These properties have bearing on another difference: the portrayal of all three plesiosaurians as crawling in shallow water. It’s near certain that plesiosaurians would struggle to move around out of water (see this blog post for details), and evidence that they gave live birth negates the need for land-based behaviour (O'Keefe and Chiappe 2011). But for Hawkins, Owen and other 19th century scholars, who still regarded even ichthyosaurs as using land-based reproduction, plesiosaurians crawling around on land would have seemed reasonable.

Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus as we know it today: not a million miles off the Crystal Palace reconstruction, but significantly different in several aspects.

That's all for now, but we'll soon move on to teleosaurids, pterosaurs and - the star attractions: dinosaurs! Remember to check out the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs website if you haven't already, and please consider getting involved with supporting these fantastic, significant models if you can.

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References

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  • Benton, M. J., & Gower, D. J. (1997). Richard Owen's giant Triassic frogs: archosaurs from the Middle Triassic of England. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 17(1), 74-88.
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  • Noè, L. F., Taylor, M. A., & Gómez-Pérez, M. (2017). An integrated approach to understanding the role of the long neck in plesiosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 62(1), 137-162.
  • O’Keefe, F. R., & Chiappe, L. M. (2011). Viviparity and K-selected life history in a Mesozoic marine plesiosaur (Reptilia, Sauropterygia). Science, 333(6044), 870-873.
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Friday, 22 February 2019

How to spot palaeontological crankery

Pterosaurs, such as the newly described Jurassic species Klobiodon rochei, are magnets for palaeontological cranks: those individuals who harbour and promote idiosyncratic and problematic ideas about palaeobiological topics. Some cranks are a genuine nuisance for educators, but they are easy enough to spot and avoid if you know their characteristics. Say, that sounds like a good idea for a blog post.
Like many popular sciences, palaeontology attracts individuals harbouring what can kindly be called ‘alternative’ or ‘fringe’ ideas: interpretations of evolutionary relationships, animal biomechanics or other facets of palaeobiology that contrast with ‘mainstream’ science. Such individuals are generally referred to as "cranks" - a term defined at Wikipedia as "a person who holds an unshakable belief that most of his or her contemporaries consider to be false". While most crank palaeontology is confined to obscure literature or forgotten corners of the internet, and is therefore pretty harmless, some cranks are major sources of misinformation thanks to their prominent, professional-looking websites, deals with mainstream book publishers, or careers in public outreach exercises.

Cranks are thus a real issue for palaeontological educators and science communicators. Students, teachers and naive members of the public are all potential victims of crankery, and many of us have witnessed crank media being embraced or shared by well-meaning individuals. Among those of us interested in science and outreach, cranks are a semi-regular topic of conversation: how do we combat their miseducation? Ignore them? Engage them on social media? Take them on in public debates? I don't know that there's a right answer, but one approach we can use is helping less experienced individuals recognise crankery when they find it. As with most peddlers of alternative ideas and pseudoscience, palaeontological cranks have characteristic behaviours and interests that stand out quickly once you learn what they are, and this can only help us avoid being hoodwinked by their unique brand of miseducation.

This, then, is my attempt to prime readers for recognising palaeontological crankery. In the interests of making this article as accessible as possible I've attempted to use easily understood, plain-English throughout. I'm dividing the post in two: first, we'll outline the commonest subjects of palaeontological crankery, so as to let readers know when to be extra alert for crank output; and in the second section, we'll look at some crank red flags which should set our sceptical systems to maximum alert. It's worth noting before we dive in that I'm only concerned with 'true' palaeontological cranks here, and will not be tackling young earth creationism, evolution deniers or palaeo-themed cryptozoology. Those are all worthy topics but are well beyond our scope today. I'm also going to generally avoid naming and linking to specific cranks or sources in this article, on grounds that any publicity is good publicity.

The favoured subjects of palaeontological cranks


Claims of remarkable fossil discoveries
Probably the commonest form of palaeontological crankery is the claim of having a significant fossil discovery, yet to be recognised by science. This might be an amazing new fossil, such as a complete pterosaur head in amber, or it could be the identification of overlooked extra bones, soft-tissues or other features on an existing specimen. Cranks making these claims vary as to whether or not they've actually seen the specimens they're discussing, and sometimes they work only from images found in papers, books or on websites. These 'discoveries' are often the crux of all subsequent output from that individual, whether they are simply showing off their specimens on a website or using them to inform ideas about evolution and biomechanics.

Most fossils don't escape some damage en route to discovery by humans: cracks, breaks, distortion of other kinds are common, as shown here on the broken holotype skull of the pterosaur Lacusovagus magnificens. But some individuals will not see these as artefacts of preservation and instead assume that they represent overlooked structures such as teeth, bone divisions or vestigial elements. Given that this work is often based on photos alone, this implies that the experts who spent hours or days studying the actual specimens have missed obvious structures, but that the crank is able to see them without difficulty in a photograph.
A phrase tossed about lots when talking about these claims is 'pareidolia' - the phenomenon of seeing significant patterns or forms in what is actually random visual data. Like perceiving a face on Mars or Jesus on a slice of toast, these individuals 'find' significance in rock structures, cracks on fossils, detritus in amber, or even artefacts of image reproduction. Overwhelmingly, the response from people who've experienced the fossils in question is that these claims represent major over-interpretation of specimens.

Rearranging evolutionary trees
Most would agree that determining the relationships of species with one another is a challenging endeavour, but that generations of anatomical and genetic-based investigations have created a reasonable insight into the broad outline of life's evolution. Not so, according to many cranks, several of whom argue that major branches of evolution (mostly certain charismatic tetrapods) are misplaced in 'mainstream' takes on life's evolutionary tree. Oddly, few cranks agree on exactly which relationships are incorrect. Are birds pterosaurs? Are mammals archosauromorphs? Are pangolins late-surviving stegosaurs? There are lots of alternatives out there, leaving only a smattering of die-hard BAND ("Birds Are Not Dinosaurs") supporters agreeing over where we've got our interpretation wrong.

These contrary opinions are mostly informed by nothing but intuition or cherry-picked data. On rare occasions, actual phylogenetic software is used to predict non-standard evolutionary trees, but it's well documented that these analyses are so broken and misinformed by problematic anatomical data that their results are meaningless. Darren Naish's article on the claims made at the infamous website ReptileEvolution.com offers a great insight into a particularly egregious example of this, and is recommended reading for anyone researching paleontological subjects online.

Amazingly, there are still people out there who doubt the bird-dinosaur link, despite the literal thousands of fossils and hundreds of studies that evidence the origin of birds among theropod dinosaurs. Even relatively non-birdy theropods, like Gorgosaurus libratus, shown here, have skeletons littered with features that are otherwise only seen in bird-line tetrapods.
The lifestyles of fossil reptiles
The great size and peculiar anatomy of many fossil animals - but especially certain Mesozoic reptiles - draws crank attention when they don't buy into accepted modern interpretations of their lifestyles. How could large dinosaurs support their great weight on land? How did plane-sized pterosaurs fly? How could an animal the size and shape of a giant theropod be hidden from prey? Rather than deriving answers from disciplines that have a genuine bearing on these issues, such as biomechanics, fossil trackways, palaeoenvironmental interpretations, or the ecology of living predators, cranks instead propose radical solutions. Perhaps all dinosaurs were aquatic? Maybe Earth's atmosphere was thicker, or gravity was radically different from how we know it today?

Each of these 'solutions' is actually a rabbit hole of problems, errors and logical fallacies that we could disappear into for some time. It's common for cranks to cite something from their background that makes them uniquely able to see biomechanical problems where others can't. My favourite example is a high-school physics teacher who argues that they understand giant dinosaurs and pterosaurs better than anyone because of a particularly formidable understanding of square-cube law. What we're really seeing in these cases is Dunning-Kruger effect: a cognitive bias where individuals rank their cognition of a topic much higher than anyone else, even if they have only a slight or even problematic understanding of the subject in question. I can give no better example of this than the recent and public debate over Too Big to Walk, a book by microbiologist Brian Ford (published in 2018) which proposes that dinosaurs were incapable of supporting themselves on land and must have been confined to aquatic habits. Ford's thesis is outlined here and in other articles online, with responses by palaeontologist and dinosaur specialist Darren Naish here, here and here. All palaeontological crankery is reliant on Dunning-Kruger to a certain extent, but crank arguments about the lifestyles or biomechanics of prehistoric reptiles are particularly good examples.

10 Red flags and pointers for spotting crank palaeontology

If these are the current hot topics in palaeontolgical crankery, how do we distinguish genuine scientific discussions of these matters from crank nonsense? Given that most cranks seem to regard themselves as somehow 'special' - being of unique abilities and insight, or at least due respect for authoring some critical scientific breakthrough - it must pain them to learn that they are actually extremely similar and predictable in how they present their work, talk about themselves and interact with others. This is to our benefit, as it gives us excellent means to guauge the general reliability of whatever it is we're reading or listening to. Some of these checks and tells are listed below. This list is not exhaustive, but if an article, presentation or book hits a number of these marks you probably want to treat their content with extra scepticism.

1. The creation of a problem to solve
Our first red flag is the prediction of cranks to manufacture problems that need solving. They confidently make grand claims like "scientists have never explained this" or "subject X has never been satisfactorily investigated". Such statements are an essential foundation of crank thinking because if these 'problems' didn't exist, the crank would have nothing to 'solve'. While many palaeontologically savvy readers will smell these rats immediately, such claims stand a chance of duping naive readers. Be cautious when reading any sweeping, unreferenced suggestion that we're entirely wrong or misinformed about a particular facet of palaeontology. It's actually very difficult to think of a major palaeontological area where all previous work is totally useless, and such claims are more likely to be someone sidestepping science in order to create space for a pseudoscientific approach.

2. Avoidance of conflicting data or fields of study
A sure-fire crank giveaway is the dismissal of data contradicting with their ideas, even if that means rejecting an entire scientific discipline. Science works by testing ideas using different methods, not through cherry picking the results and methods that best support our preferred ideas. If someone states that DNA-based methods for reconstructing evolutionary trees are bogus, or that fossil footprints have no bearing on the habitat preferences of giant extinct animals, there's a good chance that they're attempting to deflect data that conflicts with their ideas.

3. Over-confidence
One of the most defining features of cranks is their confidence. Genuine palaeontologists, like all scientists, learn early in their careers to be careful about overstating certainty. Outside of describing raw data (e.g. reporting measurements or the outcomes of analyses) they use cautious phraseology like "this infers", "our findings indicate", and "we were unable to replicate Author X's findings". This accepts that interpreting fossil life is always a work in progress and that our work is rarely the last word on a given topic. Cranks, on the other hand, tend to write boldly and without reserve: "this is", "I have shown" and "Author X is blinkered and wrong". This level of confidence is not only misplaced (cranks revise their ideas as often as legitimate scientists, often without documenting why) but characterises a dangerous level of self-belief for someone purporting to conduct legitimate science.

Cranks are drawn to large dinosaurs like Dreadnoughtus schrani when they cannot, or will not, accept that they were capable of walking on land, which leads to ideas of dinosaurs living largely in water, in denser atmospheres, or under reduced gravity. Huge swathes of data from anatomy, geology and dinosaur trackways show that none of these concepts are correct. It also seems lost on cranks that plenty of non-dinosaurian Mesozoic organisms would struggle to live in denser atmospheres, low gravity or waterlogged habitats. It's almost like these ideas are not well thought through.
4. An embarrassment of scientific riches
It's rare for cranks to make one bold claim. Instead, they frequently have a slew of amazing, game-changing discoveries. They don't have one amazing fossil, they have many. Palaeontologists have not got the anatomy of one species wrong, they've overlooked major anatomical characteristics across huge groups. And it's common for cranks to suggest that their work has a significant bearing on all manner of palaeontological mysteries: that their idea on dinosaur locomotion also explains giant pterosaur flight, that their anatomical criteria for understanding the evolution of reptiles can be applied, without modification, to mammals or birds. It's a hallmark of crankery to have all the answers - or at least more answers than 'mainstream' scientists.

Claims for so many ground-breaking discoveries should immediately trigger our scepticism. Yes, there are skilled and prolific scientists who make numerous significant contributions to our collective knowledge, but they do not make them every week. Good science takes time: time to collect and analyse data, time to document and report the findings, time for peers to check the work, and time to publish it in a suitable venue. While the crank may view their churning out of game-changing revelations as the inevitable consequence of a self-led scientific revolution, they're actually exposing their lack of rigour, willingness or ability to have their work vetted by relevant experts.

5. An abundance of self-citation
Does the article you're reading extensively cite the work of the author, and almost always in an affirming light? It would be wrong to say that genuine scientists do not self-cite, or even that some do not over cite their own work (scientists have egos too, many have rather big ones), but if you're reading a work that is extensively citing and complementing the author's own work, be wary: this is often a sign of crankery. This red flag flies especially high if the author is demeaning the work of others while holding their own work in high regard (see below).

6. Knowing your authors
In science, what is said matters more than who says it, but when a questionable claim is made the integrity of the author can be a useful indicator of credibility. Whether we like it or not, reputation matters. We should be extra sceptical with proposals made by those with a history of quackery or no background in the field they're claiming expertise in. This is not to say that amateur or non-professional individuals can't or won't have insights on palaeontolgical matters overlooked by experienced researchers, but folks without experience or training in a relevant field are more prone to making mistakes and overlooking data. It’s quite easy to research scientists and educators nowadays by simply Googling their names, or by asking around in the right internet venues. Sometimes this very quickly reveals whether you should be taking that individual seriously, or if you need to take a more cautious approach to their ideas.

7. Misleading credentials and other trickery
While some cranks decry academic titles, others flaunt their credentials to add support to their claims. But simply having a high-level qualification does not make someone an expert in all subjects. If someone is making questionable claims, check out what their qualifications are actually in: having a postgraduate qualification in microbiology or graphic design does not automatically equate to an equivalent understanding of dinosaurian biomechanics. Similarly, be wary of cranks making up official-sounding institutions as their place of research. There's no restriction on naming your own institution or society so cranks can create 'scientific' or 'educational' bodies as easily as I can call my garden shed the "Mark Witton Institute of Natural History". A quick round of Googling will quickly expose these institutions and credentials for what they really are. Needless to say, if someone is distorting their credentials in order to seem more authoritative, you've got an excellent reason to question pretty much everything they say.

That most cranks have only a superficial knowledge of palaeontology is demonstrated by their focus on well-known and charismatic species such as big dinosaurs and pterosaurs. It's rare to see cranks applying their ideas to more routine, less exciting species like extinct fish, invertebrates or even crocodyliforms like Hulkeopholis willetti. My hunch is that most cranks learn about palaeontology largely through popular media and if so, this explains why their ideas are so easily dismissed. Even basic training in palaeontology is enough to expose major holes in their ideas.
8. A predilection for criticism and personal attacks of scientists
Because cranks believe they have a superior scientific insight they are often extremely critical of other researchers. This seems to get worse as the crank gets older and has faced long-term rejection from the scientific community, and it can manifest itself in particularly nasty and underhand ways: obsessive and ultra-detailed 'criticisms' of published works; personal attacks and harassment of scientists; accusations of institutions being dogmatic, blinkered or even fundamentalist in their adherence to 'mainstream' views; and even attempts to dissuade prospective PhD students from legitimate postgraduate programmes. You don't see comments like this in legitimate research because genuine science is concerned with hypotheses and ideas, not venting frustrations at individuals or institutions. Crank hostility can be especially obvious if they have a comment field on their websites: when challenged, they are often quick to vent their frustrations.

9. The Galileo Gambit
Another major red flag common to all cranks is their frequent comparison between themselves and scientists who received establishment pushback against their ideas - Wegner, Galileo, Darwin and so on. The folly of the Galileo Gambit is well established and we needn't outline it in detail here, it will suffice to point out that invoking these big names is clear evidence of self-belief in their own abilities against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Note that scientists making genuine research contributions never use this defence when proposing ideas they know will cause upset or controversy. If you see someone comparing themselves in this way to a historically persecuted scientific figure, there's a very good chance they're a dyed-in-the-wool crank.

10. Beware of Big Palaeo!
Saving the best until last: yes, unbelievable as it is, there are individuals who suggest mainstream scientists are somehow organising against them to suppress their work. While maybe not imagining something as sinister as the Big Pharma conspiracy, some cranks infer that palaeontology is governed by individuals who dictate what is and what isn't acceptable science, and who forbid the publication of work that challenges the status quo. The plot thickens with universities not simply training scientists, but actually indoctrinating them into this way of thinking. This casts PhDs not as experts in their subject, but as brainwashed members of the Big Palaeo cult. In controlling the ebb and flow of palaeontological science these individuals are able to maintain lofty academic positions and secure grant money. In my experience, this claim tends to follow the crank's papers being rejected from academic journals or finding that no palaeontologists will agree with their interpretation of an (allegedly) amazing fossil.

As someone with academic experience myself, I find this mindset genuinely fascinating. It gives a real insight into how some cranks see the world: so convinced are they of their own findings and significance that their rejection from academia can only reflect a global, organised conspiracy. In reality, their lack of academic recognition reflects the fact that any average scientist can spot fatal errors in their proposals. Moreover, the idea that palaeontologists, or any scientists, suppress controversial new ideas is ludicrous. Within the well-publicised realm of dinosaur science, just some recently published contentious ideas include the recovery of soft, unlithified proteinaceous tissues in 80 million year old fossil bones (Schweitzer et al. 2005), that Spinosaurus was a weirdly proportioned, archaeocete-like quadruped (Ibrahim et al. 2014), and that major branches of the dinosaur evolutionary tree have been incorrectly arranged for a century (Baron et al. 2017). These are bold claims that remain debated, but they were published nonetheless. The difference between these papers and crank ideas is simply the evidence and methodologies used to justify their conclusions - that's all there is to it. We could write a whole essay on how flawed the idea of a Big Palaeo conspiracy is but, in short, if you encounter anybody claiming their work is being silenced by a conspiracy of palaeontologists they are, without doubt, an embittered crank of the highest order.

These are just a few giveaways that you're dealing with a palaeontological crank, hopefully they're of use to folks less familiar with the more questionable parts of palaeontological outreach. Some readers may have identified some parts of the above list as common hallmarks of more general crankery, and that's no coincidence: as mentioned above, although crank subjects change, their behaviour and public presentation is remarkably consistent. There are longer, more detailed discussions of crank detection available online, but what we've outlined here should be enough to equip most readers with an early warning system for crankery. We've not, of course, answered the question about what to do with cranks when we identify them. Should we ignore them? Alert others about them? Contact them about their bad science? That's another long discussion (and a much murkier one) however, so that'll have to wait for another time.

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References

  • Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B., & Barrett, P. M. (2017). A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution. Nature, 543(7646), 501.
  • Ford, B. J. (2018). Too Big to Walk: The New Science of Dinosaurs. HarperCollins UK.
  • Ibrahim, N., Sereno, P. C., Dal Sasso, C., Maganuco, S., Fabbri, M., Martill, D. M., ... & Iurino, D. A. (2014). Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur. Science, 345(6204), 1613-1616.
  • Schweitzer, M. H., Wittmeyer, J. L., Horner, J. R., & Toporski, J. K. (2005). Soft-tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex. Science, 307(5717), 1952-1955.