|Figure 1. A feathered Tianyulong|
by Xing Lida (from Zimmer, 2011).
One of my money-draining habits these days is to rifle through all the science magazines on the rack at the supermarket, and buy any that feature interesting articles on subjects I find intriguing. Originally, this habit evolved as “research” for several still-born fiction projects, but with the advent of this blog I now have a forum for yabbering on about weird science stuff and somehow attempting to find a connection to the ‘fantasy game book’ of my blog’s title. By happy chance, this month’s edition of National Geographic (2011, February, 219 (2)) features not one but three articles immediately applicable as jumping off points for an ad-hoc conglomeration of disparate musings.
First up we have ‘The long curious extravagant evolution of feathers’ by Carl Zimmer (2011), accompanied by some fantastic illustrations by Xing Lida (see Figure 1). This article summarizes a lot of recent research dealing with the development of feathers in both dinosaurs and birds, included projected colour schemes based on microscopic analysis of fossilized pigment sacs, and the relatively recent discovery of feather-like filaments in herbivorous ornithischian dinosaurs (for a recent blog on the dinosaur-bird connection, see Naish, 2011).
[Interestingly, there are some scientists who believe that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs. This group are known as “Birds Are Not Dinosaurs” or BAND for short. Given the amount of evidence summarized in Zimmer (2011), this would seem an untenable position! For more details on BAND and the potential pitfalls in their views, see Naish (2009, 2010)]
|Figure 2. Excerpt of the Family Tree of Archosaurs by Xing Lida (from Zimmer, 2011).|
One of the best features of the article (and in fact the reason I handed my cash over in the first place), is the Family Tree of Archosaurs which features an explosive radiation of colourful feathered dinosaurs and their relatives the true birds (see Figure 2). Looking at this amazing chart, it reminds me of what I term the ‘Dinosaur Lag Effect’ whereby the general public’s perception of dinosaurs, particularly as reflected in various media forms, lags significantly behind the current viewpoint of professional research scientists (and interested amateurs such as myself!).
I first became aware of this time-gap in dinosaur awareness when reading Coleman and Huyghe (2003), concerning the reported presence of a creature called the Mokele-mbembe in the wetlands and rainforests of central Africa (see Figure 3), that some considered a possible sauropod dinosaur:
|Figure 3. The Mokele-mbembe|
by Harry Trumbore
(from Coleman & Huyghe, 2003).
Darren Naish, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth and a critic of cryptozoology [and the same person as named previously], has pointed out that Mokele-mbembe “as a swamp-dwelling amphibious sauropod owes itself entirely to outdated restorations of sauropods as hippo-like swamp-dwellers, supposedly adapted for life in marshy environments.” Naish takes cryptozoologists to task for linking Mokele-mbembe to the pre-1950 conceptualization of sauropods, which he notes are incorrect. Today, sauropods are depicted as terrestrial dry-land animals, according the analysts such as Naish and dinosaur theorist Robert T. Bakker. “From the point of view of a contemporary paleontologist,” wrote Naish in Fortean Studies in 2001, “the cryptozoological view of the Mokele-mbembe is a cultural anachronism, not a zoological one and, accordingly, I and other modern paleontologists have great difficulty in imagining that the Mokele-mbembe could be a sauropod. (p. 223)
Not that this Dinosaur Lag is in any way restricted to cryptozoology. Take gamebooks for example, and Fighting Fantasy in particular. Grab a copy of Out of the Pit (Gascoigne, 1985) and consult the entry for Brontosaurus:
…their grey bodies are large and flabby, and supported on
four stumpy legs…They spend most of their time immersed in water or mud which helps them support their vast bulk…
It sounds identical to the cryptozoological view of the Mokele-mbembe. Subsequent books also depict similar dinosaur anachronisms, including Robot Commando (
, 1986), Battleblade Warrior (Gascoigne, 1988), and Portal of Evil (Darvill-Evans, 1989). Jackson
Interestingly though, while Fighting Fantasy may lag behind in terms of overall dinosaur theory, it is highly susceptible to the discovery of big and spectacular species. For example, following the discovery of Baryonyx in 1983 (the first carnivorous/piscivorous dinosaur found with a crocodile-like skull), we had a miniature radiation of such creatures appearing in various adventure gamebooks (see Figure 4), including:
- a purple Crocosaurus (Mason & Williams, 1985, p. 22)
- a Crocosaurus with the body of a dinosaur (Dille & Gygax, 1985, paragraph 35)
- a crocodile-headed Blood Fiend (Morris, 1985, paragraph 252)
- an albino alligator-headed bipedal Swamp Mutant (Gascoigne, 1988, paragraph 372)
The take-home message from this interlude would appear to be that while dinosaur theory may lag; big, ferocious or just plain cool dinosaur discoveries often do not.
Sometimes, there’s not only a lag but a completely erroneous viewpoint as well. Consider the Warhammer World of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle (3rd Edition) rulebook for example. Here we learn of the Cold Ones, a term that encompasses various types of reptiles including sentient races such as Lizardmen and Troglodytes, as well as more dinosaur-like varieties such as the Cold One riding animal. Already, we have a lag effect in operation, as the very name “Cold One” alludes to these creatures as being cold-blooded. This is then compounded by bad science, where we find:
Deep in the subterranean caverns beneath the mountains of the world live the remnants of a mighty reptilian dynasty. At the dawn of time their animal forebearers ruled the planet, and from them evolved the reptilian races of Lizardmen and Troglodytes. With the arrival of the Slann the climate became warmer and the sunlight stronger, conditions which drove the reptilian races into the deepest caverns below ground. (Priestley & Bambra, 1987, p. 241)
Actually, if conditions became warmer, these Cold Ones would instead be happier and certainly not hide away in the bowels of the earth. Evidently in this case, cold-blooded has been confused for cold-loving (or heat-abhoring).
What causes the Dinosaur Lag Effect? Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic, in describing one of his early tyrannosaur strips, cites laziness, saying: “The number of fingers [three instead of two], his alligator belly, the dragging tail, etc., are all wrong. Obviously, I did no research whatsoever” (1995, p. 51, see Figure 5). This was later rectified, with Watterson noting further that:
The dinosaurs I put in Calvin and Hobbes have become one of my favourite additions to the strip. Dinosaurs have appeared in many strips before mine, but I like to think I’ve treated them with a little more respect than they’ve often received at the hands of cartoonists.
When I was Calvin’s age, I had a nicely illustrated dinosaur book and some dinosaur models, so it was a natural step to have Calvin share that interest. The first dinosaurs I put in the strip were based on my childhood memories of them. Back in the ‘60s, dinosaurs were imagined as lumbering, dim-witted, cold-blooded, oversized lizards. That’s how I drew them in the first strips, and these drawings are now pretty embarrassing to look at. When I realized that dinosaurs offered Calvin interesting story possibilities, I started researching for books to rekindle my interest in them. It was then I discovered what I’d missed in paleontology during the last twenty years.
Dinosaurs, I quickly learned, were wilder than anything I’d ever imagined. Tails up, with birdlike agility, these were truly the creatures of nightmares. My drawings began to reflect the new information, and with each strip I’ve tried to learn more and to depict dinosaurs more accurately. I do this partly for my own amusement, and partly because, for Calvin, dinosaurs are very, very real.
Dinosaurs have expanded Calvin’s world and opened up some exciting graphic possibilities. The biggest reward for me, however, has been the fun I’ve had exploring a new interest. I enjoy dinosaurs more now than I did as a kid, and much of the job of being a cartoonist lies in keeping alive a sense of curiosity and wonder. Sometimes the best way to generate new ideas is to go out and learn something. (p. 150)
Finally, in tandem with this, we find that way back in the pages of early Dragon magazines, Schick (1981) was already doing his research with respect to dinosaurs and AD&D:
…debate is currently underway among scientists over whether dinosaurs are ectothermic (cold-blooded) like reptiles, endothermic (warm-blooded like mammals), some of each, or something in between. Regardless of how this question is eventually resolved, it seems certain that dinosaurs are not the slow-moving, slow-reacting sluggards they were once commonly thought to be. (p. 12)
Likewise, a few years later and still in the pages of Dragon magazine, around the time that Fighting Fantasy was continuing to perpetuate older views of dinosaurs, Inniss (1986) noted:
There are other reasons as well for taking a fresh look at Mesozoic animals in the AD&D game. For one thing, the view has grown over the past decade or so that dinosaurs were not just big reptiles. They were biologically comparable to birds or mammals, or at the very least belong in a category by themselves, unlike other “reptiles”. They may indeed have been warm-blooded, as is indicated by several lines of circumstantial evidence. This makes the animals more useful and interesting… (p. 11)
A final point concerning this article by Inniss is that it contains if not the first, then certainly one of the earliests images of a feathered dinosaur I think I may have seen (certainly in a roleplaying context), in the form of a plumed coelurosaur (see Figure 6).
The basic conclusion from this look at the Dinosaur Lag Effect, is that it pays to do your research. In particular, it makes your work look less dated when the rest of the world catches up with current scientific theory. With the speed that information travels these days, this is only going to become more apparent in our accelerated culture. Some may argue that fantasy, as a genre of imagination, should be immune from this automatic updating of realistic theory. I would consider though that fantasy has come a long way from the days of its earliest practitioners already, and in future will be moving into areas we cannot yet define. If you want your work to look good in the meantime, do your research on the parts of your fantasy work you can substantiate as it will make the imaginary sections all the more believable for having been based on a logical and consistent framework.
Coleman, L. & Huyghe, P. (2003). The field guide to lake monsters, sea serpents, and other mystery denizens of the deep.
Darvill-Evans, P. (1989). Portal of evil.
: Puffin Books. London
Dille, F. & Gygax, G. (1985). Sagard the barbarian: #2 The green hydra.
: Archway Paperback. New York
Gascoigne, M. (1985). Out of the pit.
: Puffin Books. London
Gascoigne, M. (1988). Battleblade warrior.
: Puffin Books. London
Inniss, S. (1986). Mesozoic monsters: From the mightiest to the meekest. Dragon, 112, pp. 10-16, 66-77.
Mason , P. & Williams, S. (1985). Deathtrap on legs. Warlock: The Fighting Fantasy Magazine, 7(December/January), pp. 22-24.
Morris, D. (1985). The eye of the dragon.
: Dragon Books. London
Naish, D. (2009, July 17). Publishing with a hidden agenda: why birds simply cannot be dinosaurs. Message posted to http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2009/07/birds_cannot_be_dinosaurs.php
Naish, D. (2010, June 28). Gary Kaiser’s The Inner Bird: Anatomy and Evolution. Message posted to http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2010/06/gary_kaisers_the_inner_bird.php
Naish, D. (2011, January 12). Luis Chiappe’s Glorified Dinosaurs: The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds. Message posted to http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2011/01/luis_chiappes_glorified_dinosaurs.php
Schick, L. (1981). Dinosaurs: New theories for old monsters. Dragon, 55, pp. 12-16, 72-73.
Priestley, R. & Bambra, J. (1987). Warhammer fantasy battle (3rd Edition).
Nottingham: Games Workshop.
Watterson, B. (1995). The Calvin and Hobbes tenth anniversary book.
: Scholastic Inc. New York
Zimmer, C. (2011). The long curious extravagant evolution of feathers. National Geographic. 219(2), pp. 32-57.