Monday, January 24, 2011

Feathered Dinosaurs and the Dinosaur Lag Effect

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…
(p. 37)

It sounds identical to the cryptozoological view of the Mokele-mbembe. Subsequent books also depict similar dinosaur anachronisms, including Robot Commando (Jackson, 1986), Battleblade Warrior (Gascoigne, 1988), and Portal of Evil (Darvill-Evans, 1989).

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:
Figure 4. "Spawn of Baryonyx!". Clockwise
 from top right: Swamp Mutant
 by Alan Langford (from Gascoigne, 1988);
Blood Fiend by Russ Nicholson
(from Morris, 1985); Crocosaurus
by Simon Ecob (from Mason & Williams, 1985);
and Crocosaurus by Les Morrill
(from Dille & Gygax, 1985).

-         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:

Figure 5. Bill Watterson's tyrannosaurs: old (left) and new
(from Watterson, 1995).

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).

Figure 6. Feathered coelurosaur by Jim Holloway (from Inniss, 1986).

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. New York: Tarcher/Penguin.

Darvill-Evans, P. (1989). Portal of evil. London: Puffin Books.

Dille, F. & Gygax, G. (1985). Sagard the barbarian: #2 The green hydra. New York: Archway Paperback.

Gascoigne, M. (1985). Out of the pit. London: Puffin Books.

Gascoigne, M. (1988). Battleblade warrior. London: Puffin Books.

Inniss, S. (1986). Mesozoic monsters: From the mightiest to the meekest. Dragon, 112, pp. 10-16, 66-77.

Jackson, S. (1986). Robot commando. London: Puffin Books.

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. London: Dragon Books.

Naish, D. (2009, July 17). Publishing with a hidden agenda: why birds simply cannot be dinosaurs. Message posted to

Naish, D. (2010, June 28). Gary Kaiser’s The Inner Bird: Anatomy and Evolution. Message posted to

Naish, D. (2011, January 12). Luis Chiappe’s Glorified Dinosaurs: The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds. Message posted to

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. New York: Scholastic Inc.

Zimmer, C. (2011). The long curious extravagant evolution of feathers. National Geographic. 219(2), pp. 32-57.


  1. I'm a huge fan of dinosaurs, and while its great that we are discovering more and more about them, I still have a fondness for the lumbering, dull-witted, cold-blooded monsters of old. I would hate to see a feathered Deinonychus or Tyrannosaurus show up in a Fighting Fantasy book, because to me the outdated view of dinosaurs in the series adds to the flavour of the setting. It's obvious from the Out of the Pit entries (as you pointed out) that FF dinosaurs adhere more to the depictions in stop-motion b-movies from the 50's and science books from yesteryear. And, in my opinion, that's just the way they should stay!

    - JEDIboyy

  2. Hi Brett - I agree with you to some extent, as I've also got a fondness for the 'old-style' depiction of dinosaurs, but if one of them turned up in a new FF title, it would look just as strange given modern research. Perhaps that's why you fight a TERRIBLE LIZARD in Bloodbones, as it save Jon Green having to describe either a feathered dinosaur or an old-style beast.

    [It's also interesting with the last King Kong movie (and associated media) that none of the dinosaurs had any feathers or dinofuzz either, even the sickle-clawed dromaeosaur relatives who are supposed to be bird-like]

    Having said that, there was no excuse at the time to get a bit of research done and present them properly, but it never happened. Plenty of the pictures of dinosaurs from FF are also tragically wrong (a carnivorous ankylosaur in Portals of Evil, for instance, and possibly a future blog post), and deserve better, but the artists, Alan Langford in particular, fell into Watterson's "laziness trap".



  3. Great post Andy! I now feel like I need to know a whole lot more about the current state of affairs in dinosaur studies. Can you recommend any decent book which gives a good detailed overview?

    I'm kind of with Brett in liking the old B-movie style dinosaurs in Fighting Fantasy - who doesn't want to see a T-Rex and Triceratops fighting each other in the classic way after all?! But I also see the appeal in updating things - I suppose in fantasy settings we can have our cake and eat it.

  4. Hi Warren,

    Book-wise I'd recommend Darren Naish's Great Dinosaur Discoveries, which is available here:

    The Great Dinosaur Discoveries

    It's an excellent summary of where things were and where they are now in terms of dinosaur studies. The classic tome from the late eighties (and since updated) is Robert T. Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies, which details a lot of the early seachanges in dinosaur thought. You'll recognised this book immediately because Martin McKenna lifted the cover for his illustration of a Pit Fiend in the Deathtrap Dungeon computer game bestiary!

    Fantasy worlds certainly do have the appeal of mixing and matching. I've got no idea of what the various D&D gameworlds are like these days, but Glorantha famously went from having "vanilla" dwarfs and elves to weird machine folk and humanoid vegetables respectively. There's no easy answer but I guess as long as we realise Titan's dinosaurs are hideously 'wrong' but all the more enjoyable for that, then there's no harm done. :-)



  5. I've got a copy of the Dinosaur Heresies - a very interesting read. There was a toy series that came out in the 80's called Dino-Riders, where two space-faring races (one good and one evil) ended up trapped on prehistoric Earth. There they befriended/enslaved the dinosaurs and armed them with lasers to fight each other!

    Anyway, they hired Robert T. Bakker as an advisor and for the most part the dinosaur figures were very realistic and accurate (at the time). Unfortunately he walked out when they started ignoring his advice in favour of popularity. The small Euoplocephalus became an Ankylosaurus and the Apatosaurus was called a Brontosaurus because the name recognition was greater for the incorrect names than the correct ones.

    The 80's were a turbulent time for dinosaurs, it seems! I think part of the reluctance to show dinosaurs with feathers is because they lose a lot of their fearsome appearance. What's more impressive - a scaly Pit Fiend or an overgrown turkey? :P

    p.s. In the first Jurassic Park movie, the velociraptors were going to be depicted with snake-like forked tongues before Dr. Bakker stepped in to right things once again!

    - JEDIboyy

  6. Having seen the cover and pix for Bones of the Banished in Fighting Fantazine 5, I can now see where the Dino Riders obsession ends up! :-)

    You're right though, a feathery Pit Fiend just wouldn't look the same! McCaig's picture is definitely a classic...

    On Jurassic Park, they may not have changed the Velociraptor, other than making them too big, but the Dilophosaurus was a joke - smaller, poisonous, and with a frilled neck? I dunno, that's a bit too much. :-(



  7. "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!"

    Unfortunately the standard of 'evidence' Zimmer offers is of the: "mere similarity between two animals says something about direction of descent kind".

    Click sciencepolice2010 above for my detailed critique.

    Unfortunately, Naish all to often makes similar errors on his blog and elsewhere, which I try to correct (the enthusiastic criticisms on his bird evolution blog comments are mostly by me) but I don't always have the time. I hope to address his last two dinobird postings soon. The quality of science presented by Zimmer is what you'd expect from someone without a science degree, and Naish's understanding of the computer algorithms relied on to produce family trees is what you'd expect from someone with his first (irrelevant) degree. His subsequent ones are also irrelevant since none of his phylogenetic theorisation involves any checkable feedback, as with most dinobird workers.

    I like reading Naish's blog but vertebrate palaeontology is full of pseudo scientists, and something has to be said.

    JEDIboyy: Good old Bakker – he is one of the better ones. However I think he's known for actually being really keen on the name Brontosaurus!