Double Blind Stradivarius Test and the Ornithodira

Holding its own tradition of greatness for centuries, the Stradivarius violin knows few equals. Aficionados swear that its tones cannot be duplicated. Experts have worked for years to duplicate its shape and discover its mystical varnish formulas, all to reveal the “secret” of its unique sound qualities — perhaps in vain, as it turns out.

Brand Loyalty
Unfortunately, all this work and all that status may come down to nothing more than a bad case of brand loyalty. In a recent double blind test, a Stradivarius violin was chosen as the least favorite of several, losing out to a modern instrument. Judges were seasoned violin players.

When the players were asked which violins they’d like to take home, almost two-thirds chose a violin that turned out to be new, rather than the Strad. The research was aimed at determining how people choose what they like, and what criteria they use.

Dale Purves, a professor of neuroscience at Duke University, says the research “makes the point that things that people think are ‘special’ are not so special after all when knowledge of the origin is taken away.” The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

So what does all this have to do with paleontology?
Brand loyalty is keeping pterosaurs nested with Scleromochlus and dinosaurs despite scientific testing (Peters 2000a, b 2009) that recovered fenestrasaurs, lizards, even turtles as closer sister taxa. This is the “blind eye” I referred to earlier. The biggest names in paleontology have wrapped their arms and careers around their support for the “Ornithodira” — perhaps irrationally, as it turns out. The “Ornithodira” cannot be supported except by deleting lizards (Bennett 1996, Bursatte 2010, Nesbitt 2011) or by deleting and depleting fenestrasaurs (Hone and Benton 2007, 2008). Even the proponents of the “Ornithodira” throw up their hands in surrender when asked to identify which generic taxon is closer to pterosaurs than any other and what traits they share to the exclusion of all other known fossils reptiles. It’s sad really. Twelve years after the first challenge to the “Ornithodira”(Peters 2000), workers continue to cling to the status and comfort of that old notion rather than finding genuine support for it.

It’s hard to change textbooks and class notes.
If you’re a professor faced with a challenge to your pet hypotheses, do you suppress manuscripts that expose their weaknesses? Or do you engage opposing candidates to test their mettle? If you’re a student, do you support your mentor no matter what? Those who do choose to suppress, typically go “all the way.” They label the opposition a heretic. Ridicule him as a nut case. Make him a pariah. Ignore the taxa. Attack the challenger. Delete all references to opposing theories. If you do choose to suppress, thereafter you have two choices: 1) put your support behind a notion that is widely recognized as weak and unsupportable, even by its proponents (Hone and Benton 2007, 2008); or 2) shrug your shoulders and say, “Sorry, that’s one of the mysteries we’re still working on.”

Sorry for rant. The NPR story on the Stradivarius double blind test just “struck a familiar chord.” And it, too, solves an ancient mystery. We’ll be back to more reptiles tomorrow.

As always, I encourage readers to see specimens, make observations and come to your own conclusions. Test. Test. And test again.

Evidence and support in the form of nexus, pdf and jpeg files will be sent to all who request additional data.


Bennett SC 1996. The phylogenetic position of the Pterosauria within the Archosauromorpha. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 118:261-308.
Benton MJ 1999. Scleromochlus taylori and the origin of the pterosaurs. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London, Series B 354 1423-1446. Online pdf
Brusatte SL, Benton MJ, Desojo JB and Langer MC 2010. The higher-level phylogeny of Archosauria (Tetrapoda: Diapsida), Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, 8:1, 3-47.
Hone DWE and Benton MJ 2007. An evaluation of the phylogenetic relationships of the pterosaurs to the archosauromorph reptiles. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 5:465–469.
Hone DWE and Benton MJ 2008. Contrasting supertree and total evidence methods: the origin of the pterosaurs. Zitteliana B28:35–60.
Nesbitt SJ 2011. The early evolution of archosaurs: relationships and the origin of major clades. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 352: 292 pp.
Peters D 2000a. Description and Interpretation of Interphalangeal Lines in Tetrapods.  Ichnos 7:11-41.
Peters D 2000b. A Redescription of Four Prolacertiform Genera and Implications for Pterosaur Phylogenesis. Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia 106 (3): 293–336.
Peters D 2009. A reinterpretation of pteroid articulation in pterosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29: 1327-1330

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