ReptileEvolution.com and Tetrapod Zoology – part 5

Earlier we discussed in parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 the criticisms leveled at ReptileEvolution.com by Darren Naish, author of the Tetrapod Zoology blog titled “Why the world has to ignore ReptileEvolution.com. Here is part 5.

Next Darren featured “An example of how good Dave’s diagrams are. This one – from The Pterosaur Heresies blog – shows how Kadimakara (known from a partial skull, shown at top left) compares to various other reptiles that Dave considers to be diadectomorphs and protorosaurs respectively.” Then he tosses in the hand grenade: “Remember that Dave’s grouping of the animals shown here as ‘diadectomorphs’ and ‘protorosaurs’ are likely not correct.” That’s it. No evidence. No reason. Just tossing out a statement. In like fashion, I should caution readers, remember, Darren has NOT spent years creating a reptile family tree, and no one else EVER has created a tree that includes this scope of taxa, but I have.

Darren’s remark reminds me of something I heard in an evangelical church one day: “Folks, there is no evidence for evolution.” Yeah, that’s pretty much where the pastor left it, just like Darren did. It’s so easy to toss out those hand grenades. That’s why ReptileEvolution.com and PterosaurHeresies.com throws so much data, reason and illustration behind as many statements as possible, knowing that naysayers like Darren Naish are out there. If anyone needs further evidence or illustration, please let me know. I will provide it. If anyone has changes to suggest to the data, please let me know that also.

A Whole Lot of Heresy
Darren reported, “David Peters would have us believe that just about the whole ‘mainstream’, accepted structure of the tetrapod tree is wrong, and that he – uniquely – has discovered a wholly new, paradigm-busting one. According to Dave, (1) reptiles and all other amniotes can be placed along either a lizard branch, or a mammal-croc-bird branch; (2) pterosaurs are not archosaurs or even close, but deeply nested within lizards; (3) synapsids (the amniote clade that includes mammals) are on the croc-bird branch, close to (or part of) Archosauromorpha; and (4) Dinosauria does not consist of Ornithischia and Saurischia, but Theropoda and Phytodinosauria (and the latter clade includes several traditional non-dinosaurs, like Lotosaurus and silesaurids).”

Basically true. But #3 was earlier covered by #1. And I’m not asking anyone to believe this. This topology is what I recovered after entering tens of thousands of scores to a very large matrix of data that resulted in a completely, or virtually completely resolved tree. I’m asking for someone, anyone, to duplicate the taxon list, use whatever characters you need to (but they should number 150+ and describe traits from head to tail) and tell us all the results you recover. Priests and pastors ask you to believe. As a scientist, I ask you to test to see if we can replicate this. If not, let’s discuss the differences, like scientists. There’s little reason to brand something as “wrong” if the person doing the branding has never attempted to test the results on their own. Yet Darren feels he needs to do so to protect “the naive reader.”

With regard to the large reptile tree, Darren reports, “This tree cannot be considered reasonable based on other lines of evidence, nor has Dave compiled or analysed enough data to show that it is viable (see text).” How much is enough? This is the largest study scope ever attempted with regard to reptiles. How much MORE effort needs to be added? The current character list is sufficient to fully resolve the tree. All sisters share a large list of character traits in common. Will more data change the tree or cement relationships? So far adding over 100 taxa has only cemented relationships. It could be, given the evidence of the large reptile tree that Darren is wrong, at least in part and likely in whole with regard to his criticisms.

Darren reiterates the results of the large reptile tree, then reports, “If you’re not familiar with the generally accepted structure of the tetrapod family tree, it would take me a while to explain why these proposals are so heretical and contrary to other studies. Suffice it to say that they are odd indeed, totally discordant with the careful, detailed work that other workers have documented in the peer-reviewed literature.”

Yes, these results run counter to generally accepted trees! Traditional studies link Rhynchosaurs and Tanystropheids (falsely labeled protorosaurs) with Proterosuchus and these taxa could not be more different. Who can defend these misfits as sisters? Who can defend pterosaurs as archosaurs? Not Bennett (1996). Not anyone else either UNLESS they delete more parsimonious sisters reported by Peters (2000, 2007) and those featured in ReptileEvolution.com. As you realize by now, that’s just cheating with a priori exclusion, kinda like baseball in the 1930s.

Now Here’s Something to Consider
Darren reports, The specific details of phylogenetic hypotheses – that is, the specific positions of species relative to one another – will, in many cases, always fluctuate between studies. But the general pattern of the tetrapod cladogram as a whole is universally agreed on: mammals are the sister-group to the turtle-lizard-croc-bird clade; lizards (and other lepidosaurs) are the sister-group to the croc-bird clade. This pattern has been consistently recovered in morphology-based analyses (e.g., Laurin & Reisz 1995, Müller 2003, Lee et al. 2004, Hill 2005) and is also overwhelmingly supported by molecular data (e.g., Hedges & Poling 1999, Janke et al. 2001, Rest et al. 2003, Shedlock et al. 2007, Lyson et al. 2011). Embryological, biochemical and behavioural data also shows, pretty much unanimously, that lizards form a clade with archosaurs while mammals are outside this lizard + archosaur group.”

Darren fails to report that no prior study includes the scope of the present large reptile tree based on the genus. Virtually all prior studies used suprageneric taxa. How do you score those ephemeral conglomerations of several morphologies?

Embryological data? Pterosaur eggshells are closer to lizard eggshells than to bird or croc eggshells. Biochemical and behavioral data, well no lizards, turtles, crocs or birds have hair and breasts. Is that what is meant here?

Extent of the Wing Membrane
After illustrating an example of my narrow chord wing membrane, which is supported by all known pterosaur specimens, Darren reports, “Based on my examination of fossil specimens, I am confident that the wing membranes DO contact the tibia (and extend as far as the ankles) in some and perhaps most or all pterosaurs.” The only examples Darren and other have produced with such a possibility have been dismissed here. Notably the UV specimen provided by Darren also shows the wing membrane trailing edge curling aft of the elbows with lateral tibia connection.  If other examples are known, please provide them. I want to see them. Confidence doesn’t cut it. Show examples.

Insect within the mouth?
Darren claims I discovered “prey items (like insects) preserved within the mouths of some animals.” Well yes and no. I did find an insect in the orbit of Sharovipteryx, but I never said it was ‘prey.’ There are dozens of insects in the matrix surrounding Sharovipteryx. One happens to be closer than the others and could have crawled in there while the carcass was rotting, or perhaps it was random.

Pterosaur Babies
Darren reports, “But Dave’s claim that numerous unossified baby pterosaurs are preserved alongside – or on or even in – the bodies of adult specimens is discordant with this, since their ‘presence’ led Dave to argue that pterosaurs were viviparous.” This old hypothesis was suggested before pterosaur eggs were discovered. It is not found in ReptileEvolution and therefore its presence in Darren’s diatribe against my website is misguided and inappropriate. I did suggest that the IVPP embryo was a miniature sort of pterosaur because it was an anurognathid (not an ornithocheirid as originally identified) AND it was the size of all other anurognathids. So the leap in logic is not so far-fetched. Further study revealed the fact that embryo pterosaurs were virtual copies of adults, so the embryo would have grown to be an anurognathid eight times larger than virtually all other known anurognathids. Again, the mistake is not found in ReptileEvolution, only in Darren’s files.

Tiny Pterosaurs
Darren reports, “Dave thinks that a number of small pterosaur specimens – interpreted by everyone else as juveniles of Pterodactylus and other taxa – are actually miniature adults. His interpretations are dependent on his digital tracing technique, and on the incorporation of the characters he finds via digital tracing into his phylogenetic analyses. Given that he interprets these tiny animals as adults, and given that he contends that growth in pterosaurs was isometric, he proposes that the babies of these miniature pterosaurs were less than 10 mm long. Yes, less than 10 mm long.”

Darren may not be aware that some birds (the Bee Hummingbird) and certain tiny Caribbean geckos can be incredibly tiny. Their hatchlings are similarly extremely incredibly tiny. As I’ve noted earlier, if the tiny pterosaurs are juveniles, which pterosaurs are they juveniles of? Indeed, when placed into phylogenetic analysis a series of pterosaur specimens  become smaller, then reverse this trend and become gradually larger. This tells us they are adults. Furthermore, we know from embryo pterosaurs that they are virtual copies of adults, only 8x smaller. So they do not experience the morphological changes that would be necessary to morph into some sort of different looking adult. This was found by studying the specimens. I’m looking forward to someone else to replicate my results with a similar study. I don’t create these results out of thin air. They come from phylogenetic analysis. No one else has employed tiny pterosaurs in their analyses, so this discovery went to the first person to do so.

Next part 6.

6 thoughts on “ReptileEvolution.com and Tetrapod Zoology – part 5

  1. ‘The only examples Darren and other have produced with such a possibility have been dismissed here.’

    It’s ‘foolish’, so to speak, to dismiss Mr. Naish’s claim simply based upon your own speculative interpretation of photographic evidence. The word ‘here’ in the above quote links us to a page on your own website, which gives us (the reader) the impression that your word on the subject is the final word on the subject. That doesn’t strike me as being very scientific. If Mr. Naish asserts that your ideas are ‘wholly erroneous’, it would be in large part because of your unreliable DGS technique/method. It would certainly help your cause if you had access to the actual specimens or evidence you reference. In this case, it seems, an actual fossil is worth a thousand pictures.

    Also, in regard to your animated sequence displaying the extent of the wing membrane in the Vienna specimen of Pterodactylus, it is still unfulfilling to my eye. Even with wings outstretched, the impression of remaining wrinkled skin close to the body persists. Is this not evidence for a wing membrane with a greater surface area? Or was it simply an artistic choice to retain the wrinkled lines traced from the original specimen? Is it not possible that the trailing edges of the wings of this specimen had degraded/decomposed?

    I’m interested to learn where this ‘debate’ between your good self and Mr. Naish will lead, but it is unhelpful to the discussion to simply dismiss a claim simply because you’ve come to a personally satisfactory conclusion.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    • Hi Daniboy,

      When Darren says “Wholly erroneous” that means 100%. Later in his text he thought I had made a few valid observations. Unfortunately, since Darren was not specific in either case it’s hard to respond. In either case, he made his point. I’m sorry to hear you’re not convinced by my evidence. That’s how it goes. With regard to Pterodactylus, yes, it’s very important to trace what is there as much as possible. This gives the truest picture. No one said the skin was wrinkled close to the body. Take the evidence at face value. Try not to extend it or make excuses for it. Test this reconstruction against other specimens and see if you see a pattern here. Let me know what you recover. With regard to dismissing a claim, I have striven not to simply dismiss, but to provide evidence for all of my statements. Dave

      • Hi Dave,

        Thanks for the swiftness of your reply.

        I’m very much interested in this ‘wing structure’ debate, and so I’d very much like to investigate the evidence further as you suggest. True enough that the posterior edge of the wing ‘might not’ be wrinkled – finding such a 3-Dimensional feature on an intrinsically flat specimen could be difficult to identify. Although the possibility that the trailing edge had deteriorated/degraded somewhat prior to, or during fossilisation cannot be easily dismissed.

        Thanks again.

      • Thanks Daniel,

        Take a good look at the Zittel wing. There the fuselage fillet/inner membrane is detached from the body but remains with the wing. It’s small and just goes back to the femur. There’s not enough material to stretch further.

        Dave

  2. If anyone needs further evidence or illustration, please let me know. I will provide it. If anyone has changes to suggest to the data, please let me know that also.

    What – does that mean you’ll send your matrix to anyone who asks, even though you still haven’t published it and few journals accept manuscripts that don’t present completely new information?

    If that really is the case, why don’t you simply put the matrix online?

    Darren may not be aware that some birds (the Bee Hummingbird) and certain tiny Caribbean geckos can be incredibly tiny.

    Not less than 1 cm, however. The smallest known vertebrates barely go down to 8 mm.

    As I’ve noted earlier, if the tiny pterosaurs are juveniles, which pterosaurs are they juveniles of?

    Shouldn’t we expect that there were more juveniles than there were adults? Shouldn’t we expect to find only juveniles of some taxa, at least at first?

    Indeed, when placed into phylogenetic analysis a series of pterosaur specimens become smaller, then reverse this trend and become gradually larger. This tells us they are adults.

    Uh… what? No, it doesn’t tell us anything at all whatsoever. I don’t understand why you think otherwise.

    I’m looking forward to someone else to replicate my results with a similar study. I don’t create these results out of thin air. They come from phylogenetic analysis. No one else has employed tiny pterosaurs in their analyses, so this discovery went to the first person to do so.

    Like everything else, phylogenetic analysis obeys the law of garbage in, garbage out. It has been shown again and again that including juvenile or paedomorphic specimens together with morphologically adult ones leads to all kinds of trouble… in fact, I’ve explained this, with references, on this very blog before. What happened? Did you forget?

  3. No, Dave, you forgot. You actually need to test the small ones first. You’ll note that the embryo Pterodaustro nests as a sister to the adult Pterodaustro. The rest follows. You have to go with the evidence, which demonstrates that pterosaur hatchlings were nearly carbon copies of the adults.

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