Preamble: I’ll admit that there have been errors on ReptileEvolution.com brought about by a variety of circumstances including inexperience and bad data. Every effort has been made to fix those problems and dozens have already seen changes made. I found virtually all of them, but others have helped. None of these have affected the topology of the large reptile tree at the center of the site. None of my major issues have, so far, been reversed with evidence coming in from the outside. Even so, I’m still open to the possibility.
Can the traditional guys say the same? Hope so! Haven’t seen it yet, though.
Now Back to our Debunking Topic
Since Darren Naish’s blog urging web surfers, “Why the world has to ignore ReptileEvolution.com” other bloggers have joined in. As scientists we need to explore their arguments to see if they contain validity. It’s important to promote the truth in science. Anything less needs to be corrected. That’s why I’m interested in what these bloggers have to say. Given that, I’m –still– not seeing from them –any– specific arguments that hold water. See if you agree:
Pterosaur.Net wades in against ReptileEvolution.com
Pterosaur.Net is the work of a group of paleontologists who hold that pterosaurs are dinosaur kin, had deep chord wing membranes and were not able to rise to a bipedal configuration. Plus this group holds that pterosaur eggs were buried prior to hatching. and they took off by rebounding off their forelimbs. ReptileEvolution.com and PterosaurHeresies.com have provided more than adequate evidence against all of these bogus ideas. [note that I’m not saying don’t believe anything in Pterosaur.net. It’s important to make that distinction.]
Mark Witton, writing for Pterosaur.Net quoted Darren Naish when he wrote, “ReptileEvolution.com does not represent a trustworthy source that people should consult or rely on. Students, amateur researchers and the lay public should be strongly advised to avoid or ignore it.” Naish and now Witton risk appearing to be a little heavy-handed in their assessment by not recognizing something of value here. We looked at Naish’s bogus arguments earlier. Sorry to see Witton buy into that without critical thinking and good evidence.
Dr. Witton was kind enough to provide what he considered evidence for his arguments with regard to mistakes I made with pterosaurs. I’d like to say that he provided some insights to help correct errors, but alas, he did not. You know, I always ask for anyone who has evidence to the contrary to step forward.
Witton compared my Anurognathus reconstruction to a photograph of another, much smaller pterosaur purported to be Anurognathus (Bennett 2007, Fig. 1), but actually is a distinct genus, with a much flatter skull and many other distinctions. Here Witton could have shown a photograph of the specimen in question. He chose not to. Here’s how different the two are from one another:
Figure 1. The flat-head pterosaur, a private specimen (on the left) attributed by Bennett (2007) to Anurognathus ammoni (on the right).
But let’s go with Witton’s comparison anyway. Witton wrote, “Note the number of phalanges in the wing finger, shape of the skull and long, fibrous tail [in the flat head specimen].” Unfortunately, Witton failed to note that no other anurognathids have only three phalanges on the wing membrane. You can see samples here, here and here. He failed to note that the original Anurognathus preserves a crushed skull that portrays the lateral and dorsal views with palatal elements scattered about and that the flat head pterosaur is preserved strictly in dorsal view. Earlier we discussed and provided evidence for the mistaken interpretations Bennett (2003). By his own admission Bennett was unable to identify several bones. His big gaff: he misinterpreted a maxilla as a gigantic sclerotic ring preserved on edge (which never happens in other fossils).
Bennett’s reconstruction breaks several “rules” that apply to pterosaur morphology. The ReptileEvolution.com tracing identified all the bones. Left and right elements were symmetrical. In the reconstruction all the bones “fit” and none of them broke any morphological “rules.” Rather, every bone looked like bones in other anurognathids, which no one else had ventured or dared to attempt. The eyes were small. The maxillahad tiny teeth. On the flat head anurognathid, three wing phalanges are indeed exposed on the surface, but as we looked at earlier, there is evidence for more phalanges still buried in the matrix. This problem could be readily solved with just a little more digging. That goes for the tiny, bead-like tail too.
It’s just too bad that anurognathids have not been precisely traced by any other paleontologists. Here’s an example of a good tracing. Other pterosaur workers seem to be content tracing coarse cartoony outlines of only the most readily observable features, as shown here.
Witton continues, “the resultant [phylogenetic] trees are understandably completely incongruous with anything seen in ‘mainstream’ literature.” Of course this makes ReptileEvolution.com look bad. — AND– exploring untested taxa together is the whole reason for ReptileEvolution.com. To create a tree large enough to test the assumptions of smaller trees. That’s why it is completely incongruous with anything the the mainstream literature.
You want to test the large reptile tree? Go ahead and take out all the controversial reconstructions and you still recover the same tree. I know it works.
What Witton doesn’t tell you is the new pterosaur tree includes many times more specimens than ‘mainstream’ trees, many of which suffer from poor resolution, by their own admission. In other trees, sister taxa do not look like each other (mixing toothy and toothless taxa, for instance). By contrast, the ReptileEvolution.com trees all recover sister taxa that all look like one another, gradual producing derived taxa. After all, isn’t that what we expect from a model echoing the course of evolution?
Witton continues, “he [Peters] retains his ideas in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary (i.e. the inability to see the structures he claims to find on actual specimens despite microscopic, and UV observation, and CT scanning). As such, the work portrayed on his website and blog has to be pseudoscience, at best.” Well, here is where Dr. Witton could be most helpful. If he indeed had evidence to the contrary, I would hope that he would present it. Withholding it then complaining about it strikes me as unfair. If he’s referring to published works. To be fair, though, I’ve been just as tough on the guys at Pterosaur.Net, not disbelieving them, but dismantling and disproving their various weird contentions. The pseudoscience is rampant over there! No wonder they’re pointing fingers.
Witton references Hone et al. 2009, a paper that attempted to bash Parallel Interphalangeal Lines (PILs) without success. The rebuttal (Peters 2010) noted how many times Hone et al. (2009) reported that in many taxa PILs could indeed be drawn. In their arguments Hone et al. (2009) did not provide any examples with five or four toes, which is where the best PIL sets are to be found. Even their prime example, a three-toed theropod (Ornithomimus) with flexed toes retained PILs (*see below for comment). Hone et al. 2009 went so far as to provide a set of bogus computer-generated cat toes to demonstrate that PILs could not be drawn between the phalanges. Sensing pseudoscience, Peters (2010) countered with tracings of actual cat feet and paw prints to show complete sets of PILs, despite the extreme flexion and extension in the very derived cat toes. Truly a worst-case scenario that came out smelling like a rose.
Figure 2. Pterosaur wing ungual almost articulated to manual 4.4 from an unidentified Chinese pterosaur.
Witton republished a fourth and fifth wing phalanx from an unknown pterosaur and claimed that I invented the ungual. Seems pretty clear to me. More to the point, as I described earlier, I was — not– the first to see the odd curved, hooked tip. That honor goes to David Hone! …another member of Pterosaur.Net! Hone described the oddity as a malformation in his blog here without understanding its significance. Contra Witton’s criticism, wing unguals are actually quite common, if not universal, in pterosaurs. Unfortunately, so often the fragile tip remains buried in the matrix or the ungual becomes dislocated. A careful search usually results in a discovery.
Dr. Witton concludes, “Hence, I urge you to read Darren’s discourse if you have not already done so and, if you are concerned about the accurate portrayal of palaeontological science online, then blog, tweet and discuss this issue as much as you see fit. As may be expected, Peters has started a rebuttal of the piece across a number of blogposts, which begins here.”
So here we are, again, much as in Darren Naish’s blog, with a refusal to “see” what has been described by others, to “see” what is very clear as evidence, and to use disassociated evidence to argue against my work. Heavy-handed? You be the judge.
Lastly, I want you to note the difference between my approach and that of Witton and Naish. I don’t say, “don’t look at or believe anything on their sites.” I say. “take a closer look at their evidence in specific cases and here’s a reinterpretation based on precise tracings and more expansive analyses.” I know they’re sincere in what they say, but when direct scientific comparisons are not made their arguments come off as prejudice and propoganda, which is not their intention. They don’t even know how bad they sound. I would hope that someday both Witton and Naish would draw attention to a specific problem in ReptileEvolution.com and provide circles and arrows that highlight their arguments. Then we will have something to discuss.
Simply disrespecting an entire website, as if it had no value whatsoever is absurd. Painting me as a lunatic tells us more about them, ironically. Picking apart bogus arguments with facts and evidence is more my cup of tea. Wish it was theirs’.
* Regarding the Ornithomimus pes presented in Hone et al. 2009, I wrote (Peters 2010), “On a similar note, the caption beneath an illustration of a very similar Ornithomimus pes (Hone et al. 2009, figure 4) complains that ‘only three possible hinge lines can be drawn’, and this is despite the fact that the toes are shown unnaturally parallel (recovery stroke configuration) rather than radiating in use as theropod ichnites otherwise indicate. Fewer toes mean fewer lines. That was spelled out in Peters (2000a). Still, it is a testimony to the HLH (=”Hinge Line Hypothesis according to Hone et al. 2009) that Hone et al. (2009) were able to find hinge lines despite deforming a three-toed foot. It is also a testimony to the HLH that Hone et al. (2009) were unable to show any manus or pes in which PILs could not be drawn, no matter the number of fingers and toes. If they were to someday attempt another attack on Peters (2000a), such evidence would be required.”
Bennett SC 2007. A second specimen of the pterosaur Anurognathus ammoni. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 81(4):376-398.
Hone DWE, Sullivan C and Bennett SC 2009. Interpreting the autopodia of tetrapods: interphalangeal lines hinge on too many assumptions. Historical Biology, iFirst article, 2009, 1–11, doi: 10.1080/08912960903154503.
Peters D 2010. In defence of parallel interphalangeal lines. Historical Biology iFirst article, 2010, 1–6 DOI: 10.1080/08912961003663500