Data denial you can listen to on a podcast

Dr. Mark Witton

Dr. Mark Witton

Dr. Mark Witton is a paleontologist,
author and illustrator, but based on a Liz Martin interview podcast denies the existence of pterosaur ancestors. Like his friends, Dr. David Hone (another data denier), and Dr. Darren Naish, Dr. Witton believes pterosaurs “appeared fully formed in the fossil record. We don’t have the pterosaur Archaeopteryx.”

Sadly this purposefully ignores 
the published literature (Peters 2000 is now 15 years old) online phylogenetic analyses (now 4 years old) and YouTube videos (just a few weeks old) that all provide a long list of pterosaur ancestors that demonstrate a gradual accumulation of pterosaur traits. Why does Dr. Witton prefers to hide his head in the sand rather than examine, test and/or accept published studies? Could this be academic bigotry? (definition: intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself)

Witton believes pterosaurs “are close relatives of dinosaurs.”
If so, then were are the common ancestors that show a gradual accumulation of character traits? Answer: You can’t find them because they are not there. Other taxa share more traits with pteros and dinos than either does with each other. This is the outmoded “Ornithodira” concept.
Witton says he did not expect
that the Jurassic pterosaur, Dimorphodon would be adept at walking on the ground (despite having digitigrade pedes and fully interned femoral heads). Again, published literature demonstrates just the opposite (Padian 1983). Glad to see that Dr. Witton is getting on board with a more terrestrial Dimorphodon.
Dr. Witton waxed on about Solnhofen juvenile and subadult pterosaurs,
agreeing with Bennett (1995) who lumped Rhamphorhynchus into one species by plotting long bone lengths on a graph. Witton thought different species should have a dramatic difference in wing shape. Not so. He didn’t mention foot shape and overall morphology, which varies quite widely and logically when phylogenetic analysis is employed (Fig. 2).
Figure 3. Bennett 1975 determined that all these Rhamphorhynchus specimens were conspecific and that all differences could be attributed to ontogeny, otherwise known as growth to maturity and old age. Thus only the two largest specimens were adults. O'Sullivan and Martill took the brave step of erecting a new species. The n52 specimen is at the lower right. Click to enlarge.

Figure 2 Bennett 1975 determined that all these Rhamphorhynchus specimens were conspecific and that all differences could be attributed to ontogeny, otherwise known as growth to maturity and old age. Thus only the two largest specimens here were adults. Witton agrees that all these are conspecific. Do you agree with Witton? Decide for yourself. Click to enlarge.

Witton follows the Lü et al. (2009) analysis
that nested Darwinopterus as a transitional fossil combination of pterodactyloid skull and basal pterosaur post crania. Other analyses ( Wang et al 2009, Andres 2013, Peters online) do not support that hypothesis. Only Peters online (based on Peters 2007) includes a large selection of sparrow-sized Solnhofen pterosaurs, keys to the origin of all later clades. Along the same lines, Witton believes in Modular Evolution, which is falsified in phylogenetic analysis and apparently occurs only in their vision of Darwinopterus.
Witton reports that some azhdarchids had short necks.
Not sure which azhdarchids he is talking about. Evidently that is sneak preview on unpublished papers. The large pterosaur tree indicates that going back to the Late Jurassic, all azhdarchids and their ancestors had very long necks, even as hand-sized taxa (Fig. 3).
The Azhdarchidae.

Figure 3. The Azhdarchidae. Click to enlarge. No short necks here, except way down toward the left. Not saying they could not evolve. Just saying I haven’t seen them yet. 

Witton reports there are small birds but no small pterosaurs
from the Upper Cretaceous — but no small dinosaurs either — so suggests there may be a preservational bias in the lack of small pterosaurs… but no such bias for small birds. Actually there are small bird fossils from the Late Cretaceous, and they ARE dinosaurs, and no small pterosaurs. Lacking tiny pteros in the Late Cretaceous spelled their doom. Only small and tiny pterosaurs survived the Latest Jurassic extinction event and only these were basal to later giants. So no darwinopterids had descendants in the Cretaceous. Because there were no tiny Late Cretaceous pterosaurs, none survived the Late Cretaceous extinction event.
Can we blame this on a bad mentor?
Dr. Witton has accumulated a great deal of pterosaur knowledge and expresses it wonderfully in his many paintings. Unfortunately, like Hone and Naish, he was ‘raised’ by wrong-minded mentors and continues his false beliefs (= he has not tested his or competing hypotheses in phylogenetic analyses) to this day. Earlier we looked at the many problems in Dr. Witton’s book on pterosaurs.
Dr. Don Prothero

Dr. Don Prothero

Some insight into that sort of thinking…
it’s not that uncommon.
Dr. Don Prothero in a YouTube Video provides great insights into the Creationist mindset that finds strong parallels in the current thinking of Dr. Mark Witton, Dr. David Hone and Dr. Darren Naish.

Notes from the Prothero video
  1. Humans are not rational machines
  2. We all employ motivated (emotional, wants and needs) reasoning, not logical reasoning
  3. We are all belief engines and we all create a world view or core belief
  4. Because of that we don’t like to hear anything that does not fit our world view
  5. AND we use reason to do what we want data to do, not what its telling us. We use ANY tricks to make the evidence of the world fit our beliefs, or twist it to fit, or deny it or ignore it. Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and author of “The Believing Brain” writes, “We all support the world we already have.”

Bottom line:
Witton, Hone and Naish don’t like because it doesn’t support the paleo world they already have. Like Creationists they display the following traits raised by Prothero:

  1. Reduction of cognitive dissonance (= the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change) when presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted.
  2. Tribalism = we learn our world from whoever we were raised by. And all three professors are friends of one another.
  3. Deep innate psychological tendencies are genetic = there are some people who readily accept new ideas and there are some people who do not. Unfortunately, all three appear to have the same gene.
  4. Confirmation bias (= the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.) Thus when Hone and Benton (2007, 2009) come out with the worst paper I have reviewed, Naish and Witton support it anyway.
  5. Cherry picking (= remembering the hits, forgetting the misses). Hone, Witton and Naish like to pick on poor Longisquama, which was difficult, but not impossible to interpret and all three like to ignore the whole point of, the cladograms, both the large reptile tree and the large pterosaur tree. Note that no other pterosaur worker has produced competing interpretations of Longisquama of equal detail nor competing cladograms that include tiny pterosaurs. In this regard these pterosaur workers are exactly like Dr. Feduccia and the late Dr. Martin (who deny the theropod-bird link and never employ phylogenetic analysis) and also like extant Creationists, who likewise never employ phylogenetic analysis. Remember when Hone and Benton first deleted the taxa that Peters 2000 proposed, then deleted Peters 2000 from the competition? This was cherry picking at its best.
  6. Qiuote mining (= in this case finding images and hypotheses that have been long ago trashed in order to undermine the site. These are essentially ad hominem (directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining) attacks as they blackwash my methods (which they practice too) and the entire website while they could have gotten specific about one problem or another.
  7. Missing the forest for the trees (= The big picture) is the large reptile tree cladogram. This is created by a huge mass of data and becomes strengthened with every additional taxon – all of which affect every other taxon. In such an analysis you can remove data, remove taxa, remove characters and nothing falls apart. The subsets are just as strong as the dataset itself. But Hone, Naish and Witton refuse to acknowledge that, preferring to continue their thinking that pterosaurs appeared suddenly in the fossil record, like on the fourth day of Creation. Phylogenetic analysis would solve their quandary, if only they would give it a chance.

Dr. Prothero asks: Why is science different?
Prothero answers his own question in this fashion:

  1. Science (like is always testing with falsification, prove things wrong, correcting mistakes. Presently I’ve made over 50,000 corrections in drawings and scores and look forward to many more. Getting it right is important.
  2. Science (like is always tentative, no claim to final truth. I am always looking for a competing hypothesis. Witton, Hone, Naish, Bennett and other referees are making sure my papers are not getting published. They don’t like it when their claims are disputed here at PterosaurHeresies.
  3. Science (like works! It provides answers that make sense, can be replicated, and can provide predictions.
  4. In Science peer review cancels individual biases. Sadly the current pterosaur referees, Hone, Witton, Naish and others, are all from the same school of thought. Every day I hope to change that, to open them up to accept more valid hypotheses that work!
  5. In Science, if you’re not pssing people off, you’re not doing it right. Well, I must be doing something right, because Witton and Naish are never praising my work. It would be great if we could argue about it. I guess we’re doing that here.

Prothero finished with a cartoon
of a professor who was showing his cognitive dissonance: “If P is false, I will be sad. I do not wish to to be sad. Therefore, P is true.”

This is human nature.
We all have it. We all get jealous, ambitious. disappointed. As scientists we have to get over our human nature and let testing and experimentation rise above human nature. We have to be like Galileo, not Aristotle.

Bennett SC 1995. A statistical study of Rhamphorhynchus from the Solnhofen limestone of Germany: year classes of a single large species. Journal of Paleontology 69, 569–580.
Lü J, Unwin DM, Jin X, Liu Y and Ji Q 2009. Evidence for modular evolution in a long-tailed pterosaur with a pterodactyloid skull. Proceedings of the Royal Society London B  (DOI 10.1098/rspb.2009.1603.)
Padian K 1983. Osteology and functional morphology of Dimorphodon macronyx (Buckland) (Pterosauria: Rhamphorhynchoidea) based on new material in the Yale Peabody Museum, Postilla, 189: 1-44.
Peters D 2000. A Redescription of Four Prolacertiform Genera and Implications for Pterosaur Phylogenesis. Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia 106 (3): 293–336.
Peters D 2007. The origin and radiation of the Pterosauria. Flugsaurier. The Wellnhofer Pterosaur Meeting, Munich 27
Wang X, Kellner AWA, Jiang S, Meng X. 2009. An unusual long-tailed pterosaur with elongated neck from western Liaoning of China. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 81 (4): 793–812.

Lesothosaurus is a rhynchosaur…Henodus is a turtle…and other misfits by default nesting.

I have often noted the “by default” nesting of pterosaurs and Vancleavea in the archosaurs, when the larger gamut study indicates they nest elsewhere, with lizards and thalattosaurs, respectively. I can speak with authority here because the large reptile tree represents the only large test of these misfit nestings based on smaller studies that excluded the actual related forms.

When you have a very large gamut family tree with full resolution,
you can play with it to your heart’s content. 
Earlier I removed all lepidosauromorphs – but turtles and pterosaurs – and noted that they nested together within the Enaliosauria, the marine archosauromorphs. Turtles and pterosaurs??? This odd bit of nesting should have been taken:
1) as a lesson in trying to shoehorn in taxa that clearly do not belong together, like pterosaurs and archosaurs. Yet, given the opportunity to nest with dinosaurs or archosaurs, by virtue of eliminating all fenestrasaurs, all tritosaurs and all lepidosaurs, pterosaurs STILL went with their closest relatives, according tothe large reptile tree: turtles.
2) and to add insult to injury, within the new Archosauromorpha, pterosaurs nested with pachypleurosaurs, a marine taxa far from the archosaurs that has NEVER been under consideration before in traditional studies. It took several rounds of elimination to finally nest pterosaurs with archosaurs. That’s how bad that mismatch really is.
Here I’ll take the misfits the other way,
by removing all archosauromorphs, but one, and seeing how they nest within the Lepidosauromorpha. You might find these amusing and instructive in light of the current nesting of “strange bedfellows” discussed earlier.
Lesothosaurus, the ornithischian, nests as a sister to Hyperodapedon, the rhynchosaur.
Herrerasaurus, the theropod, nests between Trilophosaurus and Mesosuchus.
Dimetrodon, the synapsid, nests at the base of Diadectes and Orobates, and far from the putatitve synapsids, now shown to be closer to Milleretta the lepidosauromorph: Casea and Cotylorhynchus.
Plesiosaurus, the plesiosaur, nests between Adriosaurus and Boa, the pre-snake and snake.
Henodus, the placodont, nests with Proganochelys, the turtle, even without any carapace or plastron characters in the matrix.
Obviously all these nestings are bogus,
but you wouldn’t know that unless you realized they nested with widely known excluded taxa. Some nestings, like Caseasauria with Synapsidsida and mesosaurs with pareiasaurs are also widely known and accepted, but they’re wrong. They cannot be confirmed with the large reptile tree.
These experiments show how wrong things can go when you try to mix pterosaurs with archosaurs, etc. etc. etc.
Sorry to keep harping on a sour note,
but a whole raft of professional paleontologists really needs to forget tradition and start testing for ALL possibilities before assuming an inclusion set is valid. Otherwise, all you get are the “strange bedfellows” we discussed earlier in a 9-part series starting here. This professional quagmire really needs to come to an end.
Thanks to TK for suggesting something like these experiments in phylogeny.

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.