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Monday, June 30, 2014

How do Creationists know what Dinosaurs looked like?

While watching a video of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, with its impressively-detailed animatronic full-scale dinosaur models, I was struck by the thought: how do creationists know what dinosaurs looked like? I mean: there are these moving, snarling model dinosaurs in an institution which has elevated pseudoscience to the dubious level of a theme park attraction, and whose staff (at least, in the various interviews in which I have seen them appear) give every indication of holding a testy disdain for career scientists and the scientific method. So how do creationists know what dinosaurs looked like?

The head of Tyrannosaurus rex. My life reconstruction has to conform to the underlying bone - including the protuberances above the eyes known as rugosities. Experiments with a reconstructed jaw have determined that a T. rex bite generated a staggering 2,900 pounds of force per side: the most powerful bite known of any animal ever. An on-the-record statement by Kenneth Ham, CEO of the Creation Museum, declares that T. rex was on board Noah's Ark and ate coconuts. No, I'm not making this up.
Time on a museum field trip is a precious commodity. It has to be exploited to the maximum, and working hours need to be methodical and calculated. I recall on one field trip getting up at five in the morning, every morning. And weekends simply passed unnoticed. A field trip can by turns be fun, exciting, and tedious – but it is still hard work. How many excursions into the field did it take, over succeeding decades of time, and spanning many, many individual careers, for paleontologists to reconstruct the dinosaurs’ world?

A territorial dispute: pathologies on fossil bones in the form of bite marks suggest that T. rex probably fought its own kind, perhaps over prey or - as I have portrayed here - over territory. Sculpting and photographing a tabletop model was for me the most effective way to bring this scene to life. A dry riverbed served as an arena for the conflict, with typically Cretaceous redwoods and sabal palms in the background, and with the giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus cruising through the skies overhead.
And where did those scientists go to? From the Montana Badlands to arid Outer Mongolia, from Patagonia to Alaska’s North Slope, the destinations of such field trips usually demand lobbying for the necessary funding, and in the cases involving some far-flung destination, as often as not some deft and time-consuming bureaucratic navigation through a wild water stretch of red tape in the acquiring of visas, permits, and other assorted documents.

Using a line grid to map a fossil site at the Bay of Fundy.
Safely back on base, the conservation work begins: the painstaking release from its matrix, with small hand-held power drill and sable brush, of some fragile fossil, perhaps over a series of weeks or even months, and the publishing of any findings, as well as the report to the board of the museum in question to justify the funds which have been sunk into both the field work and the subsequent in-museum research and restoration time. More often than not, a fossil will not be found in any great degree of articulation: it usually will be both disjointed and incomplete, or even scattered over a wide area. Maybe the skull is missing – or conversely, maybe the skull is the only part found.

Freeing a fossil from its rock matrix.
So what would the missing parts have looked like? And what does the surrounding fossil environment tell us about the fossil itself? Was it buried in a flash flood, or by a collapsed sand dune? Was it a victim of predation, or was it a predator fallen victim to another of its species? What might the fossil bones tell us about that individual dinosaur’s pathologies – its injuries and diseases – which it suffered in life?

Give this fossil site map to a creationist, and tell them to restore the dinosaurs visible here, using only this map for reference. Click on the map to appreciate the scale of the task.
These are just several of the many questions facing a paleontologist when confronting a jumbled scattering of disarticulated fossil bones in a field location. And that scattering of bones might be from one individual or from several – and even then they might not be of the same species. Only later will someone like myself be brought in to flesh out the painstakingly restored bones as a life reconstruction, always recognizing that there are lines between applied knowledge, reasonable assumption, and artistic licence.

The Early Jurassic predator Dilophosaurus. My reconstruction combines the 'applied knowledge' of muscle attachment points on the bones, the 'reasonable assumption' of the animal's stance derived from the articulated restored skeleton, and my own 'artistic licence' in devising the skin patterns - which are themselves calculated reasonable assumptions based upon the creatures of our extant natural world. 
Applied knowledge would include such factors as the attachment points of muscles, which usually can be seen on bone as areas of rough pitted striations. Reasonable assumption could be the stance in which the animal is shown, which can be enhanced by the applied knowledge of the way in which the skeleton would have been articulated in life. And artistic licence would typically involve skin colour and patterns, which generally are speculative. But always when creating such a life reconstruction, I am aware of the untold research time of career scientists, both in the field and in the museum, behind what I am doing.

Dilophosaurus had a rather weak joint on its upper jaw, and its double crest was surprisingly fragile - hardly suitable for a pitched struggle with a large prey animal. Its long narrow teeth, however, would have been ideal for grasping a struggling fish: all factors which allowed me to portray it as, silent and intent, it fished for its breakfast in the early morning mists in southwest North America some two hundred million years ago.
So how do creationists know what dinosaurs looked like? They do not commit their time and [1]resources to the rigors of museum field work. They do not spend their working lives painstakingly piecing together the herculean puzzles of fossil bones tackled by professional paleontologists. There is only one answer possible: they have come by this knowledge by cynically climbing over the backs of the very scientists whom they so openly despise. And the reason why creationists are able to include in their [2]institution those [3]crowd-pulling animatronic dinosaurs is because career scientists of all [4]persuasions, philosophies and beliefs, but all of whom endorse evolutionary theory and geological time, have committed their working lives both to finding and restoring those jumbled scatterings of fossil bones.

[1] Please don't mention the name 'Buddy Davis' to me. A scientist might play country music, but a country music singer does not a scientist make. Mr. Davis also considers himself to be a reconstructional artist of things dinosaurean. Looking at his work is a chilling reminder of what can happen when reconstructional art is unsupervised by qualified professionals. All of my own work in this direction has been produced on a professional basis with consultant scientists, which therefore includes my above paintings. So... the Creation Museum organizes a 'field trip' to dinosaur country in Montana led by... Mr. Davis? Oh, spare me...

[2] It is a rich irony that, in an apparent attempt to give their institution a veneer of respectability, creationists have opted for the term 'museum'. As this word derives from the original temple of the Muse in Ancient Greece, these overtly Christian fundamentalists have named their building after a pagan temple. Time, I think, for a facepalm.

[3] These days the Creation Museum is, apparently, not so crowd-pulling. Presumably now that the initial novelty value has faded, public attendance figures for the 'museum' have been in decline.

[4] A creationist website I recently visited ('Answers in Genesis') describes all scientists who are not creationists as 'secular scientists'. This is insular fundamentalist absurdism. The scientists with whom I have worked over the years, all of them hard-working men and women, have been all shades of belief, from good Christian souls to sincere and decent-minded atheists. I have even worked on reconstructional art with a paleontologist (now retired) who held committed, serious and respectable pagan beliefs. The self-serving phrase which creationists like to use for their own kind - 'creationist scientists' - is an oxymoron (perhaps with the emphasis on the last five letters). Unless someone follows the scientific method of getting down and dirty in the field, making a career of tedious but necessary lab work, and writing papers to submit to accredited peer review journals, then it is not science, and one cannot with any justification call oneself a scientist.

Top and second images: Original artwork painted by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio, All Rights Reserved. Third image: Earthquake Dinosaurs. Fourth image: Australian Geographic. Fifth image: Barnum-Brown Howe Quarry dinosaur bones map from Wikimedia Commons. Sixth and last images: Original artwork painted by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio, All Rights Reserved.

Gregory M. Erickson: Breathing Life into Tyrannosaurus rex. Scientific American, vol. 281, #3 (The article detailing the calculations of the bite force of T. rex. These calculations are, as Dr. Erickson points out, a 'conservative' estimate.).

Footnote added July 6, 2014: While cruising the radio dial yesterday, my wife tells me that she happened to hear a broadcast from the Dutch EO (Evangelische Omroep: Evangelical Network) channel which confidently announced the 'fact' that dinosaurs only became carnivorous once they had left the Ark, the apparent 'proof' for this being that no fleshy remains had been found between their teeth. I mention this here because it provides a neat example of the way in which evangelical creationists are forced to paint themselves into ever more ludicrous corners of reasoning.

A fossil T. rex tooth. The massive root is two-thirds of the total length, and there are rows of serrations on the anterior (leading) and posterior edges that would have trapped and shredded fibrous filaments of flesh. With the bite force behind it, this tooth would have sliced straight through bone.
The teeth of a carnivore: For those in touch with reality, the issue of Scientific American referenced above also contains an article (above) by William L. Abler (The Teeth of the Tyrannosaurs) which throws some rather more sane light on this issue. Dr. Abler has reasoned by experiment that traces of shredded flesh could have become trapped between the tooth's serrations, where they would have rotted, making the bite from a T. rex septic for its victims (and presumably also giving this most awesome of carnivores an extreme case of bad breath). There also are various existing fossils of the herbivore Edmontosaurus which show clear pathologies of wounds in the form of scars and bite marks which match those of T. rex teeth. To forestall counter-claims: no, these pathologies are not from dinosaurs which had already left the Ark. You either claim that all dinosaurs were herbivores or you don't. But you cannot have it both ways.

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