Tag: animals & natural history

Birdosaurs: Investigating the Evolution of (some) Dinosaurs into Birds

Part 4 of 4 of my D-cember: Dino-cember! series

My Disclaimer: This post covers dinosaur evolution, and I apologize in advance for my (rather incomplete) knowledge of evolution and the evolutionary sciences, but I do know that, evolution, as phrased in Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “Scalia’s Misunderstanding” (p. 448 of the previously mentioned Bully for Brontosaurus) is not:

Evolution is not the study of life’s ultimate origin as a path toward discerning its deepest meaning. Evolution, in fact, is not the study of origins at all. Even the more restricted (and scientifically permissible) question of life’s origin on our earth lies outside its domain. (This interesting problem, I suspect, falls primarily within the purview of chemistry and the physics of self-organizing systems.) Evolution studies the pathways and mechanisms of organic change following the origin of life.

—Stephen Jay Gould, “Scalia’s Misunderstanding


The when and what and the how of hereditary changes, for example the theropods (suborder Theropoda, from Greek, meaning “beast feet,” a broad category encompassing all bipedal-running carnivores like T. Rex and Velociraptor) or… more specifically, maniraptoran (“thieving/snatching hands” or “raptor hand”) dinosaurs becoming birds, these are the study of evolution’s main points of inquiry.

Mesozoic Mysteries

My questions are: why did some landlocked dinosaurs evolve feathers, while their airborne cousins, the pterosaurs—the first flying vertebrates—did not?  Why would flightless bipedal predators like Deinonychus and Microraptor (and their other raptor descendants) develop feathers instead of pterosaur-style fur-like pycnofibre coats?  Basically, what is the evolutionary advantage of feathers vs. pycnofibres if you’re a theropod?

First, the issue of maniraptoriforme dinosaurs (trying to use a broad category for all the raptory dinos close to birds, though it is likely I’m using the wrong one).
Yale paleontologist John Ostrom unearthed Deinonychus from Montana in 1964, and though Deinonychus wasn’t the first raptor described, Ostrom’s detailed monograph on the specimen (published in 1968) provided the clearest evidence yet that bird-like theropods existed, and shed new light on dinosaurs.  Deinonychus was obviously built for speed and speedily tearing prey, their scary claws inspired the Greek name Deinonychus (“terrible claw”), and, along with their big brains and eyes, did not match up with the prevailing view of dinosaurs as fairly slow, cold-blooded cousins of crocodiles.  What I call the warm-blooded birdosaur theory, proposed by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1868 along with his observations about Archaeopteryx (the small, bird-like dino “transitional species” found in 1861, “intermediate between birds and reptiles”), was revived thanks to Ostrom’s work.  His work on the similarities between Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx put the theory on such solid ground, few try to disprove that “some dinosaurs were warm-blooded.”  And subsequent discoveries established it so well, warm-bloodedness is hardly doubted nowadays even in lumbering herbivores like Stegosaurus Stenops.
Viewing dinosaurs as bird-like endotherms (animals that create their own heat via metabolic processes, AKA “warm-blooded”) was a big breakthrough, re-shuffling the family tree so all birds are derived from dinosaurs, and broadening what are considered “reptiles.”  And it also allows dinosaurs to make sense. For example, the height of a brontosaur‘s neck would break the laws

Quetzalcoatlus was an enormous pterosaur that would’ve been roughly eye-to-eye with modern-day giraffes. Art by pterosaur expert Mark Witton. Explanation of the mass estimate for Quetzalcoatlus on his flickr.

of biological possibility for an ectothermic (cold-blooded) creature with the limitations of a reptilian circulatory and respiratory system, but could be possible (though still “redonkulous”) with a powerful, avian-type of cardiopulmonary system.  Likewise, understanding how pterosaurs vaulted themselves into the air and then sustained the movements of powered flight for extended periods is near-impossible assuming ectothermic metabolisms, especially considering the biggest, giraffe-sized pterosaur species, but begin to make sense for an endothermic creature.

Ornithological Explorations

When I say “subsequent discoveries” confirmed the birdosaur theory, I’m referring to the series of fossil “transitional species,”or more informally, “dino-birds,” that have been found in the late ’90s and throughout the ’00s up through today, mostly in China and environs.  A surprising number of these seriously freaky-deaky species, Archaeopteryx-like “dino-birds,” have been identified and studied in recent years.

Insofar as a species can be freaky-deaky, these “dino-birds” are… though in my opinion, plenty of existing species fall into the freaky category: turkeys, vultures and ostriches from the birdosaur lineage, bats who arrived at scary, pterosaur-like wings independently, etc.  But I guess if you’re a member of one of the aforementioned species, you don’t seem so freaky.


“Life restoration” of Xiaotingia, dino-bird of the Late Jurassic. Xiaotingia is so similar to Archeopteryx, it’s classified as an “archaeopterygian.”

First described in 2011, Xiaotingia zhengi is the closest relative of Archaeopteryx found so far, and one of the basalmost (earliest, most “basal,” preferred over the term “most primitive” since later stages of evolution aren’t necessarily “better”) “transitional species” identified to date, more basal than Archaeopteryx.  Like Archaeopteryx itself, the phylogenetic categorization is murky indeed: it’s debatable whether Xiaotingia counts as a straight-up bird (“early avian species”) or an “intermediate species” (dino-bird) somewhere amongst the roots of what became the bird family tree (the class Aves).  Its dino characteristics exist mostly in certain non-avian skeletal features, not in visible form (excepting the long, bony, maniraptoriforme tail).


Graciliraptor, a freaky-deaky birdosaur from the early Cretaceous, is one of the more basal (primitive but you’re not supposed to use “primitive”) dino-birds, with much more dino-y characteristics.

Described in 2004, Graciliraptor is considered closely related to freaky four-winged dino-bird Microraptor, so it’s considered a microraptorian, an even more narrow category than Maniraptoriformes, that includes the smallest, closest dino relatives of birds.


at 1.6m, Tianyuraptor is the largest known microraptnrian.

Tianyuraptor. Really bizarre and amazing dino-chicken Tianyuraptor ostromi (named in honor of John Ostrom).


This “life restoration” of Velociraptor mongoliensis is largely representative of the current consensus on what most “raptor” species were like: feathered birdosaurs.

In September 2007, researchers found “quill knobs” on the forearm of a Velociraptor found in Mongolia. These bumps on bird wing bones show where feathers anchor. This, along with other finds, including multiple discoveries of fossil feathers with these ‘raptors, proved that later raptory theropods often had feathers, strengthening Ostrom’s birdosaur theory even further

Current Toronto Raptors logo, still more tyrannosaur-like than today’s conception of raptors as feathered and bird-like.

and rendering Spielberg’s scaly Jurassic Park velociraptors (and NBA team Toronto Raptors‘ velociraptor logo) inaccurate.

Why feathers?

Why would some theropods, landlocked carnivores in an environment of ferocious dino-eat-dino competition, evolve feathers?  Why would the development of feathers make the evolutionary to-do-list for these predatory dinosaurs who needed to devote all the biological resources they could accrue to gain an edge in the game of kill-or-be-killed?  This is especially puzzling when one considers pterosaurs’ featherless physique; now that we know more about pterosaur evolution, it’s clear that their fuzzy, partial pycnofibre coats weren’t helpful for flying and bore no resemblance to proto-feather layers.  We can conclude the weird partial coats of pycnofibres (which kind of remind me of humans’ internal cilia) were sufficient for pterosaurs’ thermoregulatory needs and feathers weren’t crucial to being a flying predator.  Additionally, pterosaur evolution was so radically different from all other archosaurs, they must’ve split from the herd very early in their development.

Predatory raptors, under intense evolutionary pressures constantly (driven by climate change, ecological shifts disrupting the food chain, plus fearsome competition for prey with other predatory species),

John Ostrom’s crowning achievement, Deinonychus, depicted as a big feathered raptor here in the traveling exhibit “Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight,” Germany, February 2009.

wouldn’t’ve invested evolutionary/mutagenic energies into feathers unless out of necessity, so I tend to view their feathering-up as a thermoregulatory aid, essential for smaller species (microraptorians for example) that are especially vulnerable to heat loss. Eventually, climate swings into colder temperatures may have wiped out featherless theropods while feathered species survived, or perhaps a time period of the only sustainable sources of prey being in cold parts of Earth disadvantaged featherless predators, or something far more complicated, but somehow feathers gave enough benefit that they continue in the gene pool from at least the Late Jurassic to today.

In Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction, the author, British ornithologist and natural historian David Norman, described proto-feathers as beginning for heat-conservation purposes, but suggested the development of “genuinely bird-like flight feathers,” and perhaps bird flying itself, originated as byproducts of their primary function – mating displays:

…so small, active endotherms would be expected to insulate their bodies to reduce heat loss. Small theropod dinosaurs, therefore, evolved insulation to prevent heat loss because they were endotherms -not because they ‘wanted’ to become birds!

Liaoning discoveries indicate that various types of insulatory covering developed, most probably by subtle modifications to the growth patterns of normal skin scales; these ranged from hair-like filaments to full-blown feathers. It may well be that genuinely bird-like flight feathers did not evolve for the purposes of flight, but had a far more prosaic origin. Several of the ‘dinobirds’ from Liaoning seem to have tufts of feathers on the end of the tail (rather like a geisha’s fan) and fringes of feathers along the arms, on the head, or running down the spine. Clearly preservational biases may also play a part in how and on which parts of the body these may be preserved. But for the present, it seems at least possible that feathers evolved as structures linked to the behaviour of these animals: providing recognition signals, perhaps, as in living birds, or being used as part of their mating rituals, long before any genuine flight function had developed.

In this context, gliding and flight, rather than being the sine qua non of avian origins, become later, ‘add-on’ benefits. Obviously, feathers have the potential for aerodynamic uses; just as with modern birds, the ability to jump and flutter may well have embellished ‘dinobird’ mating displays. For example, in the case of the small creature Microraptor, a combination of fringes of feathers along the arms, legs, and tail would have provided it with the ability to launch itself into the air from branches or equivalent vantage points. From just this sort of starting point, gliding and true flapping flight seem a comparatively short ‘step’ indeed.

© David Norman, Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction
For more on this source, see its section of veryshortintroductions.com

It’s kind of romantic if you think about it, devoting millions of years in order to move from carpet-esque proto-feather fuzz to a covering with more “bling,” to impress a mate.

American Museum of Natural History’s cast replica of Sinornithosaurus specimen NGMC91, nicknamed “Dave.” Sinornithosaurus (Greek and Latin mash-up meaning “Chinese birdosaur”) was another “dino-bird” found in Liaoning, in 1999. It was found with a proto-feather coat “similar to down.”

It also underscores how features often evolve in animals in indirect and unexpected ways.

In another unexpected quirk of evolution, the dating of dino-bird specimens, even basal “intermediate species” like Xiaotingia, and oldest, basal microraptorians like Sinornithosaurus, shows they were around after, and coexisted with early avians. That freaky dino-birds like Sinornithosaurus rubbed elbows with ducks, ostriches, quail, turkeys, etc. means birds “spun-off” from an earlier common ancestor, likely an even more basal microraptorian during the Jurassic period.

Think of Aves (the class containing all of today’s birds) as a TV show spin-off, but a spin-off that lasts much longer than the older show it branched-off from, like The Simpsons, which was originally a segment on The Tracey Ullman Show, was spun-off as its own series, coexisted on the TV schedule with The Tracey Ullman Show for multiple seasons but ultimately outlived its ancestor and keeps going and going up to today.  Similarly, Aves spun-off from the dino-bird show, coexisted on the Mesozoic schedule, living side-by-side throughout the Cretaceous, but the dino-bird show got canceled via the big, horrendous kablooie, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, and along with an estimated three-quarters of plant and animal species on the planet, didn’t live to see the Cenozoic (the consensus is still that something bad collided with the Earth).  Somehow, Aves kept going and going, with nearly all its cast intact.


thus ends the big Dinocember series (though I may do a bonus post on pterosaurs and a quick note on stegosaurs)
For the other dinosaur-posts in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series, go to:
Part 3: Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten

Part 2: Tananim Gedolim: “great reptiles,” the dinosaurs in the Torah (somewhat controversial)

Part 1: The Griffin Was Based On A Real Creature! (#1 most-visited page on nickscrusade.org, by far)

Note: I wanted to add the infamous Alabama State Board of Education “biology textbook insert” evolution disclaimer at the top of this post, but it is too long.  The revised disclaimer seems 30-40% longer than than the original 1996 sticker I confronted in high school, though it’s still written in the same clunky, dense committee-ese that proved indecipherable for even the most bold, intrepid minds back then, so is skipped so thoroughly that few students could tell you it’s there.  Read the 2001 “biology textbook insert” here if you’re in need of an insomnia cure. 

Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten

Part 3 of 4 of my D-cember: Dino-cember! series

I heard on NPR’s TED Radio Hour in an offhand comment in the first segment of a November episode called Misconceptions, that the brontosaurus name is no more, and that kids today learn that it’s an apatosaurus (older name, same dinosaur).
Taken aback, I searched for the explanation… how could the brontosaurus name (meaning “thunder lizard”) be discarded in favor of apatosaurus (meaning “deceptive lizard”)??? Your average brontosaur—a median example, not the biggest—was roughly the weight of four bull elephants, and one individual’s thunderous stomp would have been about as “deceptive” as a gigantism-affected pachyderm herd stampeding x 50, i.e., not sneaky or deceptive at all.

In Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction, the author, British ornithologist and natural historian David Norman, described brontosaurus evidence: footprints of brontosaur herds that were found in Texas:

More convincing were some tracks observed by Bird at Davenport Ranch, also in Texas. Here he was able to log the tracks of 23 brontosaur-like sauropods walking in the same direction at the same time. This suggested very strongly that some dinosaurs moved around in herds. Herding or gregarious behaviour is impossible to deduce from skeletons, but tracks provide direct evidence.
… Some of the large sauropodomorph dinosaurs (the brontosaurs referred to above) may have weighed as much as 20-40 tonnes in life. These animals would have exerted enormous forces on the ground when they walked. On soft substrate, the pressure from the feet of such dinosaurs would have distorted the earth at a depth of a metre or more beneath the surface…
If herds of such enormous creatures trampled over areas, as they certainly did at Davenport Ranch, then they also had the capacity to greatly disturb the earth beneath – pounding it up and destroying its normal sedimentary structure. This relatively recently recognized phenomenon has been named ‘dinoturbation’.
… Great herds of multitonne dinosaurs moving across a landscape had the potential to utterly devastate the local ecology. We are aware that elephants today are capable of causing considerable damage to the African savannah because of the way that they can tear up and knock down mature trees. What might a herd of 40-tonne brontosaurs have done?

© David Norman, Chapter 7 in Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction
For more on this source, see its section of veryshortintroductions.com

So, yeah.  Just imagine it, the extreme damage a herd of brontosaurs could do, “dinoturbation” of the landscape still obvious from the Jurassic Era, 208-144 million years ago (and it makes sense that brontosaurs, unarmored, gigantic prey animals without many defensive adaptations, would travel in herds for strength in numbers).  What might a brontosaurus herd sound like??  Thunder, rolling thunder, louder than anything.  Thunder lizard (brontosaurus) is clearly the right name.

Alas, the apatosaurus name won out, as noted by an NPR News piece just a year ago: Forget Extinct: The Brontosaurus Never Even Existed : NPR – All Things Considered (i.e. it didn’t exist because it’s apatosaurus and was acknowledged as such in 1903).

The American Heritage Science Dictionary has the most concise explanation of the brontosaurus naming controversy I’ve seen so far:

Take a little deception, add a little excitement, stir them with a century-long mistake, and you have the mystery of the brontosaurus. Specifically, you have the mystery of its name. For 100 years this 70-foot-long, 30-ton vegetarian giant had two names. This case of double identity began in 1877, when bones of a large dinosaur were discovered. The creature was dubbed apatosaurus, a name that meant “deceptive lizard” or “unreal lizard.” Two years later, bones of a larger dinosaur were found, and in all the excitement, scientists named it brontosaurus or “thunder lizard.” This name stuck until scientists decided it was all a mistake—the two sets of bones actually belonged to the same type of dinosaur. Since it is a rule in taxonomy that the first name given to a newly discovered organism is the one that must be used, scientists have had to use the term apatosaurus. But “thunder lizard” had found a lot of popular appeal, and many people still prefer to call the beast brontosaurus.

The American Heritage Science Dictionary, s.v. “brontosaurus,” accessed November 29, 2013

According to the brontosaurus information at the American Museum of Natural History, when paleontologist Elmer Riggs (Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago) published his study in 1903 showing the apatosaurus found was actually a juvenile example of the genus, not separate from brontosaurus, it technically ended the matter, “officially” the apatosaurus name took precedent from 1903 onwards.
But there had to be more to it.  I still learned about “thunder lizards” in elementary school. Amidst the late ’80s-early ’90s “dino-mania” brontosaurs were widely seen (and labeled brontosaurus), so when and how did apatosaurus displace the brontosaurus name?

Stephen Jay Gould provides the best explanation of how the hell this happened: in his humorous essay “Bully for Brontosaurus” (one essay in the book Bully for Brontosaurus, which mostly consists of his essays on non-dinosaur natural history subjects) he explores taxonomy and the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), and explains that the apatosaurus name gained currency as an unexpected side-effect of the aforementioned dino-mania, mostly following all the whining over the 1989 USPS-special release of dinosaur stamps that labeled the brontosaurus as brontosaurus, like so:

I used these stamps in 1989-1990. Mom got them, correctly noticing them as the perfect stamps for me. I especially treasured the stegosaurus stamps, stegosaurus is my favorite dino. Image from: What Happened to the Brontosaurus? – The Museum of Unnatural Mystery

These postage stamps were great; I was more inclined to mail letters when they could be stegosaur-stamped letters.
But the Postal Service got a mass of Comic Book Guy-type complaint letters demanding retraction of the brontosaurus name in favor of the apatosaurus name, and the media who had covered the release of the dino stamps since it was one of the first times USPS issued special stamps (unveiled at Disney World the year me/my family were there), got similar complaint letters.  Soon, apatosaurus was widely known as the “correct” and “scientific” name.

In “Bully for Brontosaurus,” Gould explains:

I hate to be a shill for the Post Office, but I think that they made the right decision this time. Responding to the great Apatosaurus flap, Postal Bulletin Number 21744 proclaimed:

“Although now recognized by the scientific community as Apatosaurus, the name Brontosaurus was used for the stamp because it is more familiar to the general population. Similarly, the term “dinosaur” has been used generically to describe all the animals, even though the Pteranodon was a flying reptile.”

Touché and right on; no one bitched about Pteranodon, and that’s a real error.

The Post Office has been more right than the complainers, for Uncle Sam has worked in the spirit of the plenary powers rule. Names fixed in popular usage may be validated even if older designations have technical priority. But now…Oh Lord, why didn’t I see it before! Now I suddenly grasp the secret thread behind this overt debate! It’s a plot, a dastardly plot sponsored by the apatophiles–that covert society long dedicated to gaining support for Marsh’s original name against a potential appeal to the plenary powers. They never had a prayer before. Whatever noise they made, whatever assassinations they attempted, they could never get anyone to pay attention, never disturb the tranquillity and general acceptance of Brontosaurus. But now that the Post Office has officially adopted Brontosaurus, they have found their opening. Now enough people know about Apatosaurus for the first time. Now an appeal to the plenary powers would not lead to the validation of Brontosaurus, for Apatosaurus has gained precious currency. They have won; we brontophiles have been defeated.

© 1991, W. W. Norton & Co. and Stephen Jay Gould
essay viewable on Google Books: Bully for Brontosaurus

According to the ICZN Code, the first designated name for the species reigns, but the Zoological Congress of 1913 in Monaco added the plenary powers rule, an appeal process whereby applications to “suppress” the oldest name, if the current name is better and more well-known, could be reviewed. Gould describes the 1913 adoption of the plenary powers rule as a response to what I’d call griefers (a term from the world of massively multiplayer online games—MMOs—meaning someone whose primary means of enjoyment is the intentional griefing, verb: present participle, of other players, the ruining of others’ fun).

In “Bully for Brontosaurus,” Stephen Jay Gould cities Dinny the dinosaur as an example of brontosaurs in popular culture. Dinny is Alley Oop’s trusty brontosaurus-like companion and transportation, in the newspaper comic strip Alley Oop (1932-present).

Some were using the ICZN oldest-name-gets-priority-rule just to derive pleasure from the panic and discomfort wreaked on the Zoological Congress when a well-established name was apt to get toppled; Gould describes an attempt to replace the name boa constrictor with an unknown obscurity that was ultimately suppressed using the plenary powers rule.

The plenary powers rule seemed to set the table for brontophiles to appeal the apatosaurus name. After all, the brontosaurus was everywhere, probably second only to the T. Rex in cultural ubiquity, commonly seen in comic books, comic strips (Alley Oop), cartoon shows and movies, The Flintstones, even as the mascot and logo of Sinclair Oil, and in U.S.-written animated shows, it was akin to visual shorthand for “Jurassic Era” or “dinosaur.”  The brontosaurus is the dinosaur, what people picture when the word “dinosaur” is mentioned.
As dino-mania really took hold, Was (not was) had a big hit in 1987 (UK) and 1989 (US) with “Walk the Dinosaur,” which featured a dance in the music video, “the dinosaur,” done with forward motions of the hand/wrist to mimic a brontosaur’s neck, the most recognizable neck of all Dinosauria.
An aside: though “Walk the Dinosaur” became a dance craze song

Brontosaurus, even on the record cover of the “Walk the Dinosaur” single [1987, Chrysalis Records].
like The Twist or The Hustle (but the dinosaur dance never caught on that much beyond the cave-girls in the music video) originally it wasn’t a dance song.  MTV and near-mandatory music videos for singles changed everything: prior to the music video with cave-girls and dinosaur dance—complete with “follow the dancing ball” caption-instructions to teach you the three steps to the “do the dinosaur” dance—“do the dinosaur” was a reference to the extinction of humanity via global thermonuclear war, the “Boom! Boom! Aka-lacka-boom-boom!” was the bombs falling to start armageddon.

I think the brontosaurus sticks in the popular imagination because it is such a huge, ridiculous animal, straining our ideas about the laws of physics and biology.  Its short, stubby legs relative to its massive body brings to mind a cross between a dino-dachshund and Godzilla.  Its feet look like elephant feet, big, padded oval-shaped feet with three or four front-facing, prominent toe-nails that looked a lot like this.  Its absurdly-long neck shouldn’t even be biologically possible; getting consistent bloodflow up the neck to the brain and down to the tail—a 70-feet-long circulatory system—would have required

Aside from the fictitious dorsal armor-spikes (and human rider), Dinny the dinosaur is actually a fairly accurate rendering of a brontosaurus. His head, longish and pointy, is more correct than many other early depictions, which often incorporate paleontologist O. C. Marsh’s placement of the much blockier Camarasaurus skull onto early skeleton displays of the species.

an incredible, 500-liter, mega-efficient, four-chambered bird-type heart, avian-esque but on a massive, big, big scale that is hard to fathom.  With a reptilian circulatory system it really would be impossible.
Such an outlandish creature is hard to forget.  Its image has real staying power.  And it provides us a reminder of how beautiful and weird the natural world can be, how it tends to zigzag while our expectations go straight.

As for the brontosaurus name, it wouldn’t win an appeal to the plenary powers since the postage stamp kerfuffle (though it totally would have won such an appeal in 1965, 1975, even 1985) but we can still use the name.  “Brontosaurus” (thunder lizard) is the more appropriate name and, as a slightly newer (1879) synonym, shouldn’t be seen as incorrect, no matter what they say. The best thing we brontophiles can do is keep the name in circulation on the internet, refer to brontosaurus in posts and comments whenever possible (and whenever impossible is fun too). Keep saying “brontosaurus” to keep it alive: brontosaurus, brontosaurus, brontosaurus.

A haiku I wrote, an ode to retaining the beautiful brontosaurus name:

oh great brontosaur
noble herbivore, thunder
feet ain’t “deceptive”


For more on the brontosaurus naming controversy, check out:

What Happened to the Brontosaurus? – The Museum of Unnatural Mystery (all content by Lee Krystek) – highly recommended for its comprehensive coverage and informative YouTube video

Google Books: Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould

Forget Extinct: The Brontosaurus Never Even Existed : NPR – All Things Considered


For the other dinosaur-posts in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series, go to:
Part 2: Tananim Gedolim: “great reptiles,” the dinosaurs in the Torah (somewhat controversial)

Part 1: The Griffin Was Based On A Real Creature! (#1 most-visited page on nickscrusade.org, by far)

Tananim Gedolim: “great reptiles,” the dinosaurs in the Torah

Originally written December the 5th, 2006, I’ve revised and re-named it to be part 2 of 4 of my D-cember: Dino-cember! series

Tananim Gedolim, in English, “Great Reptiles”

The Spiritual Can Illuminate The Scientific. The Scientific Can Illuminate The Spiritual.

There has been (and will continue to be) debate about evolution and the age of planet Earth.

Among Christians, especially the growing fundamentalist groups, creationism is often embraced, stating a literal 6 day creation of the Earth. Some Charedi Jews (i.e. ultra Orthodox) hold to the Earth being 5767 years old, though an important distinction should be noted: the “literal” reading—the idea that the text shouldn’t be interpreted as much as simply “read”—taught by many forms of fundamentalist Christianity, isn’t really possible within Judaism because we work with the original Hebrew of the Torah which, by definition, can only be interpreted into English, ancient Hebrew worldview converted into English thought and words. So even the more hardline factions that strictly hold to the 5700+ Hebrew calendar years timeframe for the Earth’s age (not meaning 5700+ years from Adam and the human spirit’s first run-publication, or something else) aren’t fundamentalist in the same way strict, sola scriptura literalists are, as they don’t insist that this is the only meaning within the passage.  Within Judaism it’s taken for granted that multiple meanings and explanations, even hidden mystical interpretations, exist on every page, with numerous wisdom and commentary texts relied upon to “bring down” (from Sinai) right interpretations, not the “one book, one meaning” mentality associated with the sola scriptura-thinking prevalent in Protestant versions of Christianity.

The passage that mentions “the great reptiles,” Bereishit (Genesis) 1.21, says the following:

21. And God created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that crawls, with which the waters swarmed, according to their kind, and every winged fowl, according to its kind, and God saw that it was good

The Hebrew words “tananim” (reptiles, serpents, Leviathan) and gelodim (great, plural) are translated here as “great sea monsters.” The term gelodim, the greats, is clear and unambiguous, “the greats” is frequently used by itself as a noun, especially to refer to the Talmudic greats, the great sages. Tananim is the area of difficulty. Most translations render “tananim gelodim” as great sea monsters, great serpents, or the Leviathan…the King James Version goes with “great whales.” The Leviathan is an ancient mythological sea monster, think Loch Ness Monster, a massive marine reptile described as a fire-breathing dragon in Job 41:
“18 His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.
21 His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth.”

It’s unmistakable that tananim are giant reptiles or members of a terrifying reptiloid species of some kind. In modern Hebrew, “tananim” are crocodiles.

Rashi, the famous Torah commentator and rabbi from 11th century France, offers more insights into the tananim gelodim, which he sees as the Leviathan. Rashi is so foundational because he focuses on the basic meaning of the Hebrew words, the grammar, and decoding ancient idioms. He typically keeps it brief, not getting into hidden interpretations, but for the Leviathan he makes an exception, since the letters in tananim gelodim led to the midrash (retelling) cited. Rashi writes:

the sea monsters: The great fish in the sea, and in the words of the Aggadah (B.B. 74b), this refers to the Leviathan and its mate, for He created them male and female, and He slew the female and salted her away for the righteous in the future, for if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them. הַתַּנִינִם is written. [I.e., the final “yud,” which denotes the plural, is missing, hence the implication that the Leviathan did not remain two, but that its number was reduced to one.]- [from Gen. Rabbah 7:4, Midrash Chaseroth V’Yetheroth, Batei Midrashoth, vol 2, p. 225].

Okay, come on… c’mon, we’re talking about ancient giant reptiloids that emerged before birds and mankind, and have to go extinct before humanity can begin their world, being too mean, too enormous, too terrible, to co-exist with humans.
The preponderance of the evidence indicates the tananim gedolim are dinosaurs.

I love dinosaurs. They did exist.

the Barosaurus was unbelievably tall when leaning back onto the hind legs to slap attackers.
the Barosaurus was unbelievably tall when leaning back onto the hind legs to slap attackers.
me with the Barosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History, NYC. Early June, 1999.
me with the Barosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History, NYC. Early June, 1999.

There are people who retcon history to erase the dinosaurs, or say dinosaurs coexisted with humans, or say that tananim gedolim being dinosaurs is Biblical proof that dino-human coexistence occurred. The Creation Museum in Kentucky has displays showing a vegetarian Tyrannosaurus in Eden, mankind (including human children) peacefully coexisting with predatory dinosaurs that somehow aren’t chasing and eating them, dinos saddled for riding… it’s crazy.

To assume that all Triassic fossils are 248-208 Million Years inaccurate
all Jurassic fossils are 208-144 Million Years inaccurate
and all Cretaceous fossils are 144-65 Million Years inaccurate is way too much for me to swallow.
We’ve proven that situations like The Lost World or The Flintstones didn’t happen.

In this actual exhibit at the Creation Museum (real, not photoshopped) a baby Tyrannosaurus eats plants in Eden, as a Jesus-looking figure (standing inside the T-Rex’s kill radius) looks on peacefully. The Tyrannosaurus‘ teeth, blades rather than the grinding molars characteristic of herbivorous dinos, may have made chewing leaves physically impossible.

It stretches credulity past the breaking point to think the dinosaurs (meaning “terrible lizards”), including Tyrannosaurus Rex, each tooth a scimitar-looking kill-blade, chilled with early homo sapiens, just kicked back and watched Eden flag football together with mankind like bros, and didn’t make a midnight snack out of the human race and end it forever. Velociraptors would see humanity as a feast, raptor-christmas!!!
Dinosaurs are called dinosaurs, “terrible lizards,” for a reason—not because they did a terrible job of lizard-ing—because they terrorize us, and can strike terr into the hearts of man, even in crumbly fossil form.  Listen to Rashi, gigantic dragon-like predators aren’t compatible with the world of man; “if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them.”

But of course, dinosaur fossils and an Earth that is demonstrably billions of years old doesn’t necessarily contradict the Torah. To insist on a literal six-day Creation is to have a shallow understanding of a Creation story that has infinite depth in each verse.  There’s much more to it.  There is so much more to Torah, so much more depth and color, so many layers and intricacies to the numerous interpretations and subtexts, not to mention the richness of the oral tradition (the aggadot, midrashim, etc.)
Dr. Gerald Schroeder makes a convincing case that the six days are six epochs, and brings down several Tanakh passages that substantiate that idea.

Dr. Gerald Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew and MIT-trained scientist who has made it his life’s work to teach that the Torah can offer enriching perspectives to verifiable science and visa versa. His lectures are the source of much of what I’m about to tell you.

What is a day? All sides can agree that day, by definition, is the time between sunrise and sunset. We know that since Torah tells us the sun wasn’t created until day 3, it can’t be referring to literal days (because a day requires a sun) so these 6 days refer to epochs of Creation. Psalm 90:4 says “a thousand years in Your sight are as but yesterday.”

The Jewish sages of the Middle Ages tell us the Earth is billions of years old, and they weren’t bending to science, because science didn’t even exist in their era. Nachmanides described all matter of the universe expanding from the size of a seed (the big bang) in the 13th century… scientific truth mirroring spiritual truth.

In Genesis, you see one beginning, not a cyclic universe. This has been shown by science, a big bang booting-up the universe and linear time.

The second description of Creation describes Adam not finding a mate among the animals. “And man named all the cattle and the fowl of the heavens and all the beasts of the field, but for man, he did not find a helpmate opposite him.” (Gen. 2:20) Obviously, Adam in sinless Eden is not a sheep molester. The Midrash explains among the “beasts of the field” were animals who looked and talked just like people! Prehistoric man! And since he couldn’t find a soul mate among Neanderthals, Hashem created the male and female soul. 5767 years isn’t the age of the Earth, but the time since the human soul was bestowed. 5767 in history mirrors what has been discovered by archeology as about the time organized civilization arose. I don’t think this is a coincidence; this is obviously an important break in human history.

Astronomy has shown that light exploded into the matter of suns, then suns exploded into chunks, element-rich planets which spawned life, i.e. we come from light beams. This is confirmed throughout Judaic thought, as we are called “beings of light.”

Spiritual truth can mirror scientific truth. There are countless examples of this. Another was how a Talmudist, going on kabbalistic teachings, deduced a major descending artery in the brain that was later confirmed to exist by science.

Both the scientific and the spiritual are very exciting to study, because they have the potential to expose and confirm the deepest, most visceral truths of our existence. Science should be embraced by the religious, and it’s very frustrating to see them bashing science. They align themselves with the same mentality of those who insisted the world was flat. Our global reality would be greatly improved by a new Renaissance or Islamic Golden Age that harnesses the best thinkers, undivided: theologians, scientists, anthropologists, everyone toward a goal of bettering the world of man, without heeding specialty boundaries and the counter-productive “thinking from silos” that’s so prevalent today.  Unity.  Unity would be great.

I recommend checking out Dr. Schroeder’s take on the dinosaurs and the translation of tananim.  Dr. Schroeder isn’t one of these “Answers in Genesis” types, he’s more a physicist who’s well-versed in Torah and takes you deeper. His explanations add richness to our understandings of the cosmos and Torah alike.  It’s good to seek out scientific truths, (“…the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” Deut. 29:29) and the exciting scientific discoveries ahead can only help us understand ourselves and all creation.


For the other dinosaur-posts in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series, go to:
Part 3: Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten

Part 1: The Griffin Was Based On A Real Creature! (#1 most-visited page on nickscrusade.org, by far)

The Griffin Was Based On A Real Creature!

UPDATE: Apparently the Top Search term leading people to my blog is still “griffin.”  If you’re one of the griffin-seekers, Welcome! feel free to browse, there are lots of posts here, lots of history essays, on everything from Chinese history to the weird story of top-hat gangsters taking over 1850s Baltimore.

Without further ado, here is my June 25, 2007 post on the history of the griffin and its potential dinosaur origin story!

I saw this thing on the History Channel the other day about the origins of mythic creatures.

Scythians spread the legend of the Griffin, and Griffin stories quickly spread to Greece and throughout the ancient world, even to the Jews. The Torah says don’t eat griffins (always good advice). The “New Testament” uses a griffin as a metaphor for Jesus or something.

More cool griffin images

The Scythians would use the Griffin to scare off enemies, letting it be known that their treasure is guarded by a Griffin and if you invade, the Griffin will eat you, etc. An ingenious defense strategy, and evidence has been mounting that the steppe horsemen-warrior cultures (Scythians, Mongols, etc) had griffin encounters for real, it’s just that the griffins seen were very complete Protoceratops fossils. Griffins were really dinosaurs.

This idea has become so established that it even made it into the opening pages of Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction by David Norman (three cheers for the Very Short Introductions series!)
Here is part of what Norman said about the griffin-dinosaur connection:

“…as early as the 7th century bc the Greeks had contact with nomadic cultures in central Asia. Written accounts at this time include descriptions of the Griffin (or Gryphon): a creature that reputedly hoarded and jealously guarded gold; it was wolf-sized with a beak, four legs, and sharp claws on its feet. Furthermore, Near East art of at least 3000 BC depicts Griffin-like creatures, as does that of the Mycenaean. The Griffin myth arose in Mongolia/north-west China, in association with the ancient caravan routes and gold prospecting in the Tienshan and Altai Mountains. This part of the world (we now know) has a very rich fossil heritage and is notable for the abundance of well-preserved dinosaur skeletons; they are remarkably easy to find because their white fossil bones stand out clearly against the soft, red sandstones in which they are buried. Of even greater interest is the fact that the most abundant of the dinosaurs preserved in these sandstones is Protoceratops, which are approximately wolf-sized, and have a prominent hooked beak and four legs terminated by sharp-clawed toes. Their skulls also bear strikingly upswept bony frills, which might easily be the origin of the wing-like structures that are often depicted in Griffin imagery. …it would appear to be highly probable that Griffins owe their origin to genuine observations of dinosaur skeletons made by nomadic travelers through Mongolia; they demonstrate an uncanny link between exotic mythological beasts and the real world of dinosaurs.”

© David Norman, Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction, 2005



Griffin-looking dinosaur skulls (pictured here) have been laying around in the heart of what was Scythian territory. Read more about this at the American Museum of Natural History: Griffin Bones. The Scythians would have seen these skulls and, understandably, assumed beasts of this nature were nearby, or maybe just thought it was great propaganda material to scare enemies.

The griffin was based on a real creature!

Isn’t that awesome?

And new discoveries are happening every day.

Source: American Museum of Natural History: Griffin Bones


I’ve elevated this post to part 1 of 4 in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series.
For the other posts in the series go to:
Part 2: Tananim Gedolim: “great reptiles,” the dinosaurs in the Torah (somewhat controversial)

Part 3: Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten

Dolphin + False Killer Whale = Wholphin

Sometimes a normal female bottlenose dolphin (typically 300-600 lbs.) mates with one of the biggest species in the dolphin family, the false killer whale (not really a whale, hence “false,” but being 4,000 lbs., the size of an orca, and having similar coloration, is easily mistaken as one from a distance). I’m talking about freaky-deeky cross species mating.

A false killer whale and a bottlenose dolphin sharing a tank.

The resulting offspring: a wholphin.

This is a girlWholpin at Sea Life Park Hawaii named Kekaimalu. The first known wholphin in the world, born 1985.

Top to bottom: False Killer Whale (Dad- named I’anui Hahai), Bottlenose Dolphin (Mom- named Punahele) and their child, the girlWholpin “Keikaimalu”

Scientists assumed that wholphins would be sterile like other hybridized mammals like mules and zorses, who can’t reproduce because their odd number of chromosomes prevent meiosis. But they were wrong.  Keikaimalu shocked researchers when she began mating with dolphins and having babies, not one but three pregnancies. Her first two calves never thrived and never nursed, and didn’t survive (though the second lived 9 years). Her third calf, a wholphin daughter named Kawili Kai, was born December 24, 2004, and immediately began nursing and has been very healthy, playful and vigorous from the start. Kawili Kai’s father is a bottlenose dolphin, making her 3/4 dolphin and 1/4 false killer whale, so she’s much more dolphin in appearance than her mom Keikaimalu; Kawili Kai looks more like a darker complexioned, super-jumbo bottlenose dolphin, passing the size of most bottlenoses a year after birth. But she has incredible whale eyes; click for a close up.

Kawili Kai at 9-months old

One of nature’s weirdest hybrids, wholphins are between the parent species in weight (600 lbs–double her mom’s size) in coloration, in length (10 ft) and even in number of teeth (66, while a bottlenose has 88 teeth and a false killer whale has 44 teeth).

Keikaimalu and Kawili Kai are the only wholphins in captivity, but wholphins have been documented in the wild too, No one knows how many are existent in the wild, they are incredibly rare. But sometimes it does happen.

“Throw me a fish! lol!”

Wholphin Links

A Wolphin Celebrates Her Tenth Birthday! (from 1995, about Kekaimalu’s 10th birthday. Her second calf was still alive then)

Whale-dolphin hybrid has baby wholphin (about the birth of Kawili Kai. AP via MSNBC)

A Wholphin Is Born (about Kawili Kai’s birth. brief CBS News video of the wholphins)