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popular vs. academic terms

Ken Kinman said:

>                     -------Ken
>P.S.  In fact, saying "birds are living dinosaurs", not only irritates a lot
>of people, but it probably actually tends to help perpetuate the erroneous
>notion that non-avian dinosaurs were slow-moving dimwits and that is the
>reason they went extinct.  Throwing birds and non-avian dinosaurs into one
>big "Dinosauria" makes it harder to overcome such misconceptions. Something
>else to think about!

You seem to have a misconception that there is one popular conception of
"dinosaur," and that yanking birds out leaves slow-witted nonavian herps.
This is incorrect.  Some people equated "dinosaur" with "nonavian
dinosaur;" others with "extinct reptile," still others with "big extinct
vertebrate."  I'm sure you've seen boxes of toy "dinosaurs" that include
Dimetrodon, a mammoth, a pterosaur, and maybe a sabercat.  In this sense,
popular "dinosaur" and popular "bug" are exactly equivalent - they're
imprecise and convey a wide range of imagery.

The word "whale" brings an immediate image to most people - one that
implies a very, very large animal.  That belugas and narwhals are not that
big does not make them "not whales;" it simply shows that the popular image
does not convey the diversity of the group as understood by scientists.
"Shark" brings the instant image of a great white; angel sharks, Port
Jackson sharks, and deep-water sixgill sharks don't stop being sharks
because they're dissimilar from great whites.  Ditto for "wasp," "lizard,"
and (if you include the fossils) "crocodile."  It's this underappreciated
diversity that gets most of us hooked on systematics in the first place!

We scientists need precise terminology.  When an entomologist says "bug,"
he or she means "member of Heteroptera."  When a paleontologist says
"dinosaur," he or she means "member of Dinosauria."  As currently defined,
Dinosauria includes birds; hence, from a scientific perspective, "birds are
dinosaurs" is both precise and correct.  I am fully aware of the multitude
of popular images conveyed by the word "dinosaur," so when I speak with
public groups, I start by explaining what I mean by the word.

So - based on what we know, birds are dinosaurs.  No mistake there.


Christopher A. Brochu
Department of Geology
Field Museum
1400 S. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605

phone 312-665-7633
fax 312-665-7641
electronic cbrochu@fmppr.fmnh.org