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RE: Who says dromaeosaurs can't fly?

At 02:20 PM 15/09/02 -0500, Williams, Tim wrote:
Well put.  As Mickey Rowe has said before on this list, the easiest person
to fool is oneself.  It's very easy to promulgate a plausible scenario that
"makes sense" to you - but how does it stack up against alternative

Plus - I can't help saying something that I think bears repeating every once in a while: There is a great deal in palaeontology that we can never know.

We will never know, for example, if ANY extinct species actually flew, including fossil neornithine birds. The most we can legitimately say is that they had an anatomical setup that permitted flight, and of course it is parsimonious to assume that fossil neornithines flew in the absence of evidence to the contrary. But this is still an assumption, and an assumption that grows weaker the more basal you go on the avian family tree. We cannot even know for certain that pterosaurs flew, though it seems vanishingly unlikely that they did not.

Therefore when it comes to less obvious speculations, there are going to be a good many that can never be dealt with in a purely "scientific" way. For example, you can say that the fossils indicate that certain types of behaviour would have been possible, but except in unusual cases you cannot say that those behaviours were actually exhibited (exceptions might be footprint evidence, fossils showing brooding, fighting or stomach contents, and (in my opinion) feather fossils in a condition that implies grooming or preening behaviour).

My big problem is when writers, scientific or otherwise, fail to be clear on this point and make positive statements. With great respect to Greg Paul, whose work I admire, when he says (as he did on this list) that "some dromaeosaurs flew" he is falling into this trap - and it is a trap that gives palaeontology a bad name. He may very well mean "Some dromaeosaurs had adaptations that would have permitted flight", or even "some dromaeosaurs exhibit features consistent with flight and hard to explain in any other way", but that is not the same thing.

I may be being persnickety, but I believe precision of language is crucial even in popularizing science. "Some dromaeosaurs may have been able to fly", or even "I believe some dromaeosaurs flew", would not trouble me in the least; positive assertions that no one can prove bother me quite a bit.

Ronald I. Orenstein Phone: (905) 820-7886
International Wildlife Coalition Fax/Modem: (905) 569-0116
1825 Shady Creek Court
Mississauga, Ontario, Canada L5L 3W2 mailto:ornstn@rogers.com