I, for one, welcome our new sauropod overlords
June 17, 2010
Nemo Ramjet, speculative zoologist extraordinaire and leader in the field of intelligent dinosaurs, recently completed his Brontosapiens and sent it to the SV-POW!sketeers for comment. The ensuing discussion touches on pneumaticity, child slavery, sauropod bipedality, and vomit, and we thought it was worth preserving for posterity (posted with permission from all participants).
(BTW, the gizmo the sauropod dude is holding with his tongue is a pipe, not a paintbrush. Personally, I think he should be smoking a calabash pipe, and wearing a deerstalker.)
Nemo: “I just completed this drawing of an unlikely but cool intelligent sauropod. Why should all dinosauroids come from that pesky theropod lineage? :)
I hope you find it to your liking.”
Matt: “Cool. I assume that the sacs on the face and neck are inflatable and used for social signaling?
“A big-bodied…what are going to call these things? sapientitans? encephalopods? [note: I hadn’t seen the deviantART link and didn’t know that Nemo had already coined a vastly superior name]…could get away with having a longish neck because adding a 4-5 kilo brain would not seriously unbalance things. But if there were any pressure for the intelligent sauropod lineage to evolve smaller body size, the more-or-less fixed size of the head would eventually drive them to evolve shorter necks, I would think. And I see that your critter has a neck almost as short as Brachytrachelopan, and seems from the limb proportions to be a diplodocid. I’m curious, did you start with the big brain -> big head -> short neck train and end up gravitating toward dicraeosaurs, or did you choose a diplodocid-like plan for another reason and evolve the short neck independently?
“Any thoughts, from anyone, on whether sapientitans would tend to stay big, evolve to even larger sizes, or get small? I also wonder how intelligence might affect the postcranial skeleton. A prehensile whiplash tail suggests itself. How about a mobile thumb instead of just a thumb claw on the forefoot, or is that too blatantly primate-like? If they were diplodocids, perhaps they would pick up interesting objects and store them in the cleft between their presacral neural spines. The tongue or tail or both could serve to pick up objects and deposit them in the cleft, where they’d be readily available no matter where the animal roamed. Perhaps they would evolve very wide neural spine troughs or even a bowl over the shoulders that could be reached by tongue and tail alike. I also like the idea of a more vertically pitched face with a narrow snout to give the eyes some binocular overlap.
“None of this is criticism of your drawing, which is fantastic–thanks for sending. It’s just that I have never thought along these lines and can’t help playing What If. I’d like to evolve the sapientitan through a few more iterations, to get something more outre but still plausible.”
Nemo: “When I was doing this, I thought that an intelligent sauropod would look either like a big-headed Isisaurus / chalicothere crossover, or something more conventional, like this guy. I imagined this guy would be a diplodocid, but I wasn’t inspired by Brachytrachelopan. I just thought the neck would grow shorter and thicker as the brain grew.
“I imagine these guys would use their big “mitten” claws and thumbs for very strong and crude manipulation, and the long tongue for fine-tuning and touch. I just gave it a whiplash tail, I didn’t think it would play a role in manipulation. The neck and face sacs were indeed for social purposes – I imagine they would sound like monstrous bagpipes, audible for miles around…”
Darren: “I wanted to add a few comments, take them or leave them…
— Normal sauropods presumably acted mostly on instinct when it came to finding food sources – you don’t need a big brain for that. But a herbivore with a reasonable memory can remember the whens and wheres of fruiting trees and other seasonally available resources. Individuals might therefore spend their time migrating between key areas: they might have encountered these during their youthful wanderings, or may recall them from their time of parental supervision.
— It’s looking likely that sauropods were precoccial with little or no post-hatching parental care. But a big-brained lineage perhaps required extensive parental care, so perhaps we should expect smaller clutches because juvenile mortality was much lower. And if parents are caring for babies, they’d have to work hard to protect them from predators.
— Increased intelligence means that these sauropods were better at predicting the behaviour of, and therefore avoiding, predators. I would expect them to exhibit active ‘predator awareness’ bits of behaviour: regular bipedal standing to scan the horizon, long-distance communication with conspecifics to see what’s happening out of sight, perhaps a better multi-spacial awareness than normal sauropods. Maybe they have evolved on islands where big predators are absent, or maybe they swim to islands to breed.
— Some biologists argue that big brains are ‘luxury organs’ – only possible when high amount of fat/energy/protein are available in abundance. Could one lineage of sauropods have evolved big brains because they began exploiting a new, energy-rich resource? Fatty fruits and/or carrion may have contributed to brain size in hominoids, so could sauropods have followed a similar path? Exploitation of a new, oily fruit?
— Normal sauropods may well have been able to communicate long distances with infrasound, loud vocalisations etc. A smart sauropod lineage could hypothetically use complex, phased or staccato sounds to communicate more complicated messages. Sophisticated control of air sacs (both internal ones and balloon-like sacs on neck and head) could have allowed crazy complicated drumming or multi-part messages.
— I speculate that all smart animals think the world was made for them. And if you’re a sauropod, that’s easy to believe. The earth is borne on the back of a giant sauropod earth mother, covered in a billion kinds of fleas. As the sun goes down, the iridescent ossicles, studded within the skin of the sky sauropod, wheel overhead. What smart sauropods think of their dumb cousins is a good question.”
Matt: “It might be cool to post the picture, Nemo’s thoughts on the picture, and further thoughts from some or all of the SV-POW!sketeers. We already have those thoughts from everyone but Mike.
“So, Darren and Nemo, can I post your thoughts? And Mike, do you have anything you’d like to have included?”
Darren: “You can post my thoughts if you want (yikes, I didn’t really polish them or add references, as I would if I were doing it properly), feel free to chop/change, add or subtract. I was inspired by stuff I’ve read on big-brained artiodactyls, primates and birds.”
Nemo: “Sure, please include all of my thoughts – I’d love to see this guy go up on SV POW.
“Darren’s points are very interesting and as usual they lead to even cooler possibilities. Could it be that these guys arose through an increase in social behavior, which eventually led to a self-sustaining cycle of increased parental care, fewer offspring and stronger social bonds. At one point, a lucky encounter with a richer food source could have given them a decisive advantage. Perhaps there could even be an anatomical adaptation supporting this social structure. Vomit milk for the offspring, perhaps?
“Someone on Deviantart also suggested that perhaps these intelligent sauropods could use their offspring in a hereditary system of “youth slavery” to have the smaller offspring perform more complicated tasks of manipulation, manufacture and so on. Work hard, and the kids “earn their vomit.” By the way, this reminds me – I keep hearing stuff about bipedal trackways left by juvenile sauropods. Is there any truth behind this?
“Elaborating more on the intelligent sauropods; I wonder what these guys’ version of agriculture would be like. Would it be fields and terraces, or a generation-long semi-migratory habit of leaving some areas fallow and alternating between different realms? Or would they just demolish everything aside from their food trees?”
Darren: “Luis Rey, John Conway and I were talking about these tracks when we met in London a few weeks ago. I wouldn’t be totally bowled over with surprise if someone were to demonstrate bipedality in diplodocids – but bipedality where the body and tail are pretty much horizontal and the forelimbs are just hovering above the ground. This is what pangolins do: it’s probably an accidental effect of having such a heavy-ass tail, and the animals do it because they can: they’re pre-adapted for it, with particularly strong hindlimbs, well reinforced pelvis, shortened forelimbs etc. And bipedal walking has been suggested before for diplodocids: Emily Buchholtz argued that small forelimb nerves indicated ‘weak’ forelimbs… leading Greg Paul to propose bipedality. So, yeah, in principle I don’t think it that ridiculous.
“The tracks are supposed to show wide gait, and (IIRC) running behaviour. This makes me think that misinterpretation is the more likely explanation.”
Mike: “Holy poop! Nemo has independently reinvented the Nourishing Vomit Of Eucamerotus hypothesis! (Hereafter the NVOE hypothesis.) No matter, though — my Tet Zoo comment of a couple of years ago establishes publication precedence :-)”
[Exeunt all, pursued by bear.]
That brings us up to this morning, and to this post.
The ‘youth slavery’ bit got me thinking. We tend to think of words like “nurturing” and “loving” when we think of extensive parental care. But maybe it ain’t necessarily so. What if Brontosapiens evolved a big brain and intelligence with no decrease in its reproductive output, compared to its ancestors? Parental care might mean, “while you’re overseeing their labor, make sure that at least some of these worthless little bastards survive to adulthood”, not “lavish each child with love and attention”. That’s not the route taken by cetaceans and anthropoids, but then almost any mammal is radically K-selected by sauropod standards, especially the big, non-rodenty types. I don’t think that intelligence and R-selection are a priori incompatible; how about cephalopods?
In the entire racial memory of Brontosapiens, there might never have been a time when offspring were not expendable. Brontosapiens parents might be fairly ruthless about culling the unfit from their immense clutches. Cannibalism would probably be rampant, both of adults on their offspring and of juveniles on hatchlings (in fact, I wonder if that was true of real-world sauropods). By the time the few survivors reached adulthood, they would have to be cunning, nefarious, backstabbing, conspiratorial monsters. Much like the Prador of Neal Asher’s Polity novels, or going back a bit further, the Tharks of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom. Although the Tharks, at least, are not R-selected, producing only one egg each breeding season. The hatchlings are raised communally and without affection because the Tharks are degenerate barbarians, not for strictly biological reasons, and the poor treatment of the young is one of the factors reinforcing their low state. I wonder if Burroughs was taking a dig at Plato’s Republic there?
All right, now I’m speculating about imaginary beings that aren’t even sauropods, so I’d best close. Many thanks to Nemo for thinking this up, inviting us to comment, and giving permission to post his thoughts. The comment field is open; let’s keep it rolling.
Update (an hour or two later)
Nemo has kindly given us permission to upload the ultra-high-resolution version of his artwork, so here it is (greyscale JPEG, 1.14 Mb, 8859 x 2126 pixels.)