Coombs’s chimaera

April 7, 2011

“Sauropods are basically alien animals . . . What can be said of the habits of an animal with the nose of a Macrauchenia, the neck of a giraffe, the limbs of an elephant, the feet of a chalicothere, the lungs of a bird, and the tail of a lizard? With so many plausible but conflicting interpretations, it is unlikely there will be general agreement on sauropod habits as long as more than one paleontologist has an opinion on the matter.”

–Walter Coombs, 1975, “Sauropod habits and habitats”, page 29

I first encountered that passage at age 9, in The Dinosaurs, by William Stout, William Service, and Bryon Preiss. Peter Dodson quoted it in his introduction to the book, and it really stuck in my head. So much so that I quoted it myself when the opportunity arose, and now present it here for your consideration. More recent investigations have pretty well done in the idea that sauropods had trunks (for more about that, go here [which will lead you to this, which I had completely forgotten that I wrote, but quite like now that I’ve rediscovered it]), but the rest of Coombs’s comparisons are still apt. I had no idea when I was 9 how long a shadow the “lungs of a bird” part would cast over my life! And certainly there are aspects of sauropod biology that are still contentious, and some may always be so.

But I really feel like a synthetic view of sauropod paleobiology is emerging, and the best evidence of it to date is the massive paper by Sander et al. (2010) in Biological Reviews. That paper is one of the zillion things I’ve been intending to blog about, but have not gotten around to yet (and there’s a book by most or all of the same folks due shortly from Indiana University Press). When I read it right after it came out, I had the very strong feeling that it was a watershed moment for sauropod paleobiology, such that it will be fair to ask of any future study, “How is this an advance beyond Sander et al. (2010)?” I like papers like that–Coombs (1975) was one such–because they inspire me to start figuring out what’s going to come next.


7 Responses to “Coombs’s chimaera”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Heinrich. I added the link.

  2. IU Press Says:

    Thanks for the mention of our sauropod book. It just came into stock, and is available for sale on our website:

    Will also be available on Amazon and other booksellers soon.

  3. Zach Miller Says:

    Yeeeeah, you say that book is due out shortly, but it’s been supposedly forthcoming for almost as long as that blasted ceratopsid book was. IUP has lately been in quite the funk when it comes to getting their paleo books out on time. The sauropod book has been pushed back twice already. I don’t even know if it has a firm release date anymore.

    I’ve had it pre-ordered (and pre-paid) for something like a year now. It was supposed to come out last September.

  4. Ian Corfe Says:

    Quick tip – if you sign up for the IU Press email newsletter at the bottom of the page linked above, you get 30% off the book price! That meant I could afford to splash out for international airmail instead of surface mail, and still save a few bucks over the RRP – bargain. New shiny sauropod book goodness ahoy!

  5. David Marjanović Says:

    The lungs of a bird? In 1975?!?

    …just… wow.

    I encountered the quote at a young age, too, but immediately forgot whatever the source was. Evidently I also forgot about the bird lungs and Macrauchenia nose. I vividly remember “the feet of a chalicothere”, because that’s an attempt to explain a mystery by another mystery… all the stranger that I didn’t remember the Macrauchenia nose.

  6. “More recent investigations have pretty well done in the idea that sauropods had trunks … but the rest of Coombs’s comparisons are still apt.”

    That comparison is still apt! We don’t *know* that Macrauchenia had a trunk — and if you look at its dorsal skull it is much more like a sauropod than a tapir (laurasiatherian synapomorphies aside).

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