If you’re new to this thread, here’s a minimal reading list, in chronological order. I say ‘minimal’ because all of the relevant papers are freely available, and therefore all of the factual claims are easy to check.

The last is Paul Sereno’s response to my criticism of the Aerosteon paper. Here’s the full text, with my comments. Please go read the un-commented version at PLoS first, and see if you find it compelling.

In two trackbacks to our paper, Matt Wedel offers a misleading, longwinded, ad hominen critique of this paper on the new theropod dinosaur, Aerosteon riocoloradensis, and the significance of its pneumatic features.

There is a widespread misconception that if you say something unflattering about someone, that constitutes an ad hominem argument. In fact, an ad hominem argument has a specific form (quoted from Wikipedia):

  1. Person A makes claim X
  2. There is something objectionable about Person A
  3. Therefore claim X is false

If you actually read my critique, you’ll see that the form of my argument was more like:

  1. Sereno et al. claim X
  2. Claim X is misleading and easily falsifiable
  3. Sereno et al. probably claimed that X is true because it would support their hypothesis Y

I will not deny that I publicly speculated about the motivations of Sereno et al. (2008). Many of the arguments used in that paper are very difficult to explain unless Sereno et al. were trying to systematically discredit or suppress previous work (either by citing it misleadingly or not citing it at all). If you disagree, that’s fine. But don’t expect anyone to take your disagreement seriously unless you can back it up with evidence.

Anyway, remember what a real ad hominem argument looks like. We’ll see one later on.

Some personalized aspects of the commentary and erroneous claims push the limits of the “good practice” guidelines posted for commentary in this journal (http://www.plosone.org/static/commentGuidelines.action#goodpractice).

Here’s the last line of the good practice guidelines: “PLoS is the final arbiter of the suitability of content for inclusion in the PLoS Web sites.” In short, the guidelines are for commentary posted at PLoS, not about PLoS papers. A trackback is just a reciprocal hyperlink to material elsewhere on the ‘net–for example, a private blog, like this one. If the folks at PLoS don’t like the incoming links, they can always delete them and block my access.

And, hey, Darren put a trackback with his own critical review of the Aerosteon paper, but he doesn’t get mentioned at all here. Where’s the love?

Also, I’m curious to see which of my claims were erroneous. Presumably a fact-based rebuttal will be forthcoming, since Sereno does not engage my “misleading, longwinded” critique on a single point.

In this paper, we did our best to:

1) Present the pneumatic evidence as clearly as possible (Figs. 4-16).

2) Cite the literature thoroughly and fairly (95 citations).

3) Critique available hypotheses for the evolution of avian intrathoracic air sacs and respiratory mechanics.

4) Outline more clearly in tabular format our osteological correlates (Table 4).

5) Diagram more specifically particular stages as supported by current fossil evidence (Fig. 17).

In the short first trackback, Wedel outlines and agrees with all of the main points of the paper.

False. I said that the morphological description was mostly (not entirely) accurate. It’s the rest of the paper I have issues with, as I clearly and patiently explained. In fact, in the first trackback I hardly dealt with the Aerosteon paper at all; as the title suggests, I was laying out introductory and background material.

He then digresses to critique earlier papers and ends by explaining what “we’ve been up to”, referring to papers by himself, Pat O’Connor and Leon Claessens—research we cited many times in the paper, both positively for evidence and in critique.

…and other research they cited misleadingly or did not cite despite its relevance, as I’ve documented, and as Darren has further shown. Simply counting up cited references (ooh! 95!) does not demonstrate that previous work is cited “thoroughly and fairly”. I note that, in keeping with the rest of his comment, Sereno does not respond to any of my actual critiques, or try to defend the misleading citations.

Much of the personalized negativity of the second trackback is clearly generated by Wedel’s sense that the press unfairly aggrandized our work compared to theirs, which we somehow slighted and miscited.

Well, well, lots to dissect here.

First, they only address the “personalized negativity”. What about all the evidence? Not only is it not rebutted–it’s not even mentioned. Maybe they have an exhaustive, evidence-laden rebuttal lined up for that later. I honestly hope so.

Second, check out the form here:

  1. Wedel makes claim X
  2. But he’s jealous of our media exposure
  3. Therefore claim X is false

Textbook ad hom right here. Which is pretty ironic, since it’s the first pure example of the genre that has cropped up in this discussion so far, and it appears in a commentary that accuses me of ad hominem attacks.

Third, there is no question that Sereno made misleading statements to the media about the significance of Aerosteon. For example, when he claimed that it represented the first evidence of dinosaur sacs . . . about 150 years too late. That’s an easily verifiable fact, not an example of “personalized negativity”.

UPDATE: The “first evidence” thing was apparently hyperbole on the part of an underinformed journalist. At least, it’s not in the official press release, and Sereno denies ever saying it. He is right that one should never attribute to a possibly overzealous scientist what can be laid at the door of bad reporting–I’ve had some experience of this problem myself.

I wish now that I’d never brought up the misleading statements in the press. That opened me up to the ridiculous charge of being motivated by jealousy, and it’s quite beside the point. All of the important problems with the Aerosteon paper are scientific, not popular.

Fourth, I have no problem with other people working on pneumaticity and air sacs. Quite the contrary–it’s a big field and there’s plenty of work to be done. The more the merrier I say. I was very happy when Daniela Schwarz-Wings started working on pneumaticity in sauropods–her papers (including a new one out this week; congrats!) are thoughtful, innovative, and heck, just flat gorgeous:

Cervical diverticula in Brachiosaurus, from Daniela’s new paper (the original is a movie!).

So it doesn’t bother me that Sereno et al. (2008) wrote a paper about pneumaticity. What bothers me is the pervasive distortion of previous work and basic anatomy. I’m against that no matter what the subject.

Fifth, if anyone is curious about how it feels to languish in total obscurity, utterly ignored by the mainstream media, hoping against hope that someday I’ll make a valuable scientific contribution: I’m doing just fine, thanks. Fame’s a weed, repute a slow-growing oak, and I’m aiming for bark and acorns.

Neither we nor Pat O’Connor (pers. comm.) feel that personalized, ad hominem blogs like Wedel’s advance scientific understanding or enhance collegiality.

Hmm. I think it’s a bit pessimistic to say that my critiques didn’t advance scientific understanding. Certainly I’ve had a lot of people thank me for untangling the paper trail and showing what McLelland and others actually said about avian anatomy. A matter of taste, I suppose–although if Sereno was already familiar with what McLelland said, it’s odd that he got the cited information exactly backward.

Just for the record, I didn’t consult with Pat O’Connor or Leon Claessens about my critiques. We’re all big boys now, we can all speak for ourselves, and any fallout from SV-POW! will hopefully fall right where it belongs: on me. It’s not like I’m hiding.

As for collegiality . . . here’s where I stand:

  • As scientists we have a duty to obsessively document all previous relevant work and give credit where it is due, especially in cases where someone else got to the right answer first. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got a real kick out of discovering that Heber Longman had worked out the basic dichotomy in internal structures of sauropod vertebrae decades before anyone else. And I made sure people knew about it (4th page here). I’ve always gratefully given credit to the giants upon whose shoulders I struggle to stand–among them, Owen, Seeley, Cope, Marsh, Longman, Janensch, Britt, Witmer, Wilson, Sereno (that’s right–he has done good and important work), O’Connor, Claessens, and Schwarz-Wings. Go look. Don’t forget to reread the Aerosteon paper while you’re at it. And then–yep, I am going to say it yet again–make up your own mind.
  • When authors engage in misleading citation and muddle the historical record–for example, by citing a paper in support of argument X when the cited paper actually states the precise opposite–people who are familiar  with the literature have a duty to explain how that literature is being misused. Collegiality doesn’t mean that we all keep our mouths shut no matter what (there’s a related word for doing that, and it also starts with a ‘c’). Sometimes we have to speak up and defend collegiality itself.
  • If someone brings a fact-based critique against your work, rebut them with facts or not at all. Calling names just makes you look weak and gives the impression that you have no factual case to pursue. My critique of the Aerosteon paper is “longwinded” only because it is so thoroughly documented. Sereno tries to paint it as a content-free exercise in pique–which is a pretty fair description of his own response. The irony could hardly be any richer.

I’m stuffed.

(On irony, not evidence. If anyone has any of the latter to bring against my critiques, I’ll be very happy to see it.)

In the last post I introduced Aerosteon, which has been touted as providing the first solid evidence for bird-like air sacs in non-avian dinosaurs, and I explained a little about how we know what we think we know about dinosaur air sacs. Aerosteon is legitimately cool and does show all of the features that Sereno et al. (2008) claim, and then some (see below). But the rest of the paper bugs me for several reasons: bad anatomy, bad phylogenetic reasoning, unfair criticism of other workers, and misleading citation of previous work. I’ll document every bit of this, but don’t forget that you can download almost all of the relevant papers for free. Don’t take my word for it, and don’t assume that any forthcoming rebuttals are accurate. Read the papers for yourself and make up your own mind.

Bad Anatomy #1: All cervical all the time (again)

In Part 1 we saw how Pat O’Connor and Leon Claessens (2005) cleared up about a century’s worth of confusion about how pneumatic bones map to specific parts of the avian respiratory system. In short, the cervical air sacs do not ever pneumatize any part of the skeleton past the mid-thoracic vertebrae, and the posterior thoracic, sacral, and caudal vertebrae are only pneumatized by diverticula of abdominal air sacs. Many non-avian dinosaurs have pneumatized vertebrae in the neck, thorax, sacrum, and tail, which are the diagnostic skeletal traces of air sacs both anterior and posterior to the lung, which are crucial for flow-through breathing like that of birds. O’Connor and Claessens never claimed that non-avian dinosaurs must have had flow-through breathing–that is unknowable for now–but they made a good case that most theropods, at least, had the requisite air sacs.

If there’s already great support for bird-like air sacs in non-avian theropods and has been for years, that would diminish the perceived importance of Aerosteon. Which may explain why Sereno et al. try to discredit O’Connor’s and Claessens’s work generally, and to discredit the importance of vertebral pneumaticity specifically. To do that, they resurrect the old canard about the cervical air sac pneumatizing the entire vertebral column.

Well, this is really something. I mean, O’Connor and Claessens (2005) looked at literally hundreds of birds and never found that once. What amazing new evidence do Sereno et al. bring to the table? Let’s find out:

“Second, cervical air sacs have been observed extending to the posterior end of the vertebral column in birds. Several authors have described cervical air sacs extending posteriorly beyond the abdominal air sacs in the ostrich (Struthio camelus) [21,36].” (p. 3)

So the case turns out to rest on refs 21 and 26, which are (thumbs through paper) McLelland (1989) [21] and Bezuidenhout et al. (1999) [36]. You’ll remember our old friend McLelland, who actually wrote:

“What can be stated with certainty is that in birds generally the cervical air sac aerates the cervical and thoracic vertebrae (Fig. 5. 22) and the vertebral ribs; the clavicular air sac aerates the sternum, sternal ribs, pectoral girdle and humerus (Fig. 5. 23); and the abdominal air sac aerates the synsacrum, pelvis and femur.” (pp. 271-272)

McLelland also mentions:

“In the Ostrich (Struthio camelus) a paired diverticulum arises from the vertebral diverticulum and extends through the peritoneal cavity beyond the abdominal air sac.” (p. 260)

The peritoneal cavity is the space containing the viscera, so these peritoneal diverticula are not going to the vertebrae, they’re going to the cloaca. Their existence provides no support for the contention of Sereno et al. that the entire vertebral column can be pneumatized by cervical air sacs, which is explicitly contradicted by the earlier McLelland quote (not to mention by the gigantic pile o’ dead birds cut up by O’Connor and Claessens).

Let’s go on to Bezuidenhout et al., who wrote:

“The caudal vertebral diverticula [of the cervical air sacs] extend caudally along the vertebral column, invading the spaces between the vertebrae and the vertebral ribs, and between the vertebrae and the oesophagus dorsally to the lungs, up to the level of the sixth vertebral ribs.” (p. 324)

“The cranial extension [of the diverticula perirenalia of the abdominal air sacs] formed secondary diverticula that invaded the spaces between the heads and tubercles of vertebral ribs 7-9 and the corresponding thoracic vertebrae (Fig. 3, 4, and 5). These diverticula were related to the dorsal border of the lung. The caudal extension was situated dorsally to the kidney. It formed secondary diverticula that invaded the spaces between the synsacrum and ilium (Fig. 3, 4, and 5).” (p. 322)

So far, so good. The vertebral diverticula of the cervical air sacs only go back as far as the middle of the thorax, and synsacrum is pneumatized by abdominal air sacs. But wait:

“Roche (1888) and McLelland (1989) describe paired extensions of the vertebral diverticula of the cervical air sacs in the ostrich that extend caudally into the peritoneal cavity beyond the abdominal air sacs. Although these extensions of the vertebral diverticula were not specifically identified in the present study, similar structures have been observed by the authors in post mortem material that was not part of this study.” (pp. 324-325)

So the story from Bezuidenhout et al. is precisely the same as from McLelland: the diverticula of the cervical air sacs that pneumatize the vertebral column only go back to the mid-thorax; secondary diverticula from the vertebral diverticula do extend all the way to the cloaca, but do so within the peritoneal cavity, where they are no longer in contact with the vertebrae; and the synsacrum is pneumatized by diverticula of the abdominal air sacs, which are in contact with the vertebrae.

Please, please, can we as a community drop the idea that the cervical air sacs can pneumatize the back half of the vertebral column? Nobody’s ever seen it happen, a gigantic search effort found no evidence that it’s possible (O’Connor and Claessens, 2005), and the refs that people keep citing on it–McLelland (1989) and Bezuidenhout et al. (1999)–actually talk about something completely different.

Bad Anatomy #2: Pleurocoels and the spectre of continuous pneumatization

“Pleurocoel” is an old term for the big pneumatic cavities that are often present in the vertebral centra of sauropods and theropods. For about a decade and a half, almost everyone who has worked on pneumaticity in dinosaurs has advocated abandoning the term, and calling these structures either pneumatic fossae (if they don’t lead to internal chambers) or pneumatic foramina (if they do)–see Britt (1993, 1997), Wedel et al. (2000), Wedel (2003b), O’Connor (2006), Taylor and Naish (2007), among others. Why? Because from the start the term “pleurocoel” was not rigorously defined, so it was variously used to mean pneumatic foramina, pneumatic fossae, internal pneumatic chambers, or some combination of the above. It is much better to just describe the actual morphology using informative terms.

Sereno et al. use the term pleurocoel. And the result is predictable: anatomical confusion.

“We are inclined to support the latter, more conservative interpretation that pleurocoels in nonavian dinosaurs are a product of paraxial cervical air sacs and provide, at best, ambiguous evidence for intrathoracic ventilatory air sacs. First, pleurocoels are rare in birds, and no living bird has an unbroken cervical-to-caudal series of pleurocoels as occurs in some nonavian dinosaurs, including the one we describe below [31]. As Wedel [26] has underscored, pleurocoels extend posteriorly in the axial column of saurischian dinosaurs to a variable extent, but neither adults nor juveniles of any species show an apneumatic gap. Allotting an unbroken series of pleurocoels of graded form, as in the case we describe below, to three different pneumatic sources (cervical air sacs, lung diverticulae, abdominal air sacs) is difficult to defend. Drawing a direct analogy based on birds for the source(s) of pneumaticity in the posterior axial column in nonavian dinosaurs [22,31,33], thus, is problematic.” (p. 3)

That all sounds pretty convincing . . . until you realize that “pleurocoels” are pneumatic foramina, in which case the entire paragraph becomes misleading at best and flatly incorrect at worst. I’ll show you–here are the key sentences with “pleurocoel” replaced with “pneumatic foramen”:

“First, [pneumatic foramina] are rare in birds, and no living bird has an unbroken cervical-to-caudal series of [pneumatic foramina] as occurs in some nonavian dinosaurs, including the one we describe below [31].”

Just flat wrong. In many birds the vertebral column is continuously pneumatized. That the pneumatic foramina of birds are typically small and tucked up inside the cervical rib loops (unlike the much larger pneumatic foramina of most saurischians) is beside the point. There certainly are interesting questions about why the size of pneumatic foramina varies among taxa and over evolutionary time, but in this context distinguishing between small pneumatic foramina and big “pleurocoels” only obscures the similarity of vertebral pneumatization in birds and other saurischians.

I really don’t want to talk about my own work here, but since it’s cited misleadingly, I have to do so for a while:

“As Wedel [26] has underscored, [pneumatic foramina] extend posteriorly in the axial column of saurischian dinosaurs to a variable extent, but neither adults nor juveniles of any species show an apneumatic gap.”

Neither do most adult birds, as I took pains to point out in the paper they cite (Wedel 2003a). Because the vertebral column of birds is invaded by up to three sets of diverticula–from the cervical air sacs, lungs, and abdominal air sacs–juveniles often have these apneumatic gaps. But in adults the diverticula from the different sources often meet up and anastomose, so you get a continuous series of pneumatic foramina right down the column. Oh, speaking of which:

“Allotting an unbroken series of [pneumatic foramina] of graded form, as in the case we describe below, to three different pneumatic sources (cervical air sacs, lung diverticulae, abdominal air sacs) is difficult to defend.”

Really? Because that’s exactly what happens in most birds.

The absence of an apneumatic gap (or “pneumatic hiatus” [Wedel 2003a]) in dinosaurs is not evidence of anything. If we found one, it would be additional evidence for pneumatization of the vertebral column from multiple sources, but that’s already well-supported. And if we don’t find one, we can’t assume they didn’t have multiple routes of pneumatization, because many birds also lack pneumatic hiatuses as adults. Even in birds that typically do have pneumatic hiatuses, like chickens, the hiatuses are not usually present in all adults. The absence of pneumatic hiatuses in described non-avian dinosaurs could easily be a side-effect of inadequate sampling, for three reasons:

  1. Pneumatic hiatuses are most likely to show up in very young individuals, before the diverticula from different sources have time to meet up. We have very few complete and well-preserved baby saurischians–and by well-preserved, I mean preserved well enough to be able to trace pneumatic features right down the column. The pretty but pancaked theropods from Liaoning won’t cut it (I know, I’ve looked).
  2. Nobody knew to be on the lookout for pneumatic hiatuses until 2003, when I coined the term and pointed out their importance, so there hasn’t been very much time in which to find them.
  3. Not everybody works on pneumaticity, and those of us who do have only seen a small fraction of the world’s dinosaurs. It is possible that pneumatic hiatuses are present in well-known dinosaurs and no one has noticed–yet.

Let’s finish up with the pleurocoel mess:

“Drawing a direct analogy based on birds for the source(s) of pneumaticity in the posterior axial column in nonavian dinosaurs [22,31,33], thus, is problematic.”

No, it’s not. But you can certainly make it seem problematic if you use ambiguous, uninformative terms that obscure the fundamental similarity in vertebral pneumatization in birds and other saurischians.

Bad Phylogenetic Reasoning

“Second, cervical air sacs have been observed extending to the posterior end of the vertebral column in birds. Several authors have described cervical air sacs extending posteriorly beyond the abdominal air sacs in the ostrich (Struthio camelus) [21,36]. Ratites have relatively smaller abdominal sacs than in other birds and, as nonvolant basal avians, serve as better analogs for nonavian saurischians than volant neognaths [37].” (p. 3)

We’ve already dealt with the first two sentences, now let’s handle the third:

“Ratites have relatively smaller abdominal sacs than in other birds”

True, but irrelevant. First, it’s not the size of the abdominal air sacs that’s at stake, it’s their ability to pneumatize the posterior part of the vertebral column. We’ve already seen that both of the papers Sereno et al. cite actually say explicitly that the posterior vertebral column of birds is pneumatized by diverticula of the abdominal air sac, even in the ostrich. Second, we can’t assume that the small abdominal air sacs of ratites represent the primitive condition. There are many cases of reduction, loss, or fusion of air sacs in birds, and the abdominal air sac is no exception. Since Sereno et al. like McLelland (1989) so much, we’ll see what he had to say:

“[The abdominal air sac] is reported to be very poorly developed in the Accipitridae, Fulica, Fregata and ratites (Groebbels, 1932); penguins (Spheniscidae), rheas (Rheidae) and loons (Gaviidae) (Duncker, 1971); and large passeriform species and parrots (Psittacidae) (Schulze, 1910). It appears to be especially small in hummingbirds (Trochilidae) (Stanislaus, 1937) and in Casuarius and Apteryx (Groebbels, 1932).” (p. 264)

If small abdominal air sacs are the criterion for choosing extant analogues, maybe we should be comparing sauropods to hummingbirds. Moving on:

“and, as nonvolant basal avians, serve as better analogs for nonavian saurischians than volant neognaths [37].”

Nonvolant here is a red herring; like non-avian saurischians, ratites are flightless, but they’re definitely secondarily flightless, so the apparent similarity is homoplasy, not plesiomorphy.

Sereno et al. think they’ve found a single taxon–the ostrich–in which the cervical air sac does pneumatize the entire vertebral column, and for their “all cervical all the time” model of dinosaurian pneumaticity to fly, they need to make the case that ostriches are the best possible models for all non-avian saurischians. But the similarities they use to argue this are either homoplastic throughout Aves (small abdominal air sacs) or homoplastic between ratites and non-avian saurischians (flightlessness). So it would be a lousy phylogenetic argument even if their anatomical assertion about the ostrich was correct–which it’s not.

Bad Behavior #1: Unfair Criticism

I urge you to just go read Sereno et al. and see how thoroughly dismissive they are of everything ever written by O’Connor and Claessens. I’ll only work through a couple of examples, but there are plenty of others.

Here’s a choice passage:

“Recently O’Connor proposed that axial pneumaticity in the abelisaurid theropod Majungasaurus can be used ‘‘to refine inferences related to pulmonary structure’’ [35: 159], because ‘‘it shows a reduction in the pneumaticity in the last two dorsal neural arches, with enhanced pneumaticity in sacral aches [31: 22]. Specifically, the ‘‘size and number of neural arch foramina’’ are reduced in dorsal vertebrae 12 and 13, whereas the same are ‘‘enhanced’’ in sacral vertebrae, indicating ‘‘two different sources of pneumatization’’ [33: 253]. The actual differences, however, were not described, and dorsal vertebrae 12 and 13 were not figured until recently [35: figs. 3, 12, 13].” (p. 11)

See, this is funny, because in the last sentence Sereno et al. are picking on O’Connor for the lag of a whole two years between the Nature paper (O’Connor and Claessens 2005) and the monographic description of the Majungasaurus vertebrae (O’Connor 2007). It’s funny because almost all of the many critters named by Sereno and various sets of coauthors have never received any morphological description beyond the original 3-5 page writeups in the weeklies. Here’s a short, non-exhaustive list, with original years of publication:

Eoraptor – 1993

Afrovenator – 1994

Deltadromeus – 1996

Suchomimus – 1998 (okay, this one did get its furcula described in 2007)

Jobaria – 1999

Rugops – 2004

Next to any of those, a two-year turnaround is practically instantaneous. Anyway, Sereno et al. go on to try to explain how the diminution of pneumaticity in the middle of the vertebral column of Majungasaurus is totally not like a pneumatic hiatus at all. Then it’s on to Aerosteon:

“The situation in Aerosteon is instructive for the contrast that it provides across the same vertebral transition. In this case, pneumaticity appears to peak in the last dorsal, with a large pneumatic canal in the transverse process that is not present in sacral vertebrae (Figure 4C). The pleurocoels, in addition, develop a posterodorsally inclined partition in the posteriormost dorsal vertebrae that passes into the sacral series unchanged. The axial column of Aerosteon does not suggest a clean partitioning based on the number or size of pneumatic spaces, but rather a gradation in pleurocoel form that extends from the anterior cervical vertebrae through the distal caudal vertebrae.” (p. 12)

Three things to note here. First, on the previous page, Sereno et al. bashed on O’Connor and Claessens for not figuring all of the relevant vertebrae in their first, short paper. But here they mention a partition in the pneumatic fossae that passes into the sacral vertebrae, without actually figuring any sacral vertebrae in the entire paper. PLoS ONE is online-only and doesn’t charge for length or figures, so there is really no reason not to show those vertebrae if they’re important. Second, their own figures are at odds with their argument. Figures 5 and 6 show cervical centra with big pneumatic foramina, and Figure 9 shows prominent pneumatic foramina in the caudal centra. But Figures 7 and 8 show that in the posterior dorsals the “pleurocoels” are reduced to shallow fossae. It’s been clear for a while that fossae are developmentally and evolutionarily antecedent to foramina (for a recent graphic example, see Wedel 2007:text-fig 8), so those middle dorsals appear to be stuck at a less pneumatized stage than the vertebrae on either side.* Which is exactly what O’Connor and Claessens (2005) described for Majungasaurus. Finally, it’s easy to miss the shift from foramina to fossae and back in the vertebral column of Aerosteon because they’re all collectively called pleurocoels–another case of an important morphological similarity being obscured by the use of an ambiguous term.

*It is true that the posterior dorsals of Aerosteon have highly pneumatic neural spines, but there is some evidence in sauropods that the vertebral centra and neural spines are pneumatized independently (see page 215 here). And regardless of what is going on in the neural spines, the “pneumatic diminution” (my term, newly coined) in the centra of Aerosteon is still interesting and worthy of comment. Odd that they didn’t mention it.

In short, Sereno et al. knock O’Connor and Claessens (2005) for

  • letting a little time pass between the short paper and the monograph, when Sereno and previous sets of coauthors hardly monograph anything;
  • not figuring all of the relevant vertebrae in the short paper, when they don’t, either, in their much longer paper; and
  • making a big deal about the “pneumatic diminution” in Majungasaurus, when the vertebral centra of Aerosteon show something very similar.

There are lots of things that I could say here. The driest and least loaded is that it’s difficult to take the criticisms of Sereno et al. seriously when they are guilty of the same or worse on every single point.

Bad Behavior #2: Misleading use of citations

Here’s another bit that requires some explanation:

“The posterior thoracic, synsacral, and caudal vertebrae, in contrast, are pneumatized by diverticula extending directly from the lung or from abdominal air sacs [1, 16, 19, 21, 22].”

One thing I just flat hate about a lot of “high-impact” journals is that they use numbered references instead of parenthetical citations by authors’ names. It makes it really easy to just read a paper without seeing who is being cited and who isn’t. And that can be a problem. The five refs cited in this sentence are King (1966), Muller (1908), Duncker (1971), McLelland (1989), and O’Connor (2004). Of those, King and McLelland are review papers; only Muller, Duncker, and O’Connor present the results of original research. But Sereno et al. do cite O’Connor here, so what’s my beef? They only cite his 2004 paper, which–crucially–does not include the devastating falsification of the “all cervical all the time model” that one can find in O’Connor and Claessens (2005) and O’Connor (2006). So even though the latter two papers are more recent, more comprehensive, and more relevant, they’re not cited here. Hmm. Is it because they contradict (with shedloads of evidence) the “all cervical all the time” model that Sereno et al. are trying to develop for non-avian saurischians?

The very next sentence:

“Some authors have concluded, therefore, that the lung and abdominal air sacs must also be responsible for pneumaticity in the posterior half of the axial column in nonavian dinosaurs and, on this basis, have packed the thoracic cavity of theropods with a full complement of avian ventilatory air sacs [33].”

If you’re keeping track at home, ref 33 is O’Connor and Claessens (2005). Now that Sereno et al. have something to slate them for, it’s time for a citation.

But wait. O’Connor and Claessens (2005) did not “pack the thoracic cavity with a full complement” of air sacs; they were very explicit in the text about having only found evidence for some of the air sacs (namely cervical and abdominal) from both the anterior and posterior functional sets. Their figure 4 shows a Majungasaurus with all of the regular avian air sacs, but they say in the caption that showing the other air sacs in light grey “represents tertiary-level inferences emphasizing the uncertainty surrounding the reconstruction of soft tissues not constrained by osteological evidence.” Hardly the reckless abandon one would assume from the rhetoric of Sereno et al. (This gets better–see Update 2 below.)

And it gets worse. O’Connor and Claessens (2005) are not the only authors who have inferred that all the basic components of the avian respiratory system were present in some or all non-avian saurischians. Brooks Britt (1993, 1997) came to the same conclusion. So have I (Wedel et al. 2000, Wedel 2003a,b, 2005, 2007). Sereno et al. don’t give Britt the same snide treatment they give O’Connor and Claessens, possibly because one of the authors is currently collaborating with Britt on describing a couple of new sauropods. They spare me for a different reason. Next sentence:

“An opposing view is that the continuous series of pleurocoels observed in many nonavian dinosaurs suggests that the nonventilatory, paraxial cervical air sacs extended posteriorly along the column [26,34]. We are inclined to support the latter, more conservative interpretation . . .”

Refs 26 and 34 are Wedel (2003a) and Chinsamy and Hillenius (2004), respectively. We’ve already seen Chinsamy and Hillenius in the last post; they recycled the mistaken text from Ruben et al. (2003) mis-citing McLelland (1989). And now my situation is clearer, too: Sereno et al. don’t include me in their slam of O’Connor and Claessens–even though I am every bit as ‘guilty’–because I am supposed to represent the counterargument.

But if you actually go read Wedel (2003a) you’ll see that the paper is about as pro-abdominal-air-sac as the available evidence allowed me to be. I raised the possiblity of “all cervical all the time” because this was back in the dark ages when no one knew for sure whether it happened in birds or not–i.e., before O’Connor and Claessens (2005) straightened everything out–but I didn’t sell it. In fact, in that paper I came up with pneumatic hiatuses as a way to falsify the “all cervical all the time” model in fossil taxa; the fact that no-one has published any yet doesn’t mean the hypothesis can’t be falsified from another route. And it has been, by O’Connor and Claessens (2005)–the very paper that Sereno et al. are trying to use my paper against!

So here’s the short version: Chinsamy and Hillenius (2004) were wrong, because they borrowed their text from Ruben et al. (2003), who misquoted McLelland (1989) (ironically, since Sereno et al. make precisely the same mistake). And I was wrong (for the purposes to which Sereno et al. put my work) because I thought that pneumatization of the whole vertebral column by the cervical air sacs was at least a possibility, before O’Connor and Claessens (2005) showed that it is not, for living saurischians at least. Sereno et al.’s critique of O’Connor and Claessens is empty fluff, and their counterargument is based on arguments that were either wrong in the first place or have already been falsified–by O’Connor and Claessens.


There are plenty of other places where Sereno et al. unfairly bash on O’Connor and Claessens and conveniently under-cite those authors who got to the pneumaticity party before them. I’d carefully explain them all, but life is too short and I’ve satisfied my conscience by exposing some of their worst excesses.

Sereno et al. are wrong about avian anatomy. Their phylogenetic inferences are wrong. They use selective citation to suppress genuine contributions and resurrect falsified hypotheses, but those hypotheses remain falsified. They use obfuscatory terminology to obscure important similarities between birds and non-avian saurischians, including Aerosteon. Their new model of avian lung evolution is based on old misconceptions about pneumatization in birds, and flatly contradicted by the very papers they cite to support it.


Thanks for slogging through all this. Here’s your sauropod vertebra:

UPDATE: I’ve been bad (or not)

I have been privately accused of ethical misconduct for something I said in this post, so I will now preeptively fisk myself by way of explanation.

A critic, whose name I will not mention (but it’s not Brooks Britt), accused me of publicly divulging information exchanged in confidence, in this section:

“Sereno et al. don’t give Britt the same snide treatment they give O’Connor and Claessens, possibly because one of the authors is currently collaborating with Britt on describing a couple of new sauropods.”

The critic claims that I learned of the collaboration between Britt and one of the authors of the Aerosteon paper in a private conversation, and that I was “out of line” in posting it in a public forum. The critic is partly right but mostly wrong. I did hear about the collaboration in a private conversation in either late 2006 or early 2007, but it was information I already knew from another, more public source. Brooks Britt delivered the talk for the Chure et al. (2006) abstract at the SVP meeting in October, 2006. At the podium, in front of a few hundred people, he mentioned that one of the Sereno et al. (2008) authors was collaborating with him on the description, and then showed a phylogenetic analysis generated by that collaborator (no prizes for guessing which Sereno et al. author). So all of the literally hundreds of people who were in that session knew about the collaboration, although I can’t say how many of them have remembered that it was mentioned.

The 2006 SVP abstract book carries this warning: “Observers are reminded that the technical content of the SVP sessions is not to be reported in any medium (print, electronic, or Internet) without the prior permission of the authors.” I’m not sure if knowing who is collaborating with whom counts as technical content or not. And I don’t really care. It’s not top-secret research results, and literally hundreds of people know about it, or did for a few minutes back in 2006 (probably just until Mary Schweitzer kicked us in the brainpan with her T. rex histo). And more importantly, when authors engage in selective citation, singling out some for praise and harshly condemning others when we were all about equally “guilty”, they shouldn’t be surprised if some of those so used publicly speculate about their motives in doing so. If nothing else, it may persuade them not to behave that way in the future.

UPDATE 2: Packing in the air sacs

There is an amusing coda to the bit where Sereno et al. (2008) accuse O’Connor and Claessens (2005) of having “packed the thoracic cavity of theropods with a full complement of avian ventilatory air sacs”. You’ll recall that O’Connor and Claessens did in fact show all of the avian air sacs, but greyed out the clavicular, anterior thoracic, and posterior thoracic sacs for which they had no direct evidence, and put a huge disclaimer about those air sacs in the figure caption.

I ignored the non-blog coverage of the Aerosteon story until recently, which is a shame, because it’s most interesting. Here’s the full-color Aerosteon restoration that went out to the media outlets from Sereno’s Project Exploration (borrowed from the National Geographic News page):

Notice that all of the air sacs are colored in, including those for which even Aerosteon has no direct evidence (i.e., the anterior and posterior thoracic air sacs). But wait–could the pneumatic gastralia be evidence of those phantom sacs? Not according to Sereno et al.:

“The external (ventral) position of the pneumatopores suggests that the pneumatic diverticulae lay in superficial tracts outside the gastral cuirass. It seems unlikely that pneumatic diverticulae would penetrated the ventral thoracic wall to access external pneumatopores, when entering the gastralia directly from their internal (dorsal) surface would be much easier. A plausible explanation may be that these ventral pneumatic tracts are part of a subcutaneous system, which is present to varying degrees in birds and is composed of diverticulae from cervical, clavicular, and abdominal air sacs [1,21,22]. Subcutaneous diverticulae usually exit the thoracic cavity and extend under the skin to distant body surfaces. In the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), for example, diverticulae of the clavicular air sac exit the thoracic cavity dorsally and extend under the skin to reach the entire ventral surface of the thorax [61].” (p. 13)

I have no quibbles with any of that. It’s just curious that Sereno et al. would eviscerate O’Connor and Claessens for going overboard on air sacs (when O&C were actually quite careful) and then do the same thing, sans caveats, in their press release.

Parting thought, from the National Geographic News story (emphasis added):

“The fossil [Aerosteon] provides the first evidence of dinosaur air sacs, which pump air into the lungs and are used by modern-day birds, said Paul Sereno, the project’s lead researcher and a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.” [NOTE: This overstatement is not in the Aerosteon press release, and may have been hyperbole by an underinformed journalist.]


Up till now, I’ve tried to remain completely dispassionate about Aetogate, restricting my public comments to statements of fact and reports of what others have said. In particular, the site that I maintain linking to other people’s commentary on this issue contains no opinions of my own (or at least, if any have leaked through, it’s been inadvertent).

But now that the SVP has released its findings and others have had a month to make their own comments in response, I am going to use SV-POW! to say it how I see it. (The fact that the SVP’s so-called “permalink” has changed in the last few days, if you can imagine anything so dumb, may itself tell you something.) [Update, July 2013: it’s changed again, and this link is now a 404.] [Update 2, October 2015: I made my own copies of the SVP documents, in case they vanish permanently] For brevity’s sake, I’m going to concentrate my comments on Bill Parker’s case, but most of this also applies to Jeff Martz’s case.

Please note that I am speaking only for myself here. (That’s why I am putting this on SV-POW! rather than on the Aetogate site, which remains an objective summary of the case and its coverage, with no opinions expressed.) Matt and Darren have not even seen this posting, let alone agreed to it or contributed to it.

First up, everyone agrees that the SVP did well to take this case on, and that their report contains, in Kevin Padian’s much-quoted words, “something for everyone to like — and dislike”. But the dislikeable part is very problematic. A private correspondent whose name I will not state wrote to me:

The EEC just demonstrated vividly that Lucas can get away with anything, and they practically declared open season on Parker and Martz and anyone else who dares speak up about this.

By blaming the victims, or at least by allowing Lucas’s blaming of the victims to stand unrefuted, the SVP has left Bill and Jeff in a worse position than they were in before all this started. Back then, they’d only had their work stolen. Now, they’ve had their work stolen and have a wholly undeserved reputation as trouble-makers. In effect, the SVP have shown that all those people were quite right who warned Bill and Jeff not to get involved, just to lie down quietly like good little boys and not to think they could go up against The Man. To be sure, I am quite certain that was not the SVP’s intention; but when their statement leaves Stuart Ashman of the New Mexico DCA enough wiggle-room to express “appreciation and satisfaction with the Society’s conclusions regarding these allegations”, and when The Santa Fe New Mexican can interpret the SVP statement as “a completely independent body has cleared the scientists of plagiarism”, there seems little point in pretending that’s not how it’s being read.

In light of this, what can be done to prevent repeats of the transgressions? It’s almost impossible to say. The SVP’s Executive Committee statement on Aetogate suggests on one hand that it’s Bill’s fault he got claim-jumped because he didn’t tell the NMMNHS people enough about his work, but Jeff’s fault that he got plagiarised because told them too much! It’s tempting to conclude that the only safe approach is to keep your dissertation completely secret, let no-one know what you’re working on, and not even to hint about its contents in your published work.

But that in itself won’t necessarily stop all abuses: the broader problem is that there are lots of good reasons for work to be known about before it’s formally published, of which dissertations are only one. Talks at conferences, grant proposals, informal discussions with colleagues — all the things that help to incubate work, to prevent it from becoming isolated, to mitigate against the possibility of inadvertent duplication — in short all the things that foster a collegial spirit, and that show we are working together on the great project of vertebrate palaeontology rather than fighting against each other. Most of the while this sort of pre-publication sharing works well. The problem is that it only takes a few rogue bludgers to piss in the pool, and everyone is affected. And if the professional body that has a mandate to oversee these things starts blaming the victim, it’s hard to see any other consequence than a clamming up, a tendency for everyone who feels vulnerable to plagiarism and claim-jumping (not just students) to stop talking about their work until it’s actually published. I don’t see how inculcating that culture of paranoia will benefit any of us, but it does seem to be where we’re headed right now. *sigh*

One suggestion posted to the VRTPALEO mailing list is that a preprint server, like arxiv.org, used in physics, would help the field of vertebrate palaeontology to sort out priority issues. Unfortunately, I don’t think it would help much (although of course it would be good for other reasons). The problem is plausible deniability. The SVP’s ruling on Aetogate has set a grotesque precedent that if you have a taxonomic reassignment in press, then circulating it widely as an “unpublished” thesis and alluding to it (with citations of both the thesis and the in-press paper) in three published papers and two SVP abstracts is NOT enough to establish your priority. If someone else wants to go ahead and reassign the material while your own work is in press, it suffices for that person simply to claim that neither he nor either of his co-authors was aware of the work in progress. That defence, we now know, is sufficient to deflect the SVP from reaching a firm conclusion, even if the claim-jumper included one of the original author’s relevant papers in the journal that he edits, even if he peer-reviewed it and explicitly commented on the matter in hand in his review, and even cited it in his own work. We now know that even in those circumstances, the SVP will conclude:

Faced with conflicting testimonies, the Ethics Education Committee was not able to resolve these allegations in favor of either side, a position that does not absolve either party of responsibility.
Parker noted that he expressed his intention to publish on the new genus in a number of venues (abstracts, talks, other papers), but Lucas et al. state that they were unaware of his intentions to publish a new name.

(These are direct quotes. Read their statement yourself if you, like me, find this difficult to believe.)

Just think about that. Provided you are an established vertebrate palaeontologist, you may read papers written by a graduate student from another institution, publish them in your own in-house journal, peer-review them, and even comment on the taxonomic reassignment in the peer-review, and STILL claim that neither you nor either of your two co-authors took any of the six opportunities IN THE LITERATURE ALONE to understand that the grad-student in question plans to reassign the genus. You can claim this, and the SVP will believe you.

What. The. ??!

I have to ask: is there anything Lucas could have done that would have forced the SVP to recognise wrongdoing? Short of a signed statement, I can’t think of anything. And even then, all it would take would be for him to say “I never signed that”, and the SVP would no doubt conclude that “faced with conflicting testimonies, the Ethics Education Committee was not able to resolve these allegations”.

Which is why I am fully resigned to seeing a one-pager in the next NMMNHS bulletin about the Tendaguru brachiosaurid that I’ve been working on, and assigning it to the new genus Rioarribaposeidon. Lucas knows that the SVP won’t pronounce guilt, so what’s to stop him from taking his revenge on me in this way? After all, I only have one widely available abstract to point to in establishing my priority. If Bill’s three papers, two abstracts and thesis weren’t enough, what chance does my poor abstract stand?

So where are we left? The good news is that the SVP’s statement on these cases included, along with their spineless lack-of-verdict, a much more useful document, Professional Conduct: Best Practices Regarding Research, Publication, and Museum Work. We can hope that the availability of these guidelines will go some way towards preventing repeats. But since the SVP has set an impossibly high bar for demonstrating that violations have taken place, it hardly makes any difference. The message to plagiarisers and claim-jumpers, loud and clear, is “go ahead, do what you want! We may not like it, but we’ll never call you on it. Leave a paper-trail if you like — we don’t care. Go nuts!”

As another private correspondent noted:

The EEC may get some teeth for dealing with these cases in the future. Even if they actually can’t or won’t do anything now, someday the extremely naive people running the show will be replaced by a generation of people who lived through this when they were still students and felt helpless and abandoned, and maybe THEY will do something about it.

But is that really the best we have to look forward to? It’s a pretty depressing thought, but I suppose better than nothing, to think that the generation of future VPs who are being born right about now can look forward to working in a cleaner field — one where professional ethics isn’t just something that we talk about.

So I have to conclude by saying that the SVP really dropped the ball here. They had an opportunity to send out a clear message: “You may NOT take advantage of less established scientists by plagiarising their conclusions and claim-jumping the taxa they recognise, and anyone who does will find us coming down hard on them.” The good news is, they did send out a clear message. The bad news is, it was “Feel free to plagiarise and claim-jump. And you victims had better keep quiet about it, or we’ll say that we Can’t Absolve You Of Responsibility”.

How could the SVP committees do this?

I am really unhappy about this last part of my post, and have nearly deleted it several times, but I think it needs to be said. How could the SVP committees have responded as they have? I can only think of three explanations, and I don’t like any of them:

1. They are too dumb to understand the very straightforward and overwhelming evidence in the freakin’ published literature for goshsakes.

2. They’re too cowardly to admit to what it means.

3. (I mention this only for completeness), They’re too corrupt to respond to what they see.

Even if we discount possibility 3 (which I think we can, and which I am very happy to do), I am still left horrified by either of the first two possibilities. I truly don’t know which is worse.

Now let me be clear that I have nothing but respect for the individuals who make up the SVP Ethics Committee and Executive Committee. Whatever’s happened here, it’s obviously akin to a Dilbertesque committee effect: it’s said that the IQ of a committee is that of its least intelligent members divided by the total number of members. But I would really, really, really like to hear from those individuals. I’d like to hear some explanation of how we ended up in this ridiculous state where Bill and Jeff are actually now worse off than they would have been if they’d kept as silent as previous victims (whose wisdom, if not courage, is now shown to have been greater than Bill’s and Jeff’s).

Please, committee members, comment on this blog. We’re all waiting to hear your explanations, and longing for them to be good.

Thanks for listening.

Oh, yeah, and here’s a sauropod vertebra.

Hotel Mesa sauropod (undescribed, keep your hands off!), partial distal caudal