Tuesday, August 9, 2011

And the best paper written about a theropod is...

I'm sure I can come across as a grumpy old carmudgeon thanks to my frequent criticisms of papers, even good ones like Benson et al. (2011).  Critiquing is fun and I think more important than praise when it comes to scientific papers, but for a change, here's a paper I was floored by. 

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Dal Sasso and Maganuco's new Scipionyx monograph, and boy does it deliver!  Scipionyx is one of those Science/Nature taxa that's initially described in two pages with a couple figures, then goes for years until a decent description comes out (See how I work criticism into even an article designed to praise, heh.  Btw, of that list, Enantiornis has since been redescribed, and papers on Guanlong, Buitreraptor and Haplocheirus are in the works.  Woo!)  Luckily, the illustrations in Dal Sasso and Signore's 1998 paper were superb and covered all the material, so waiting wasn't as painful as it is for some other taxa.  Even so, if every 'tabloid taxon' were given this good of a treatment once they were redescribed, I'd have no complaint waiting a decade for them.  The monograph is simply unparalleled in every aspect.  Quality diagnosis of autapomorphies.  Huge illustrations and color photos, extensive explanatory diagrams, x-rays, ultraviolet, different angles.  Measurements of everything.  Eleven pages discussing the ontogenetic indicators.  A phylogenetic analysis using a good base (Senter's TWG modification), codes taxa completely, has explicit coding changes based on new papers and most relevent taxa included (exceptions are Proceratosaurus and Bagaraatan).  Then there's the long description of all the soft parts most taxa don't leave us.  And the taphonomy.  And the physiology, discussing Ruben's terrible ideas.  And the quality reconstructions.  And the discussion of diet, given its multiple prey remains.  The tome ends with several life restorations, of which my favorite is Riboli's.  See, that's why I don't write more glowing reviews- saying "x is good, y is good, etc." just gets repetitive and uninteresting.  Sort of like how ancient theologians said much more about the tortures of Hell than the joys of Heaven. ;)

As for negatives, Scipionyx and Orkoraptor are grouped together based on the supposed caudal pleurocoels of the former.  Yet those are so small they look more like nutrient foramina to me, which have caused similar confusion in Acrocanthosaurus and some therizinosauroids.  But Dal Sasso and Maganuco correctly discuss how the Senter matrix does not include relevent taxa and characters from Benson et al.'s study, and that the latter does not include enough coelurosaur information.  Also, I would disagree with a couple coding choices for ontogenetically variable characters in Scipionyx, which are discussed in Appendix 5.  But hey, what other papers even mention why they code ontogenetically variable characters in young specimens?  So really, even the few problems were elaborated on to the point that I can't count them against the authors.  The work is simply a masterpiece.

Anyone who wants to write a description of a theropod, look at what Dal Sasso and Maganuco created, and copy its format and scope to the best of your ability.

Dal Sasso and Maganuco, 2011. Scipionyx samniticus (Theropoda: Compsognathidae) from the Lower Cretaceous of Italy: Osteology, ontogenetic assessment, phylogeny, soft tissue anatomy, taphonomy, and palaeobiology. Memorie della Società Italiana di Scienze Naturali e del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano. 281 pp.

6 comments:

  1. Have been wanting to buy a copy since it was announced...but funds are very dire.. One thing i wish to consider: is it all in English (with Italian summary) or is it half and half?

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  2. All in English besides one of the abstracts, thankfully.

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  3. Héctor Gómez de SilvaAugust 10, 2011 at 4:10 PM

    Mickey
    I assume that since the Scipionyx monograph presents a cladogram based on the TWG matrix (as does the more recent Xiaotingia article), that you will include the characters and taxa in your ongoing revision of the TWG matrix, and then add the Benson et al (and other, such as Naish et al 2011 on Samrukia) characters and taxa to your analysis for the paravian paper you are working on.
    Héctor Gómez de Silva

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  4. Well, yes and no. I'll certainly add the taxa from the Scipionyx monograph (adding taxa is easy), and incorporate any of the character modifications I agree with. But there's a time issue involved as well, and this isn't intended to be an analysis with greater scope than Coelurosauria. You don't need to know where megaraptorans go to determine paravian phylogeny. Similarly, the Samrukia matrix was designed with broad taxonomic scope without very intensive taxon sampling, since the goal was just to figure out where Samrukia went, not how everything else is related. So while it'd be great to include everything, I'm more interested in the characters other authors have used for paravian relationships. To that end, if I have time after the TWG data is complete, the plan is to incorporate relevent characters from Paul's DA list, Longrich and Currie's Hesperonychus matrix, and any characters influencing basal relationships in bird matrices. The important thing is to sample all the paravian characters that have been suggested, not to redo theropod phylogeny.

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  5. Héctor Gómez de SilvaAugust 11, 2011 at 3:17 PM

    Mickey
    Excellent! I am right with you. What I meant when I mentioned the Benson et al. and the Samrukia papers was "any additional characters in those matrices which are relevant to a Coelurosauria, especially basal paravian, analysis"... And I agree that it is a good idea to include character-state modifications only if you agree with them (and to justify these modifications or rejections explicitly in the paper).

    I'm sure you'll agree with me that that's how phylogenetic analyses should be done, there is no valid excuse for ignoring relevant taxa and characters from previous works (unless convincingly justified).

    I eagerly await your analyses, though I know that they will take some time (and in the meantime, new taxa like Xioatingia or new analyses may cause you to have to do more work and take a little more time).
    Héctor Gómez de Silva

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  6. Loana Riboli is a great artist: she's painting a Deinonychus scene under my supervision.

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