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Why Paleontologists Get Riled Up Over This 'Heretical' Pterosaur Concept Art

The forms David Peters draws are often wildly at odds with our traditional understanding of pterosaur physiology.

by Graham Templeton
Jun 12 2015, 1:30pm

David Peters' interperation of Longisquama (in the middle), an ancient lizard-like reptile, that Peters says is an ancestor of Pterosaurs. Image: David Peters/Reptile Evolution

In the online world of pterosaur science, there are two main and largely opposing forces: paleontologists, and a man named David Peters.

Peters is a "paleoartist" who has elicited considerable praise during his career for his drawings of dinosaur anatomy. But he has also spent more than 20 years pushing his own theories about the evolutionary history of reptiles—in particular ancient flying reptiles called pterosaurs. The forms he draws are often wildly at odds with our traditional understanding of pterosaur physiology, and arguably, have only gained attention through the sheer oddness of his many designs.

In a lengthy and detailed article on Scientific American in 2012, writer and paleontologist Darren Naish broke things down:

"Longisquama-like dorsal frills, claimed Dave, were present in pterosaurs. Yes, in ALL pterosaurs. Short-tailed pterosaurs were not actually short-tailed: they actually, said Dave, have long, whip-like tails, often with tassels at the ends. Furthermore, toothless pterosaurs actually have teeth after all, wing-fingers still have claws at their tips, and digit V is still present in the pterosaur hand, says Dave. Some pterosaurs have two nostrils, says Dave (as in, two on each side). Dewlaps, enormous dorsal crests and even anglerfish-like 'lures' decorate the heads, snouts and throats of Dave's pterosaurs. Some of these structures, says Dave, are about as big as the animal's head and body combined."

Paleontologists contacted for this article said Peters' two main blogs, Pterosaur Heresies and Reptile Evolution, have such high Google rankings that it's impossible to curate the learning experience for readers new to the field. "It's a little discouraging," said University of South Florida professor Brian Andres. "I'll be giving a lecture and I'll do a quick Google search for an organism, and I'll see his images and ideas very prominently placed."

Peters was not always a pariah. Though he has no formal scientific accreditation, a 1995 letter of his was published in Nature, questioning the findings of a prior study. Then, in 2000, he released an enormous collection of alleged new observations about reptile biology. He frequently attended conferences, and was a well-known character in the field.

"I remember that for my first talk at a scientific meeting, I had to follow Mr. Peters' talk on a vampire pterosaur with a fly swatter on its head," Andres recalls. Peters' 2003 talk featured blood-squirting animations and his trademark drawings of pterosaurs in non-standard poses. "Everyone remembers that talk, no one remembers mine. It was also the only talk at the conference picked up by my hometown paper," he said.

By the mid-2000's, however, Peters' continued clashes with academia made publication in scientific journals far more difficult and invitations to scientific conferences far less frequent. Peters believes his interpretations of fossil evidence were being unfairly excluded, and felt that the internet was a the only truly democratic outlet left to him. In addition to his own blogs, he turned to releasing some ideas through online enthusiast magazines like the now-defunct Prehistoric Times.

It's not surprising that years spent studying skeletons and reading the output of paleontologists might lead a paleoartist to come up with some personal interpretations of dinosaur skeletons, but Peters' takes on known forms were always particularly unusual. Still, more than any of his specific claims about pterosaur skeletons, the heart of the disagreement is Peters' custom version of the evolutionary history of reptiles. Called a phylogenetic tree, this map of species divergence over time is one of the standard visualizations of evolution—and for reptiles, Peters has a tree all his own.

It's generally accepted that this is how members of the pterosaur family probably looked. Image: Mark Witton and Darren Naish/PLoS ONE

The evolutionary relationships that went into this unique diagram were built from evidence collected partly with an image manipulation process Peters developed himself. He says that with proper manipulation, he can see scientifically meaningful details in photos of fossils—even without physical access to the bones in question. Even Peters admits the process has not been accepted by the field at large, but such observations are the basis for his unique view of evolutionary history.

Andres remembers when Peters began drawing conclusions from photos of bones that Andres had actually prepared himself. Peters had ascribed biological significance to some visible marks that Andres remembers making with tools, during the preparation process. "When that happened, that's pretty much when I stopped entertaining the possibility of some of his hypotheses," Andres said. Peters stands behind his image analysis technique, though it is not used in all cases.

Hall Train, another professional paleoartist, was a bit more forgiving. He argued that the field is an unhelpful amalgamation of science and art—that paleoartists spend so much time studying the minutia of fossils, they can't help but come up with deeply held theories. "Having [an idea] come out of an artist's mouth, though, might set the idea back," Train told Motherboard over the phone. "We get a little bit resentful of not being recognized for being slaves to [scientists'] vision."

Still, even a sympathetic colleague like Train admits to being a bit cynical about Peters' long history of large claims. He still remembers when Peters argued that triceratops had a sway back, which dips in the middle like a mule's. "That's just completely, ridiculously unfounded," he said. "That's that." (Peters disputes this.)

David Peters' animation of a Pteranodon walking. David Peters/Reptile Heresies

In a phone interview, Peters exhibited the sort of calm, unadulterated confidence many scientists describe with frustration. "Nobody else has done the precise drawings that I have," he claimed. "I have put the effort in, and when you put the effort in you discover things." He doesn't deny that he's made some mistakes, but points out that "the PhDs" make such mistakes themselves, from time to time. His public profile, which he says is buoyed by the sheer quantity of his thousands of blog posts, makes him an attractive target for naysayers.

Indeed, Peters has been the target of several rants from paleontologists, both in person and online, but the thing that he says bothers him most is misrepresentation of his work. He has disowned several of his older drawings, and in some cases outside artists have drawn out their own visual interpretations of his specific theories about skeletal structure. Peters often describes these pictures as mocking his work.

"It does feel that I've been shunned, maligned, put off to the side," he said, but so have many influential scientists throughout history. Peters isn't afraid to invoke the big names; Alfred Wegner was shunned for the idea of continental drift, after all, as was Einstein for relativity. Why not Peters for reptile evolution? This tendency to historical allusion provoked the community's first truly vitriolic reaction in 2010, when Peters compared his exclusion from paleontological publications to the history of racial segregation in baseball. This is a comparison he made over the phone as well.

"The thing is, they think I see things that aren't there, and I think I see things that they overlooked," Peters said. "I'm sincere in trying to do things right."

It's that sincerity, which nobody called into question at any point, that seems to be the crux of Peters' longevity. His career as a respected, conventional paleo-artist, and what Andres called a "very wide and accepting" culture among paleontologists, has resulted in a long term standoff between Peters and the halls of modern paleo-science. "We really have not tried to take him out," Andres said. "He really has not been that ostracized."

Peters, of course, disagrees. Naish's Scientific American blog post was particularly incisive, and defines what Peters sees as closed-minded "black washing" of his entire body of work. He sees animosity between himself and the paleontological community as a major roadblock to scientific progress—and for Peters, that progress almost always comes in the form of acceptance of his unconventional ideas.

The animosity isn't about to stop him after all this time, however. "I'm 60 years old, I'm semi-retired, and it's enjoyable as hell," Peters said. "Over time, [my work] will come through. If it doesn't happen before I die then it doesn't happen."