Published on June 23rd, 2018 | by Chris Barker


No, Brian Ford, Cranial Neurovasculature does not mean All Dinosaurs were Aquatic

If you’ve been on twitter these last few months, or follow palaeozoologist Darren Naish on social media, you’ll have surely heard about the new book written by Brian Ford, “Too Big to Walk: The New Science of Dinosaurs”. It’s controversial, to put it politely.

Now, apologies to readers who know the back story, but we must set the scene: Ford isn’t a palaeontologist, for starters, yet somehow he’s managed to wrangle a deal with the illustrious publishing house Harper Collins. Over the course of roughly 500 uninspired pages, Ford resurrects the outdated notion that all dinosaurs (yes, ALL) were aquatic, cherry picking concepts to suit his narrative, whilst ignoring the plethora of paleontological evidence that thoroughly dismiss his claims. For more info and opinions, interested readers should check out the FordvNaish hashtag on twitter, or Darren’s rebuttal during Ford’s book launch at Conway Hall.

My weekend was livened up upon learning that Ford commented on work published last year on the theropod Neovenator, where myself, Darren and colleagues described a complex neurovascular system in the snout of this British theropod (Fig. 1). Prior to Neovenator, fossil remnants of these systems were described in (semi-)aquatic vertebrates, using crocodylians as a model. We argued that whilst these systems are indeed present in crocodylians, which make a living in and around water, they are also present in terrestrial organisms and in contexts that are not associated with an aquatic ecology.

Fig. 1. A simplified schematic showing the various blood vessels and nerves that course within the snout bones of Neovenator. Credit: Chris Barker (for photo credits, see figure).

Neovenator, of course, bears the hallmarks of a decidedly terrestrial predator: the pelvic girdle is constructed for weight bearing, the limbs aren’t modified into paddles, and the anatomy related to the sensory systems of the head (i.e. eyes, nostrils) are not dorsally placed or retracted, as is seen in secondarily aquatic vertebrates. Neovenator was thus using this neurovascular system for other things, perhaps to monitor nest temperature or quality, or to help it pick flesh off of carcasses.

Unfortunately for us, Ford has twisted our conclusions in order to fit his narrative. Near the end of his book, he is not happy with our description that Neovenator is a typical landlubber:

“No evidence [for an aquatic lifestyle in Neovenator]? He needs to read this book. All the other dinosaur palaeontologists should do so too. Barker’s response is typical for the present-day palaeontologist. When overwhelming evidence is provided, the dinosaur devotees continue to insist it does not exist. Yet the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in support of my theory- the gigantic dinosaurs were obviously aquatic.”

Fig. 2. The trigeminal nerve provides various sensory feedback, including touch and temperature, from the snout of various vertebrates. Take this black-headed ibis, using trigeminal-derived information to help eat this rat carcass. Credit: Chris Barker.

What overwhelming evidence? Ford’s talk at Conway Hall did not include a single bit of data, and when he did mention a concept, he neglected to support them with references. Furthermore, he has clearly not read our paper, having cited the press release instead, where he focused on the words “crocodylians” and “aquatic feeders” in order to support his claims that dinosaurs lived in water. Had he taken the time to read what we had to say, he’d have known that cranial nerves associated with those canals, the trigeminal nerve (CNV), are found in a broad range of vertebrates, and is used for various functions (Fig. 2.). Yet this “lone-truther” stance he has taken up in his book, and when I saw him at the aforementioned talk, is as misinformed as it is aggressive.

Ford also goes on about how us palaeontologists ignore “reasonable” hypotheses:

“It’s the blindness to reasonable alternatives that dogs the heels of those who wish to innovate the science. The dinosaur palaeontologists endlessly repeat the same dogma, even when the evidence clearly shows it is nothing but fake news.”

Using crocodilians as a basis for inferring aquatic ecology in dinosaurs is not a good idea. Credit: Tomás Castelazo/WikiCommons

Colleagues and I were certainly not blind to the fact that crocodylians possess these sensory structures. However, crocodylians are not the best creatures to compare dinosaur facial neurovasculature with, as they have evolved a unique sensory system unseen in other modern vertebrates in response to their secondarily derived aquatic ecology. Thus, using crocodilian cranial neurovasculature to back up claims dinosaurs were aquatic is misguided. Moreover, resurrecting outdated and refuted evidence isn’t innovating, either.

Colleagues and I are currently delving deeper into the role of this nerve complex in the dinosaur fossil record. We’re looking at ways to more accurately quantify the sensitivity of those systems, and thus refine our understanding of dinosaur neuroethology (that is to say, the neurological basis of behaviour). Our description of the neurovascular canals helped update ideas surrounding fossil remnants of this system, however there is still much work to be done in what promises to be an exciting time in palaeoneurology.

To sum up, just because crocodylians and dinosaurs have similar neurovasculature does not mean they share the same ecology. In addition, whilst some semi-aquatic dinosaurs do seem to have existed, and show evidence for rostral neurovascular systems (e.g. Spinosaurus, Halszkaraptor), we are yet to determine whether these functioned in a manner similar to those of crocodylians. The erroneous concepts put forward by Ford are not restricted to (paleo)neurology- the entire book is littered with misinformation and outrageous, unbacked claims. He does so much cherry-picking he might as well replace the agricultural labourers that have ghosted from British fields since Brexit was announced.

And, to top it all off, he arrogantly tells me that I need to read his book.

No thanks, Brian, I think I’ll pass.


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