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First Fine Careless Raptor

Raptor Red

by Robert T Bakker
Bantam, 246 pp., $29.95

One of the best and most responsible things a scientist can do is to write for the popular press. It takes a lot of valuable time and it doesn’t get one grants or tenure. It doesn’t necessarily win the author the approval of his peers, since many scientists believe that publication should be confined to peer-reviewed scientific journals. It doesn’t even make the writer much money, since most works by scientists, however accomplished they may be in academic circles, don’t bring the big advances non-specialist writers regularly command.

But most of the scientists who, so to speak, go public usually aren’t in search of tenure or money. Usually they write for the rest of us because they know we don’t have time to monitor all the scientific journals and wouldn’t have an inkling of what’s happening in their fields if it weren’t for their efforts. They want to teach us something. A good many women scientists become writers and teachers in this spirit—Rachel Carson, Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas, Shirley Strum, and Cynthia Moss, to name a few. But many of the very best are men: George Schaller, Konrad Lorenz, Loren Eisley, Stephen Hawking, Douglas Chadwick, Frans De Waal.

A prominent scientist belonging to this group is the controversial Robert T. Bakker, once known as the enfant terrible of paleontology. Before publishing his present novel, Raptor Red, he published a very controversial non-fiction work, The Dinosaur Heresies (Morrow, 1986), in which he challenged the now antiquated view that, being Nature’s first attempt at large animals, dinosaurs were for the most part badly designed hulks. A case in point was brontosaurus (now known as apatasaurus). Because its body was thought to be slung between its legs in lizard fashion, not set squarely above its legs in elephant style, it supposedly had to stand in water to support its huge weight.

Dinosaurs were supposed to be cold-blooded reptiles, stupid and slow, in contrast, as we fatuously saw it, to our own ancestors, the clever little mammals who preyed on the eggs carelessly dropped behind the poor, dumb, wandering monsters. Being warm-blooded, our furry little predecessors would have had no problem with the cooling climate that theoretically exterminated their reptilian overlords. They fluffed out their fur, cuddled together in their burrows, and warmed one another up. The dinosaurs, in contrast, having been badly designed in the first place, wandered helplessly over the landscape, slowly getting colder and colder until they all fell down and died.

Much of this story was wrong. Mammals and dinosaurs diverged from a common ancestor about 260 million years ago. Dinosaurs subsequently evolved to fill every possible ecological niche, from which they ruled the earth for 160 million years and became the most successful vertebrates in the history of the planet. During all that time we mammals managed to evolve into nothing larger than a cat. When the dinosaurs vanished, the mammals finally took over, but they have not ruled nearly as long as the dinosaurs and, thanks to human activity, there seems a good possibility that they will not.

These much-overlooked facts caused Bakker to attempt to revise our views of the dinosaurs, and in The Dinosaur Heresies he shows dinosaurs to be beautifully designed after all, some, like the velociraptors, with bird hips that let them run like ostriches, others like the apatasaurus with elephant hips that not only let them support their own weight unaided but let them rear up on their hind legs and tails kangaroo style to browse the tops of trees giraffe style, or to sweep their tails around defensively, iguana style. Far more than the simple hulks we took them for, the dinosaurs built nests, took care of their young, had social organization (as shown by fossilized footprints), and were group hunters. In short, they looked and acted very much like certain kinds of birds.

Realizing the depth of the relationship between birds and dinosaurs, John Ostrom at Yale put forward the now generally accepted theory that birds not merely descended from dinosaurs but are actually a kind of dinosaur. Meanwhile, in the light of such reconstruction, dinosaurs were reclassified taxonomically. No longer are they generally considered to belong to the reptile class but instead are seen by many as belonging to a class of their own, the dinosaur class.

Heretical as these views may have seemed at first, they were highly acceptable to many if not most serious scientists. In fact, the respect accorded to the new view of dinosaurs can be seen in the splendid displays of dinosaurs in the New York Museum of Natural History, beginning in the entrance, where a recently erected barasaurus is shown reared up, protecting her chick from an attacking allosaurus with her formidable, slashing tail.

Bakker, however, advanced another theory that, although exciting, hasn’t yet found the kind of acceptance that his rebuttals of the other former heresies now enjoy. In The Dinosaur Heresies Bakker, once a graduate student of Ostrom, puts forward the truly heretical theory that, like the birds, the dinosaurs might also have been warm-blooded. Perhaps the theory was inspired by Ostrom himself, who had shown not only that birds were a kind of dinosaur but also that certain dinosaurs might have been able to chew. No cold-blooded creature now living chews its food. Chewing might suggest a warm-blooded metabolism. Or it might not. As Ostrom also points out, warm-blooded birds don’t chew either. Rather, like the cold-blooded crocodilians and also like certain dinosaurs, certain birds “chew” by grinding food with gravel or stones which they hold in the gizzard. Ostrom himself evidently doesn’t embrace the warm-blooded theory. He told this reviewer that only a Jurassic thermometer could prove warm-bloodedness in dinosaurs, and that a certain amount of temperature regulation would not disqualify dinosaurs from their original cold status. Even certain fish have some degree of temperature regulation that in polar waters keeps them from freezing.

However, Bakker cites far more than teeth and gizzard stones to support his warm-blooded theory. He also cites a strong similarity between mammal and dinosaur bone tissue, a similarity suggesting that dinosaurs grew quickly, like the warm-blooded birds and mammals, not slowly, like the cold-blooded fish, amphibians, and reptiles. In addition he demonstrates a mammalian-style ratio of “prey species” to the “predator species,” as evidenced by the ratio of fossils of the times, a ratio that further suggests that dinosaurs had mammal-type metabolism. Even the length of the stride of many kinds of dinosaurs as measured by the distance between their fossilized foot-prints shows that they stepped along smartly, as do modern animals with high metabolism, who also consume calories at a warm-blooded rate. Some dinosaurs may even have given birth to live young, or so thinks Bakker, who doubts that any eggshell, whether brittle like a bird’s egg or leathery like a turtle’s egg, could contain a five-hundred-pound brontosaurus chick. Bakker also points out that the pelvic gap of an adult female brontosaur was almost big enough to expel a Volkswagen and could certainly have accommodated her infant even at full-term.

These speculations, shocking at first, seem more plausible with each passing year. Just recently in Mongolia, for example, the discovery of a fossilized oviraptor dinosaur showed quite conclusively that she had been sitting on a nest of eggs at the time she was buried by something, possibly a violent sandstorm. Her front and hind legs were positioned like the wings and legs of a nesting bird and her eggs were arranged like a bird’s eggs in a circle with the broad ends inward. Was the oviraptor protecting her eggs from the sun? From the sandstorm? Or was she incubating them?

Ostrom wasn’t the only scientist who didn’t share all of Bakker’s views. Even the scientists who discovered the nesting oviraptor are not yet convinced that she was warm-blooded. They cautiously admit, however, that incubation (if indeed that’s what she was doing) strongly, suggests warm blood in some form. Meanwhile, many notable paleontologists in the field find Bakker’s views plausible. One, Björn Kurten, until his death a professor of paleontology at the University of Helsinki, found The Dinosaur Heresies acceptable, and said that Bakker’s theories pointed the way to “a fuller understanding of the dinosaur’s long reign.” Some of Bakker’s colleague wish he wrote more for peer-reviewed scientific journals and less for the popular press, but if he did, the general public would be deprived of his insights, insights that he could have gained only by creatively reflecting on his original research.

With Raptor Red, Bakker attempts a task even more challenging than his reconstruction of dinosaur posture or metabolism—he attempts to reconstruct the behavior of a dozen or so types of Early Cretaceous dinosaurs, especially that of the Utahraptor dinosaurs, and he does so in a novel. Recently discovered by an amateur fossil hunter in Utah, later verified by a colleague of Bakker’s, the Utahraptor is a large species of the raptor dinosaur family. (“Raptor” is a term only recently applied to dinosaurs and as such hasn’t reached the dictionaries, where at present the term is reserved for modern birds of prey. Yet the term seems perfect for these birdlike, predatory dinosaurs and, even if not in the dictionaries, seems accepted in general use.)

As a base for his hypotheses on dinosaur behavior, Bakker of course uses the mass of physical evidence assembled by paleontological research. In his afterword he discusses his sources, and his essay about them is one of the most interesting features of the book. For instance, he describes the tracks of a well-organized herd of astrodons who traveled along with the large adults on the outside and the youngsters in the middle just as a herd of elephants might travel today, especially if they felt threatened, as the astrodons must have felt threatened by a pair of Utahraptors who were following them and whose tracks are super-imposed on their tracks.

Information of this kind, of course, gives an enormous boost to any reconstruction. Much of the rest comes through a kind of triangular extrapolation from the behavior of both the bird and mammal counterparts of dinosaurs. For instance, Bakker’s predatory Utahraptor dinosaurs are mid-sized compared to other dinosaurs of their time, so their bird and mammal counterparts might be, say, jays and wolves. And so, in keeping with these models, Bakker’s Utahraptor families are composed of a few adults and children, with the parents and some of their grown children together raising the younger children. Like many birds and mammals, Utahraptors forage cooperatively, sharing food, if somewhat unwillingly. Like eagles and hyenas, female Utahraptors are larger than males, and like countless other animals their social units are organized around groups of females—sisters, in the case of the Utahraptors. In drawing on such comparisons, Bakker is obviously relying on speculation, but his methods are so sensible that his reconstruction seems very plausible.

Equally well imagined are the large herbivore dinosaurs. I was particularly taken with the astrodons, whose counterparts appear in many bird families and among certain antelopes. When mating time comes for these dinosaurs, the males claim areas, known as leks, where the females join them—behavior probably drawn by Bakker from the behavior of lechwes, cobs, and topis and many kinds of birds, including bower birds and prairie chickens. In battle, the astrodons neck-wrestle and use their heads as clubs, as do giraffes.

The novel’s central female character, Raptor Red, is a young adult Utahraptor with yellow eyes, the model for which, says Bakker, were the eyes, “very clear and intelligent, and very fierce,” of a she-eagle in the Badlands who flew above him looking down. Along Raptor Red’s somewhat snake-like snout is a red mark which distinguishes her species from similar raptors with a yellow mark. Lizards and turtles have similar subspecies markings, as do birds, and since the bird-shaped dinosaurs eventually became the birds, it is not too much for Bakker to suppose that dinosaurs, like birds, could distinguish tribal from nontribal members by a stripe or two.

Raptor Red loses her first mate, a smaller young male dinosaur, when he is crushed by a bull astrodon whom he has unwisely attacked and who then falls on him and pins him in a quagmire. He drowns. Alone and unhappy, Raptor Red goes to find her sister, helps her raise her chicks, survives a flood and a famine, meets a new male, eventually “bonds” but doesn’t mate with him immediately, shelters in a cave during a snowy winter in the mountains, and adopts her sister’s children after her sister is felled by a huge astrodon who, like an oversized iguana, gives Raptor Red’s sister a stunning blow with his tail. Anyone who has been hit by an iguana, however small, will know how unpleasant that would be. The sister is paralyzed and later succumbs. Again Raptor Red must face the world alone. In fairness I won’t say just how she manages, but the book ends with a convincing and moving account of an animal’s survival.

Thus, Raptor Red is an excellent portrait of a predator, particularly if we keep in mind the uncertainties surrounding any attempt to fathom the kinds of thoughts and emotions that might have been present in animals we have never observed. The book also gives a useful picture of wild animal life in general, since it contains the kinds of detail seldom found in other works. The Utahraptors, Bakker argues, must know their world and the other animals in it in ways close to those of modern animals; they study their prey much as a pair of wolves might study the neighboring caribou to keep track of any who were weakening, and they monitor their predators much as wolves might monitor the whereabouts of problem bears. Equally realistically, their most important exchanges are reserved for others of their kind, as is surely true of almost any species known. Here Raptor Red’s sister mourns the death of one of her chicks as Raptor Red and an older chick try to comfort her.

The oldest chick joins Raptor Red in preening her mother. It does no good. Raptor Red’s sister collapses on her ankles, pawing at the chick, turning the little corpse over and over until its hide is covered with wet sand grains. Raptor Red is afraid to leave her sister alone but afraid to stay next to her too. Her sister’s weird moaning gets louder, and she swings her arms in spastic arcs.

Keeping in mind the difficulties of conferring familiar qualities on extinct creatures, I greatly admire Bakker’s portrayal of dinosaurs as sentient, feeling beings. He uses words once forbidden in discussions of animals as too anthropomorphic, words such as “bored,” “remembers,” “thinks,” “reasons,” “dreams,” and they never seem cloying or excessive. Yet he sometimes lapses into a slangy sciencespeak. When Raptor Red is hatched

that first invasion of airborne particles traveled down her nostril tubes and into the olfactory chambers built into her skull, right in front of her eyes. The airborne particles were caught like microscopic bugs on the sticky flypaper of her sensory membranes. Biochemical detector cells were galvanized into action as soon as the particles dissolved in the thin mucous lining. Electrical discharges, a thousand each millisecond, lit up the nerve pathways leading from the olfactory chamber to the massive olfactory stalk of her brain.

In other words, she smells something—her family, it turns out. Bakker doesn’t hesitate to stop the action while he enlightens us on some point, and in some cases he goes beyond the bounds of credibility. For instance, when the male Utahraptor is discovered menacing and stalking Raptor Red’s sister’s chicks, Bakker indulges in a scholarly aside on infanticide. “Long before the time of Utahraptor,” he writes, “infanticide was commonplace among dinosaurs and tiny mammals and frogs.” I have no reason to believe it was not, but how can we know? Is infanticide commonplace among tiny modern mammals and frogs? If so, Bakker could have made that clear.

Just after the lecture on infanticide is another on sexual dimorphism and its consequences among raptor-type dinosaurs.

Raptor Red belongs to a species that is making a momentous transition in family life from a male-dominated pack structure to an incipient matriarchy. The adult females have become larger and stronger than the males. They can accept or reject suitors. They tend to mate for life. The ancestral raptors had a different social system. The males were larger. They fought each other to control all the breeding females in a pack. And they’d drive away or kill the chicks from different fathers, unless the mother left the pack with her chicks and struck out on her own.

Again we ask, how can Bakker claim to know this? Bones tell us the size of the raptors, and comparative extrapolation from the behavior of other reptiles, birds, and mammals presumably gives us the rest. Bakker, in short, presents some very intelligent and convincing guesswork, but it is only guesswork, especially where a dinosaur’s possible motives are concerned. When he shifts away from his imagined dinosaur characters to expository writing, then the rules for distinguishing guesswork from empirically based conclusions must apply, and in some parts of Bakker’s book they do not.

However, the problem of Bakker’s didactic impulses is not great, and certainly doesn’t undermine his book as a whole. On the contrary, the reader learns a lot. Some may prefer the book’s scholarly explanations to its accounts of the doings of the dinosaur characters. Bakker’s asides deal with some interesting subjects even if they are in fact more speculative than they sound at first. Writing of a small mammal of the time, an aegialodon, who figures briefly in the plot when a dinosaur almost gulps it down, Bakker writes expansively:

Aegialodon the scorpion-killer stays absolutely still. He’s survived, and he’ll live to a ripe old age—eleven months. By that time his aegi genes will be in swarms of children and grandchildren.

Over a hundred million years later, the flow of aegi genes will produce wonderful creations—giraffes, elephants, rhinos, whales, bats, monkeys, chimps, Democratic senators, Republican majority leaders. Charles Darwin himself. All can be traced back to the supreme bug bopper, the Aegialodon.

Hollywood chose Bakker as a consultant for the film Jurassic Park, and while he worked with Steven Spielberg, the Raptor Red fossil was discovered. Evidently Spielberg had previously included in the plot a scary raptor dinosaur of a size larger than any raptor fossil known from the time. Surely this must have troubled Bakker. One day his colleague, Dr. James Kirkland, called to share the news of a very exciting find, “something so spectacular, no scientist had ever dreamed of it,” writes Bakker. “They had found the first giant raptor …. It was the find of a lifetime …. I could hear Jim jumping up and down at the other end of the line, and I started jumping up and down too.” The veracity of the film, such as it is, was improved, and Utahraptor dinosaurs (for so the fossil was named) can appear not as the spurious inventions of a scriptwriter but as having some basis in recent research.

Jurassic Park is an exciting film, but it is, after all, not really about animals. It is about people and their pretensions—it’s about the park and the manipulation of DNA and fancy equipment and all that—with the animals conveniently providing adventures by being scary. What’s worse, the film displays an astonishing ignorance of animals in general. A first brush with a herd of large herbivorous dinosaurs, for instance, evokes sentimental smiles from the human characters who feel perfectly safe amid these monsters because they eat grass and not meat. Luckily they were merely dinosaurs and not, say, rhinos or African buffaloes.

In their indifference, the people who made the film are short-sighted. Many people find animals utterly fascinating and have proven time and again that they will view films and read books that are about the lives of animals because they are interesting in their own right, not because they chase, frighten, or kill people.

What’s more, a large number of animal lovers are also dinosaur fans like myself, and among them are many small children, as I was when I tried to model a dinosaur from a clay-like product that, in my obsession, I mispronounced Pleistocene. Huge, threatening, far larger than our parents, dinosaurs were our heroes, and our appetite for information about them was almost insatiable. I would have read and reread Raptor Red back then, would have seen myself walking in the misty, green forests of the Early Cretaceous. Remembering those times, I realize I’ve spent much of my life waiting for a book like Raptor Red, gloriously about dinosaurs but also refreshingly about animals as themselves, without reference to people.

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