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A Note on the Taxonomy of Dinosaurs

Immanuel Velikovsky's article "Were All Dinosaurs Reptiles?"(1) (published in 1976 but basically written in 1941) is an exciting anticipation of the work of Robert Bakker(2) and Adrian Desmond,(3) suggesting that some if not all of the dinosaurs were warm-blooded.

The prescient persuasiveness of Velikovsky's argument is marred, however, by several descriptive and classificatory errors in the initial section subtitled "Brontosaurus Was a Mammal." The first of these is his statement, on p. 92, paragraph 2, "Reptiles . . . do not bear their living young" (which I read as "do not bear living young"). While this statement is true with regard to turtles and crocodilians, it is at best half true with regard to snakes and lizards, among whom there are numerous viviparous or ovoviviparous species.(4) Among aquatic and subarctic squamata, in fact, live-bearing is the rule rather than the exception.(5)

In the first paragraph on p. 93, Velikovsky refers to "the ... class of Dinosauria." Here he is confusing taxonomic levels. The brontosaur, or "thunder-lizard," for example, is generally classified as follows:

class Reptilia
      subclass Archosauria
            order Saurischia
                  suborder Sauropoda
                        genus Brontosaurus

In addition, he is mixing phylogeny (represented by the preceding series) with typology. Phylogenetic groups are composed of subgroups linked by close genetic affinity, as manifest in basic similarities of internal structure. Typological groups, on the other hand, are composed of subgroups linked by relatively superficial similarities of external appearance or behavior. Dinosaurs are a typological rather than a phylogenetic group: most standard sources refer to the word "dinosaur" as a "popular term." Its nearest phylogenetic equivalent is Saurischia ("lizard-pelves") and Ornithischia ("bird-pelves") in tandem.(6)

Velikovsky confuses typology with phylogeny again in the first full paragraph on p. 94 by referring to "the class of amphibian or reptiles living partly in water and partly on the land." The Greek form "amphibia" may, according to the Rules of Zoological Nomenclature, be used only to refer to the vertebrate class, evolutionarily intermediate between fish and reptiles, which includes newts and frogs. When meant in a purely typological sense as Velikovsky here seems to intend the English form "amphibians" is indicated. Amphibians are semi-aquatic animals of any taxon, such as alligators, penguins, or otters.

By implication, to be sure, what Velikovsky is assaying here is a reclassification of dinosaurs one that might either convert them into a real phylogenetic group, such as a super order *Dinosauria, or redivide them along presumptively functional lines into an ectothermal order, which might be called *Aletheosauria ("true saurians": e.g., Tyrannosaurus) and an endothermal order, which might be called *Dinomammalia ("terrible mammals": e.g., Triceratops). Unfortunately, however, his intentions are left inexplicit in this connection and the reader may reasonably make any of several different taxonomic inferences as to the grouping and sub-grouping of dinosaurs.

What is regrettable about such ambiguity is that it partially obscures an otherwise brilliant insight. Here, as in so many other areas of scholarship, Velikovsky has shown himself to be not just years but decades ahead of the specialists in this case, the herpetologists. As one who agrees with Buckminster Fuller's contention that most great intellectual advances come from generalists rather than from specialists, I feel with special keenness the need to strengthen interdisciplinary investigations by eliminating from them those minor shortcomings which the compulsively orthodox are so fond of turning into major grounds for rejection and ridicule. (7)

Roger W. Wescott


1. Immanuel Velikovsky, "Were All Dinosaurs Reptiles?" KRONOS, Vol. II, no. 2, November, 1976, pp. 9 1-100.
2. Robert T. Bakker, "Dinosaur Renaissance," Scientific American, vol. 232, no. 4, April, 1975, pp. 58-78.
3. Adrian J. Desmond, The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs, Dial Press, New York, N. Y., 1976.
4. Archie Carr, The Reptiles, Life Nature Library, Time Inc., New York, N. Y., 1963, p. 125.
5. Ibid., p. 126.
6. Alfred Sherwood Romer, The Vertebrate Story, University of Chicago Press, 4th ed., 1959, passim.
7. Unconventional ideas are usually so dismissed by even such an otherwise gifted and encyclopedic paleontologist as George Gaylord Simpson (author of Life: An Introduction to Biology, 2nd ed., Harcourt Brace, and World, 1965, which contains, on pp. 782-799, an excellent standard overview of dinosaurs).

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