Bloodbath part 2: more outrageous stupidity in the EB Illustrated Science Library series

Previously, I limited my dissection of the Encyclopedia Britannica Illustrated Science Library series to the preview of the “Reptiles and Dinosaurs” volume you can get from their website. Now, I’ll bring you more of the stupidity and idiocy, the sloppy fact-checking and the clueless copy&paste-ing in the part that addresses non-avian dinosaurs.

As mentioned, I emailed EB for permission to use figures, and have not received a reply. No surprise there, if they checked out the last part of my review.

The Stoopid starts with another repetition of the “we have no clue what a dinosaur is” mistake. The chapters in the volume all have a double page introduction, which consists of a huge figure and a short text blurb below it. For Dinosaurs, it shows a…

.

.

.

.

you guessed it, a pterosaur!

*sigh!*

and they even took a boring-as-hell gray CGI one, instead of a gaudy and fun drawing.

Then comes the double page I dissected already, and then – oh, I’ll simply list the headings, so you can see the stupidity at one glance.

  • The Triassic Period
  • The “Age of Reptiles”
  • The First Giant Herbivore
  • The Jurassic Period
  • Different Species
  • A Docile Vegetarian
  • The Cretaceous Period
  • A Fierce Era
  • The Great Predator of the South
  • Living Life to the Limit

Before I go into a blow-by-blow discussion of each double page, let me quickly ruminate on this list of page titles.

Apparently, there were a number of periods in which dinosaurs lived, including one that ear was fierce (WTF?), but there was only one great predator (living in the South), and one era that had different species (so the rest had only one each?), one of which was docile and rejected meat, but ate eggs and milk. Dinosaurs lived up to a limit, but it remains a bit unclear who imposed it, and whether it referred to driving speed or total mass of passengers or what. The first period, the Triassic, was an age of reptiles, as opposed to the other two eras. Yup, makes perfect sense!

I’ll jump ahead to my special area of interest now, and leave other parts for later.

The First Giant Herbivore

Uh-oh, they dare make a double page on Plateosaurus. Get me a chainsaw, a rocket launcher, better yet an MLRS!

Properly fortified and armed I started with a look at the big picture of an animal that I took to be a very badly done sauropod. A quadruped with a looooooooong neck, a limb length ratio of ~0.8, in the eternal EB gray. The hands are fully pronated, but the fingers are separated from each other. There is a big, absurd keel running down the back and neck. The animal looks huge, 20 t or so. And then I read the text and found out that this was supposed to be Plateosaurus.

here’s an outline drawing that is based on the EB graphic:

I have to admit that the thing has a nice, dynamic look. If you don’t look at the details, that is. Let’s see…… the arms are way too long, way too thick the hands pronated, the first finger is longer than digits II and III of the manus, the neck is a bit too long. The tail is nice and fat, I have to admit that, but what is that keel on the back? You can’t see it in the line drawing, but the original figure has wide hips, with the hind limbs added on the outside like afterthoughts. It is anything BUT a good Plateosaurus! It is an OK basal sauropod with totally messed up hands and feet.

Now for the text, there is an introductory blurb under the header and some eight short blurbs with a heading each around the animal. I dislike those spread-out “info-bits”. They are not placed in any larger context, so they are automatically out-of-context due to their own shortness. They are factoids for kids to know the way they remember the name of the poodle of the great-grand-aunt of a famous football player – useless information! Not something for a book that is supposed to go along with a curriculum and be a solid, reliable HELP to a pupil. Let#s start with the introductory text:

This primitive saurischian was among the first to usher in the age of the dinosaurs in the late Triassic Period, about 210 million years ago.

Hm, should I imagine the animal to have a uniform and a staff, walk out into the Trossingen Formation landscap, rap the staff on the ground and announce. “Herewith we declare the age of dinosaurs started! According to Nesbitt in the far future, those with an asymmetrical fourth trochanter with distal margin forming a steeper angle to the shaft may participate; please multiply. All others roll over and die!”? I hate this grand, sententious and pompous language, and even more this extreme anthropomorphizing of animals. What does an animal care for ages of whatever? Why are animals reduced to playing roles in our simplified concepts of temporal classification? Why can’t EB simply write: “Plateosaurs were the first large herbivores.” WHY?????? I guess that’s because it doesn’t sound grand, pompous and sententious.

The saurischian was clearly one of the first that fed exclusively on plants and that reached the immense sizes typical of herbivores.

Oh, there are no small herbivores? Tell that to birds, quite many species will die out right away! And we can’t be certain P. didn’t supplement its diet with insects, small vertebrates and carrion. And there were herbivorous animals before, and herbivorous dinosaurs. But why let fact get in the way of a good sentence you can copy and paste?

The secret of this dinosaur’s survival is believed to have been the lack of competition for food, since no other herbivore of the time grew as large.

Oh, rly? Does that mean Plateosaurus survived because there were no other basal sauropodomorphs about? Then who was the ancestor of sauropods? After all, the text elsewhere says: “they [Plateosaurus] were not actually ancestors of these [sauropods] animals.” (yee-ha! a correct statement!).

Its name, which means “lizard-hipped,” was given to it in 1837 by the German naturalist Hermann von Meyer.

AAAAAAAARrrrgghhhH!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is a typical example for how utterly imprecise the EB texts are, and how sloppily they did their fact checking (if at all). Hermann von Meyer names Plateosaurus engelhardti in 1837 – so far so good. But anyone, not only people how took Latin in school, is able to just find an online resource that explains the name. It is really a sign of total lack of care that EB manages to mix up “Saurischia” and “Plateosaurus”. It is a repetition of the screw-up with “Ornitischia” supposedly being named for the curvature of the femur.

Now for the factoids. With a line connecting the text to the neck (how stupid do they think the readers are?) it say:

In the Treetops
Its long neck helped it to reach the tops of trees. Its mouth had pouches for storing food while it chewed.

That’s an other misquote, and a serious logic fail. Let’s look at tree top feeding first. The neck of Plateosaurus was long, but was it long enough to reach tree tops? Here’s trusty GPIT/RS/7288 again, as a digital skeleton, reaching up to feed as high as plausible.

That’s 2.85 m feeding height, maybe 3.2 m for a larger individual. Now please look at any forest in a warm climate anywhere on this planet and tell me how tall trees typically are. Obviously, the long neck increases feeding range without moving the entire body, but it don’t reach no tree top!
Now, chewing…. EB here misread a paper saying that there likely were soft tissue cheeks in Plateosaurus. Recent analyses suggest that this was not the case, but even so, the presence of a cheek doesn’t mean there is a pouch! And no sauropodomorph did any extended chewing! Mammalomizing dinosaurs again.

Head
Its brain was small in proportion to the weight of its body, so it is not believed to have been very intelligent.

Well, OK, this is correct – but why put this next to the head of Plateosaurus? It is true for all sauropodomorphs, in fact is ancestral for dinosaurs. If you have text that goes with a specific thing, why not have content that is specific for that thing?

My favorite idiocy:

Defensive Claw
This animal had few defensive resources. However, one of the toes of its front feet had a  powerful claw that it used to cut branches and for selfdefense. In reality, however, its best defense was to run.

This blurb come with a small drawing that shows a thumb claw strongly bent medially. Scroll back up and look at the hands of the big picture: straight claws. Contradictio in adjecto, anyone? And in fact, the thumb claw was practically parallel to the second and third digits, but shorter. OOPS! There is some more text that’s not quite as stupid, so for the end of the page, we’re completely off to La-la-land:

MATING
Plateosaurs were polyandrous, meaning that the
dominant matriarch had from three to five male
mates, who competed for her attention during
mating season. The eggs, of various sizes, were
cared for by each respective male.”

U-hu! I wonder what they were smoking the day they wrote this! I can imagine what was on DVD they watched, though. We have no f*cking  clue about the sex lives of plateosaurs (pun intended). None! They laid eggs, very probably, and that’s all we know.

Cornflakes, copyright and sloppiness

The entire EB thing is a cereal packet issue, it reminds me of Douglas Noel Adams wonderful Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Chapter 19):

“The statistics relating to the geo-social nature of the Universe, for instance, are deftly set out between pages nine hundred and thirty-eight thousand and twenty-four and nine hundred and thirty-eight thousand and twenty-six; and the simplistic style in which they are written is partly explained by the fact that the editors, having to meet a publishing deadline, copied the information off the back of a packet of breakfast cereal, hastily embroidering it with a few footnoted in order to avoid prosecution under the incomprehensibly tortuous Galactic Copyright laws.”

And that’s about the quality we see in the EB text, in the way it is presented as little disjointed bits and pieces, and in the total lack of fact checking. It is obviously a copy&paste job, probably from previous, more extensive EB work, and it sucks.

OK, enough for today. I simply can’t stand any more.

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About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy working at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.
This entry was posted in "Prosauropoda", Dinosauria, Douglas Adams, Plateosaurus, rants, Sauropodomorpha. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Bloodbath part 2: more outrageous stupidity in the EB Illustrated Science Library series

  1. Pingback: 2011 dinosaurpalaeo in retrospective | dinosaurpalaeo

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    Good thing we have Wikipedia. So very, very much more accurate and informative than EB on such topics.

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