Er…How about Mink-tailed Muntjac with Marfan’s?

19 December 2007

Okay, I’m going on record in defense of our favorite AP word-smith, science writer Seth Borenstein.

In a nice blogpost on Indohyus, [the sexiest new raoellid on the block] Brian takes Borenstein to task for some awkward animalian analogizing:

writer Seth Borenstein can’t seem to figure out just what Indohyus is. His confusion is apparent from the first line of the article;

It sounds like a stretch, but a new study suggests that the missing evolutionary link between whales and land animals is an odd raccoon-sized animal that looks like a long-tailed deer without antlers. Or an overgrown long-legged rat.

Borenstein scrabbles1 to lump Indohyus in with some modern animals in a feeble attempt to get people to understand the fossil find, but I can’t help but wonder if such a comparison does more harm than good.

As I noted in a comment on Brian’s blog however, Borenstein cribbed his ungainly comparison from the lead author on the Indohyus paper Hans Thewissen, at least in part:

“The earliest whales didn’t look like whales at all,” Thewissen said. “It looked like a cross between a pig and a dog.” They lost their legs and ability to walk on land about 40 million years ago, he said.

And the Indohyus? “A tiny little deer maybe the size of a raccoon and no antlers,” Thewissen said. He said it most resembles the current African mousedeer, which has a rat-like nose and “when danger approaches, it jumps in the water and hides.”

Sure, maybe it’s a misleading oversimplification to cast the cetacean ancestry debate as a war between the “racoon-deer campus” and the “hippo campus2.” Sure, trying to shoehorn every strange animal into this or that familiar category or combo of categories is a dubious (though longstanding and universal) habit. But, as long as we’re not ‘calling whale evolution into question’ hey, I’m pretty happy.

Sometimes, words just fail. Good thing we have Carl Buell. Check out Buell’s awesome reconstruction on Laelaps.

1 – Note the awesome verbing of the word “scrabble”.
2 – sorry.

One Response to “Er…How about Mink-tailed Muntjac with Marfan’s?”

  1. Zach Miller Says:

    How about: “Behold the picture above. I can make no intelligent comparisons of this fossil animal to a modern mammal. Again, look at the picture. That’s what it looks like. Language is the ultimate abstraction.”

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