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Homophobia in the paleontological community?

August 12, 2013
Khaan mckennai specimens reffered to as "Romeo and Juliet". Putting aside the godawful ignorance about the play's point, there's no traits in the specimens that assign them to a specific gender.

Khaan mckennai specimens reffered to as “Romeo and Juliet”. Putting aside the godawful ignorance about the play’s point, there’s no observed traits in the specimens that assign them to a specific gender. People literally just saw two specimens together and decided it was an heterosexual mating pair.

One thing’s great about science: it only cares about accurate results. Nothing else matters: your religion, your race, your gender is nobody’s concern, so long as you follow proper procedures, conduct ethical experiments and not clouding your results with bias. White, straight men still happen to be the more famous and visible faces of modern paleontology, but many of the more field changing discoveries still rightfully belong to female paleontologists like Teresa Maryańska, whose Gobi desert expeditions have offered our first understanding of asian pachycephalosaurs. And, as with all sciences, it’s international reach pretty much grants representations by most cultures and ethnicies; my own home country has it’s own share of voices, most notably Miguel Telles Antunes.

Paleontology is particularly beneficient in that it is relatively invulnerable to political meddling; aside from the studies on human ancestry, there is no major government interest in affecting paleontological studies negatively. After all, the conclusions about an ornithocheirid specimen from the Cambridge Greensand are very unlikely to damage or boost the Prime Minister’s career – as oposed to, say, research on fossil fuels -, so the brittish government won’t bother to affect pterosaur studies in any way, besides maybe cutting funds if they feel like it. Only creationists enjoy a capacity to cause damage to paleontological studies, and their range of influence is thankfully relatively minor in the western world, only affecting the aforementioned human ancestry studies.

So, if paleontology is not only pragmatic and inclusive in relation to gender, culture and ethnicy, but also generally unaffected by non-creationist political meddling, why am I making a post about a form of prejudice, homophobia, being present in the paleontological community? Sadly, because it found a way, as usual.

Hide The [Paleontologist] Lesbians

Franz Nopsca, an infamous hungarian paleontologist (and nobility) who shot himself and his lover. Throught his life, the Baron had struggled with his sexuality, which he considered "unnatural", a tragically ironic conclusion that could have been avoided if there weren't scientific biases against the study of animal sexuality back then.

Franz Nopsca, an infamous hungarian paleontologist (and nobility) who shot himself and his lover. Throught his life, the Baron had struggled with his sexuality, which he considered “unnatural”, a tragically ironic conclusion that could have been avoided if there weren’t scientific biases against the study of animal sexuality back then.

Because science is again pragmatic and result focused, paleontologists are best known for their research; in theory, it’s a meritocratic affair, with the individuals being more famous the more groundbreacking their studies are. And, as with all meritocratic affairs, personality comes second to work: Robert T. Bakker has more limelights due to his research than he does due to being a pentecostal, for example. In theory, at least, it’s a fair system that encourages a focus on the actual subject than the researcher: you can be honest and open about yourself, so long as you are both competent and productive.

In theory. In practise, this tends to be rather arbitarily and hypocritically enforced. Putting aside employment practises and discrimination, how much visibility a researcher gets is variable. Some, like the aforementioned Bakker, are key components of the paleontological community’s public perception, but other researchers with just as much productivity and groundbreacking research are outright shoved into the background, like Kristina Curry Rogers, who is to Titanosauria what Bakker is to Morrison Formation theropods, yet rewarded far less. This is why, despiste the number of female paleontologists out there, they are obscure enough to need posts like this to gain the recognition they deserve. For a system that supposedly congratulates the inovative researcher, it sure attempts to not be such.

This, of course, leads us to the obvious, unconfortable conclusion: homosexuality is a taboo among paleontologists. Most LGBT researchers are not particularly open about their sexuality, and while it’s hard to demonstrate homophobic pressure, as it stands their visibility is reduced to an extreme minimum. Perhaps the best barometer of this is none other than Baron von Nopsca, to whom we owe the first understanding of the Hateg Island dwarves, early hypothesis about dinosaur sexual dimorphism – albeit rather erroneous -, early studies on the bird-dinosaur connection, and perhaps even the concept of palaeobiology, yet he is very, very sheldomly listed among the paleontological pioneers of his time. You’re more likely to hear about his murder-suicide than his relevance in his field, a bitter reversal of what being a scientist should entail.

Lets pretend it doesn’t exist in Nature

At the very least 30% of albatross couples are female/female. When was the last time you heard people talking about similar percentages in pseudodontorns?

At the least 30% of albatross couples are female/female. There’s no reason to think similar numbers wouldn’t have occured in extinct archosaurs, yet all discovered [supposed] mating pairs are reffered as heterosexual, with various levels of contrivance.

Homosexuality is overwhelmingly present in nature, being recorded in basically all types of multiple-sexed organisms, from fruit flies to cetaceans. Birds in particular have had their same-sex mating behaviour well documented: entire seagull and waterfowl colonies/flocks have been registered to be composed of female/female pairings and male/male pairings respectively, which in at least some forms like black swans may reflect an unusual yet successful breeding strategy, as same-sex pairings may be able to protect and provide for the chicks more effectively than “straight pairings”, as for some undiscernible reason “cheating” appears to be less common. The passerines known as cocks-of-the-rocks have been reccorded to have as much as 40% of their sexual activity to be between males, while some individuals don’t even bother touching females; these are birds that have gone through the same sexual selection procedures as ungulate mammals, developing extreme sexual dimorphism to supposedly drive away members of the same sex and attract females, and yet they “delight in homosexuality”. Same with ostriches, same with birds-of-paradise, same with peafowl. Mallards, the infamous rapists of the avian world, not only have been documented treating other drakes the same way they treat hens, even down to “gang banging”, but also engaging in homosexual necrophilia; homosexual necrophilia has also been reccorded in swallows and frogmouths. And, of course, there’s the famous male/male penguin, flamingo and vulture couples in zoos all over the world.

With so many cases of homosexual behaviour among living dinosaurs, you’d think the dead ones were also this… diverse. Yet, as far as most researchers are concerned, all dead dinosaurs were “straight”: all “couples”, or even specimens found in seemingly non-agressive poses, are reffered to as heterosexual mating pairs.

The most infamous and downright ridiculous example are the two specimens of Khaan mckennai known as “Romeo and Juliet”. This fossil, two skeletons of the oviraptor species found in extreme proximity of each other, are the species’ holotype (IGM 100/1127), and not only have been interpreted as a “couple” on extremely loose grounds (they were found together and weren’t fighting; that’s the reason why they’re called “Romeo and Juliet”. I guess the Messel Pit was a massive inter-species orgy then), but are considered male and female on every looser grounds. There are literally no traits in the holotype that favour one gender over the other.

In extinct ornithodires, sex is generally determined either by extreme sexually dimorphous structures, like the crests of pterosaurs, or by two main “subtle” features: the pelvis cannal, which is supposedly wider in females, and femur medullary bone, present in females; both are features adapted for the production of eggs. We do know that the former may be of some help – Darwinopterus does have clearly female specimens, one of them preserved in the process of laying an egg, with wider pelvic cannals, while troodontids and oviraptors do show rather extreme pelvic cannal widths can may be reasonably attributed to different genders -, but it is frequently subjected to error, as the cannal’s width in consistency to the animal’s sex is hard to predict except in extreme examples; this is why Sue’s actual gender is something of a controversy, as tyrannosaur pelvis cannal widths are more difficult to accurately estimate than previously thought. Medullary bone tissue is of more help, as it is indeed only significantly observed in females during egg production. Only three major medullary bone samples have been obtained from non-avian dinosaurs, from Tyrannosaurus rex, Allosaurus fragilis and Tenontosaurus tilletti; “Romeo and Juliet” currently remain untested for medullary bone, and the pelvis bone widths have not been accurately measured either.

On other words, they truly are just two random Khaan assumed to be an heterosexual mating pairing based on close proximity.

Not only we have thus forced and arbitary gendering, we also have something of a strange agression towards non-“heteronormative” (i.e. heterosexual pairings and polygynous lekking) breeding strategies. Just witness the bile thrown at “Evolution of classical polyandry: three steps to female emancipation” (Malte Andersson, 2005), a paper that [very briefly] suggests polyandry in non-avian dinosaurs. If we are to believe some of the responses, male Triceratops forming harems and forcing intercourse on females is “normal”, while theropod females defending brooding several males brooding their cluthes like modern jaçanas is “unnatural”, “falsetious” and “unscientific”. What?

We know that in oviraptors and troodontids the males – or at least morphs with absurdly narrow pelvic cannals – were the sole incubators of the eggs, much like in modern ratites. At least a few specimens may also bear another adult as well, yet these have been dismissed as “potential heterosexual mating pairs” without further study on the animals’ pelvic width or medullary bones. From the looks of it, adult females or at least animals with wider pelvic cannals have not been reported in association with nests, which may very well mean that these specimens may be homosexual pairings. A potentially revolutionary discovery, not only casually dismissed, but outright “straight washed”.

If I can’t see it, it does not exit, henceforth it is unnatural

So, we have LGBT researchers shoved into the background and direct erasure. We have basically the worst “indirectly hostile” factors for homophobia widespread and accepted in the paleontological community. Lack of visibility is the main factor in the prevalence of homophobia, far more so than “propaganda” and violent statements, as the still immense ignorance towards animal same-sex sexual behaviour still shows. Lack of visibility also leads to the lack of ressonance, which increases the already cancerous feeling of isolation. This ignorance and these feelings led to the violent death of Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás, a man who had no religious reasons for his murder-suicide, but a tragic lack of understanding that his feelings were not ill or aberrant.

The irony is all too bitter.

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