Like my previous two Tales of Prehistoric Life books, Pterosaur Trouble and Ankylosaur Attack, the intention on Plesiosaur Peril was to create a readable, age-appropriate storybook that both looks real and also reflects the genuine science on these animals and their habitat to the greatest possible degree. I had wonderful support in the goal of accuracy, both from my editor Valerie Wyatt and from the good folks at Kids Can Press (see this post for an epic example).
Our science consultant—paleozoologist Darren Naish—was absolutely critical to my attempt at scientific accuracy (or given all the unknowns, scientific plausibility) on both Pterosaur Trouble and Plesiosaur Peril. Naish was involved in both books from the first steps, consulting on both the character designs and the story elements. I sent Darren rough plot outlines and shopping lists of activities, behaviours, and interactions that I pictured for the story. He gave me detailed feedback, drawing upon the knowns of the fossils record (all too few!) and the plausible inferences that are made currently by those who study the fossil evidence.
To give readers a window into this behind-the-scenes process and a chance to deeply explore the behaviours of plesiosaurs, Naish has posted a lengthy reflection on these weird and wonderful marine reptiles over at his Tetrapod Zoology blog at Scientific American:
What about the biology, behaviour and lifestyles of these amazing animals? Invaluable studies of jaw biomechanics, tooth form and stomach contents give us insights into what and how plesiosaurs ate, and on how they collected and processed their food (Massare 1987, Taylor 1987, 1992), and some extremely interesting ideas on breathing and olfactory behaviour have been proposed (Cruickshank et al. 1991, Buchy et al. 2006). Trough-like feeding traces preserved on an ancient sea floor provide possible data on plesiosaur foraging behaviour (Geister 1998), and the amazing discovery of a proportionally enormous baby preserved within the body of its mother has given us substantial food for thought as goes the reproductive biology and social lives of these animals (O’Keefe & Chiappe 2011) [see the links below for more on those discoveries and what they might mean].
In general, however, we of course know very little about plesiosaur biology and behaviour, and I’d say that most questions we might ask can only be informed by inference: by extrapolating or guessing based on what we see in living reptiles and other animals. Remember that, when it comes to interesting questions about the behaviour of long-extinct animals (especially weird ones without precise modern analogues), we’re always constrained by a frustrating lack of information.
He continues with a Q&A discussion adapted from our back and forth emails about one of my behavioural shopping lists. I might add here that the comment thread following Naish’s already fascinating discussion has itself developed into a rather spectacular conversation regarding plesiosaur behaviour. I’ve written in the past that there are very serious limits to the degree to which non-expert skeptics can weigh in on areas requiring scientific domain expertise. One of the reasons is that much of the cutting edge knowledge in any field is not available to non-experts at all. Unpublished but critical information may be shared informally for years before it reaches the public—who may not, of course, be qualified to understand it in any event. You’ll see some of that invisible literature in the comment thread.