A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift

By Jonathan Swift

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The skulls and especially the dentitions of creodonts and carnivorous marsupials are so different from those of true carnivores that it is relatively simple (at least for the specialist) to tell creodont and marsupial sabertooths from “true” sabertooth cats. However, the similarities between more closely related sabertooth groups can be so detailed as to lead specialists to mistaken interpretations of their affinities. For example, members of the extinct carnivoran family Nimravidae – now known to be different from, and only distantly related to, the true cat family Felidae – converged so closely with the latter that they were long considered to be just a subfamily of the felids.

It is likely that we will discover many new sabertooth species in the fossil record; we probably already know most if not all of the major groups. Our knowledge has grown enormously since the first recognition of sabertooth fossils in the early nineteenth century, thanks to the systematic search for and excavation of fossil sites. Although many of the early Sabertooth findings of fossils were a consequence of lucky chances, the current rate of discovery is based on a more precise knowledge of how and why fossils originate.

But according to modern classification, mammals are part of a larger “natural group” of vertebrates, the synapsids. This group happens to include mammals and some reptiles, such as the therapsids or mammal-like reptiles, and the pelycosaurs, such as the famous sail-back Dimetrodon of the Permian. But it certainly does not include all reptiles, so it is not strictly a category “above” that of the class. Why, then, should we apparently break the rules of scientific nomenclature and talk about groups of animals that don’t conform to the classic boundaries of the vertebrate classes?

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A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift
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