Tag Archives: dinosaurs

Ferrets are not rodents


A ferret

Certain misconceptions just won’t go away. While some of them may be virtually harmless, like how a lot of people mistakenly believe Dimetrodon is a dinosaur(it is actually a synapsid, see my post “I don’t eat dinosaurs” for more info), some can have real world consequences on policy and how we live our lives.

One of the more annoying misconceptions I encounter when it comes to the animal kingdom is the idea that ferrets are rodents. I can’t count how many times someone has told me or I’ve overheard someone say “I could never keep a ferret as a pet, they are rodents!”(whether or not true rodents make good pets is beside the issue of this post).

Ferrets are not rodents, they are members of the glorious mustelid or weasel family. Mustelids belong to the large order carnivora, which means they are actually more closely related to other members of carnivora like dogs, cats, and bears than to rats and mice. What ferrets and other mustelids do have in common with rodents is their common mammalian heritage, which would also make them distant relatives to humans.

Yet this kind of ignorance persists, even though it is so easy to correct by merely looking it up online. Why does this misconception matter? There are often local, and state laws against keeping ferrets, and this kind if ignorance can influence policy. It can also affect the attitude some people have toward this animal, or their close relative the badger, which is getting treated like a pestilence in the U.K these days. See articles below for more info on this subject.

Other members of the mustelid family include minks, polecats, and wolverines, the largest and most ferocious of mustelids. Skunks used to be classified as mustelids, but recent genetic evidence has lead to them being reclassified in a closely related group. Don’t worry, skunks have been doing okay since reclassification; they are especially good at stinking up my neighborhood at night.


So this misconception has far more profound implications than thinking Dimetrodon is a dinosaur. Sure, the toy section at the local pharmacy may put the toy Dimetrodons with the dinosaurs, implying it is a dinosaur. Truth be told, Dimetrodon(or “cousin Dimi” as I affectionately call him sometimes, since Dimetrodon is more closely related to us than to dinosaurs) was not a dinosaur and went extinct long before the dinosaurs roamed the earth, but no one is harmed by this.

Other misconceptions that bother me, like Sikhs being thought of as Muslims, or people thinking Turks, Persians, and Pakistanis are Arabs are also disturbing, but that would require another post or two.

Related articles:

1) Dorset Calling!

2) The Badger Cull – Putting Pressure on the Supermarkets

3) Badger Cull – What’s the point?

4) So most farmers support the badger cull? Erm, no actually, they don’t.

I don’t eat dinosaurs

T._rex_old_postureAs a vegan, I am often asked about my diet. If I am in a “monophyletic” kind of mood, and in the company of science enthusiasts(or people I wish to annoy), I will explain that besides not consuming any mammals, or fish, or dairy, that I do not eat dinosaurs as well. Most people take this as a joke. “Well of course you don’t eat dinosaurs, neither do I, they’ve been extinct for 65 million years!”.

While it may sound like a joke, I am being totally serious, since this is just another way of saying that I don’t eat poultry. Birds are in fact dinosaurs, being part of the dinosauria clade if we consider dinosaurs as a “monophyletic” group based on modern cladistics. “Monophyletic” means a group that includes an ancestral species and all its descendants. Since birds are descended from dinosaurs, they are in fact dinosaurs and it is scientifically accurate to describe them as such. These days, most biologists tend to see monophyletic groups as being more valid than “paraphyletic” groups, which are explained below.

When most people talk about dinosaurs, they talk about dinosaurs in a “paraphyletic” sense(there really is nothing “wrong” with this in colloquial usage, since most people aren’t biologists). This means all the descendants of an ancestral group minus one or more groups. Hence the traditional definition of “dinosaurs” is inherently paraphyletic since it excludes birds. Indeed, many common definitions of various taxonomical groups are paraphyletic.

This may seem needlessly pedantic and semantic, but it is enlightening to know how various life-forms evolved and how to classify them by relatedness. It also means that the phrase “all dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago” is not entirely accurate, since one group of dinosaurs did survive, the ancestors of modern birds. It would be more accurate, as well as bombastically pedantic to say that only non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago.

If you eat any poultry, like chickens, ducks, or geese, it means you are eating dinosaurs. This doesn’t mean it is ethically wrong to do so, but if you’ve ever wondered what a dinosaur tastes like, now you know. Maybe its not such a coincidence that so many animals, often reptiles like snakes, are said to “taste like chicken”.

If anyone reading this wants a cool new shiny monophyletic label to go by, if you’re bored of calling yourself a “primate” or “mammal”, or if you want to reinvent yourself, you can call yourself a “synapsid“. Synapsids(in the original, paraphyletic sense this referred to primitive mammal-like reptiles that were transitional between reptiles and mammals) include mammals like humans and an awful lot of long extinct species that are not mammals. As a synapsid(which means “fused arch” in Greek), you come from a storied lineage.

Not only are our synapsid ancestors among the few groups that survived the mass extinction event that killed off the non-avian dinosaurs 65 million years ago, they also survived the earlier, and even more catastrophic mass extinction event that took place 252 million years ago, an event which marked the end of the Paleozoic era and the beginning of the Mesozoic era(the “Age of the Dinosaurs”). It is considered the largest mass extinction event in all of earth’s history, wiping out 90% of marine species, and 70% of land species(it was around this time that all the continents were all part of one big super-continent called “Pangaea” before drifting apart to their present locations). It sounds almost like a tautology, but we’re all descended from the few better-adapted survivors of these cataclysms.


Dimetrodon. Source: Public domain.

A famous example of an ancient synapsid, and distant relative, is the Dimetrodon. This large, sail-backed, lizard-like creature is often mistakenly thought of as a dinosaur, but it isn’t. It is actually more closely related to us than to dinosaurs. It flourished about 40 million years before the Mesozoic or “dinosaur” era.

Evolution shows us that we are even related to dinosaurs, and reptiles, since we are all amniotes(which includes synapsids, dinosaurs, and reptiles). This means we share a common ancestor with some of the non-mammal animals we eat about 340 million years ago.

So go out there and embrace your new synapsidhood or amniotehood. Take it for a test-drive like it’s a new porche. It’s always good to try to see ourselves from a different perspective, you never know what you will learn. Just don’t become a “synapsid supremacist”.

So no, I do not eat dinosaurs or any animals. Vegetarians, by definition, do not eat any chicken, or fish, or dinosaurs(there seems to be a lot of confusion over whether or not vegetarians can eat chicken). I have no problem with being a synapsid, and neither should you. Isn’t evolution fun?

Related articles:
Dinosaurs extinct, why not freshwater life?