On Surprises

I love surprises. Which is unfortunate for me, because I am extremely bad at being surprised. And it’s hard to be surprised by things as you get older, and as easier access to more and more information becomes available to us every day.

But boy, when a surprise comes along that actually takes me by surprise, what a thing to be able to savour.

An extraordinary painting of Yi qi by Emily Willoughby, CC-BY.

So, enter Yi qi. In many ways, it’s hardly a surprise at all ā€“ numerous artists produced wonderful speculative art about scansoriopterygids predicting membranous wings and/or gliding abilities, and there was even this neat hypothetical Archaeopteryx ancestor that I found in a paper a few years ago. At the time, I wrote on Facebook: “I had not realized that a bat-winged proto-bird was an idea that was on the table!”

(I also wrote, “I like his smirk, lack of neck, and skinny skinny tail”, and I agree with Past Victoria about all of those things.)

While Yi qimight not really be a proto-bird, it’s still an amazing discovery that shows there was a lot of experimenting with flying and gliding going on back in the Mesozoic, which is perhaps unsurprising, given that lots of disparate groups of animals use gliding to their advantage today ā€“ fish, frogs, rodents, marsupials, dermopterans, you name it. And yet, even though there’s lots of precedent for gliding vertebrates, and others had predicted something kind of like Yi qibefore, I was still genuinely shocked when I saw the paper and press images. What a great feeling.

What I love best about Yi qi, apart from it’s extremely meme-able name, is that it’s a great example of maybe what I’ll call an ‘expected surprise’. A surprise that, as soon as you see it, it seems so obvious and like it should have been there all along. It’s like the opposite of a failure of imagination. Surely there is a long German word that captures this specific emotion? What other expected surprises are lurking out there in our futures? What things have we speculated on today, dismissed as being way too out there to take seriously, and yet will pop up as really-for-real things later on?

I guess I need to get to work on some ankylosaur speculative biology! Maybe we’ll find the real Yee?

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