February 28, 2011
Last week, paleontologists Michael Taylor, Mathew Wedel and Richard Cifelli announced an instant dinosaur sensation: Brontomerus mcintoshi, the “thunder-thighed” dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous of Utah. All around the web, the sauropod was seen punting a large, feathery raptor in Francisco Gascó’s wonderful restoration. But the debut of Brontomerus was not a one-shot announcement left to fade after the initial run of news reports. Using their SV-POW! blog, study authors Taylor and Wedel have opened up public discussion about the dinosaur.
Taylor and Wedel’s first follow-up was a detailed response to questions raised by other scientists about the dinosaur. Paleontologist Jim Kirkland, who was directly involved in the excavation and preparation of the Brontomerus fossils in the 1990s, questioned numerous aspects of the new paper, and its authors responded in detail. Normally these kinds of discussions take place behind closed doors, but scientific arguments about Brontomerus have spilled over from e-mail to Facebook to blogs. For non-paleontologists, this is a rare look at the kind of scientific debate that often follows publication. A scientific paper is not a distilled piece of knowledge that can be put on a shelf somewhere. It is just an initial step in scientific debate.
The second supplementary post looked at the weird hip shape of Brontomerus. The original paper contained an illustration comparing the hip of the dinosaur with other sauropods, but the direct overlays of the hips in the blog post highlight the expanded portion of bone for muscle attachments that gave Brontomerus thunder thighs. As Matt Wedel himself writes in the post, “I like the kick in the brainpan that these overlays provide.”
Further posts about Brontomerus are planned for the SV-POW! blog, and I have to applaud what Taylor and Wedel have done. This is science communication done right. All too often new discoveries filter through press releases into news reports, but here two of the paper’s authors are directly engaging with their peers and the public. In addition, Mike Taylor put together a brilliant press package on his website, providing hi-res images, video, and a fact sheet of what the paper does and does not say. Should this kind of outreach come with every scientific paper? No, but if you’ve got a wonderful new dinosaur or other prehistoric critter that’s sure to get attention from the press, I think what Taylor and Wedel have done serves as a good model for how scientists can directly engage with reporters, peers, and dinosaur fans.
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