June 27, 2012
Last Friday, the United States government captured a tyrannosaur. The scene was more Law & Order than Jurassic Park. The million-dollar Tarbosaurus skeleton was seized in an ongoing legal dispute about the origins of the dinosaur and how it was imported to the United States. To date, the evidence suggests that the giant Cretaceous predator was illegally collected from Mongolia (a country with strict heritage laws), smuggled to England and then imported to the United States under false pretenses, all before a private buyer bid more than a million dollars for the skeleton at auction. (For full details on the ongoing controversy, see my previous posts on the story.) Now that the dinosaur has been rescued from the private dinosaur market, I can only hope that the skeleton is swiftly returned to the people of Mongolia.
But there’s one aspect of the dispute that I haven’t said anything about. Heritage Auctions, press releases and news reports have been calling the illicit dinosaur a Tyrannosaurus bataar, while I have been referring to the dinosaur as Tarbosaurus. Depending on who you ask, either name might be correct. Embedded in this tale of black market fossils is a scientific argument over whether this dinosaur species was a “tyrant lizard” or an “alarming lizard.”
Paleontologist Victoria Arbour recently wrote an excellent summary of this issue on her blog. In general appearance, North America’s Tyrannosaurus rex and Mongolia’s Tarbosaurus bataar were very similar animals. They were both huge tyrannosaurs with short arms and deep skulls. Unless you really know your dinosaurs, it’s easy to confuse the two. But there are a few significant differences between Tyrannosaurus rex and Tarbosaurus bataar.
In 2003, paleontologists Jørn Hurum and Karol Sabath counted the ways the two dinosaur species differed [PDF]. The most obvious is in the top-down profiles of the tyrannosaur skulls. The skull of Tyrannosaurus rex looks much more heavily built and flares out abruptly at the back, while the skull of Tarbosaurus bataar is narrower and doesn’t have the same degree of expansion at the rear of the skull. A more subtle difference is the shape of the lacrimal bone, which made up the front part of the eye socket and was also part of the dinosaur’s skull ornamentation. In Tyrannosaurus rex, the top portion of the lacrimal has a concave shape, but in Tarbosaurus bataar the same portion of bone is domed. And as Arbour mentioned in her post, the arms of Tarbosaurus bataar are proportionally shorter compared to the rest of the body than in Tyrannosaurus rex—so there are three quick ways to tell the dinosaurs apart.
As Arbour noted, the two dinosaurs definitely belong to different species. As it stands now, the two appear to be each other’s closest relatives. The question is whether they should be two species in the same genus—Tyrannosaurus, which was established first and has priority—or whether each species belongs in its own genus. That decision is influenced as much by a paleontologist’s view of how prehistoric animals should be lumped or split into different taxa as anything else. Some prefer to call the Mongolian form Tyrannosaurus bataar, and others view the tyrannosaur as a very different animal rightly called Tarbosaurus bataar. As you might guess, my vote is for Tarbosaurus.
Like Arbour, I suspect that Heritage Auctions advertised the dinosaur as a Tyrannosaurus to get more attention. Tyrannosaurus is the essence of prehistoric ferocity, and putting a Tyrannosaurus up for sale—rather than a Tarbosaurus—will undoubtedly gain more attention every time. In fact, we know that celebrity has a lot to do with why the legal dispute over the auctioned specimen erupted in the first place. There were other Mongolian dinosaur specimens for sale on auction day, such as a rare ankylosaur skull, but almost no one paid any attention to these specimens. The nearly complete Tarbosaurus was a vacuum for media attention, and it was the most powerful symbol of the rampant fossil smuggling problem. But this isn’t necessarily bad. Perhaps, in time, one outcome of this high-profile case will be to keep other, less charismatic dinosaurs from winding up in the homes of affluent private collectors.
Hurum, J.H. and Sabath, K. 2003. Giant theropod dinosaurs from Asia and North America: Skulls of Tarbosaurus bataar and Tyrannosaurus rex compared. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 48 (2): 161–190.
May 15, 2012
I wish I could take dinosaurs away from the media for a while. Someone certainly should. Lazy journalists and unscrupulous documentary creators have amply demonstrated that they just can’t play nice with Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops and kin.
In the past month and a half, we’ve seen aquatic dinosaur nonsense resurface in shoddy news reports, a brief media invasion of hyperintelligent alien dinosaurs and stinky stories about dinosaur farts, not to mention the bizarre creationist/extraterrestrial conspiracy-theory mashup on Ancient Aliens. I’m almost surprised that this glut of utter dreck wasn’t followed by reports of dinosaurs who used their noxious flatulence to propel themselves through space. To paraphrase the immortal words of Ozzy Osbourne, it would seem that dinosaur news has gone off the rails on a crazy train.
And the distortions keep coming. The sci-fi and science news aggregator io9 just drew on a ceratopsid misunderstanding I thought had been left behind two years ago. Yesterday afternoon Ed Grabianowski posted an article titled “Everything you need to know about the scientific controversy that could destroy Triceratops.” The article was meant as a quick survey of recent, and quite controversial, research about whether the horned dinosaurs called Torosaurus and Nedoceratops are really more mature forms of ol’ three-horned face, Triceratops. The general idea is that the solid, rounded frill of Triceratops changed shape and developed two large holes, called parietal fenestrae, relatively late in life, when the dinosaur hit skeletal maturity. What were previously considered to be three different dinosaurs might actually just be three growth stages of the same genus.
Whether this was truly the case is a matter of debate. And while Grabianowski produced a fair review of the research, the post repeated the hyped—and entirely wrong—idea that paleontologists might soon be sinking Triceratops. “If you cried over the sick Triceratops in Jurassic Park, or just loved this horned dinosaur as a kid,” Grabianowski wrote, “there’s one scientific controversy you need to understand right now—it’s the one that may wind up demonstrating that Triceratops never existed.”
Here’s the thing. Triceratops is totally safe. It’s only the dinosaur die-hards who adore Torosaurus and Nedoceratops who have anything to worry about. I covered this two years ago, when the publication of the first paper in this ongoing debate kicked off a wave of ill-informed hysteria. (Although I must say that the Triceratops-Pluto shirt design was pretty cool.)
If—and I emphasize if—Triceratops, Nedoceratops and Torosaurus turn out to be growth stages of a single dinosaur, then the name Triceratops has priority. Paleontologist O.C. Marsh named Triceratops in 1889, and he followed that with the first description of Torosaurus in 1891. Nedoceratops is a newcomer name for a single skull that has been given many monikers over the past century; A.S. Ukrainsky coined the name in 2007. Given the taxonomic arcana that govern the proper scientific names for organisms, Triceratops would remain the proper name for the dinosaur since it was established first.
(“Brontosaurus” was put to bed for the similar reasons. Brontosaurus is a synonym for a dinosaur O.C. Marsh named earlier—Apatosaurus—and paleontologist Elmer Riggs recognized this state of affairs more than a century ago. But Brontosaurus still has a great deal of cultural cachet because museums, books, documentaries, writers and paleontologists keep reminding everyone of the name change. Brontosaurus still lives because we keep reminding people that it didn’t really exist.)
No matter what happens, Triceratops isn’t going anywhere. What we think we know about the dinosaur’s biology might change, but the classic name will stay. I pointed this out on Twitter shortly after the io9 post appeared, and, to io9′s credit, science editor Analee Newitz quickly changed the headline and introduction. I appreciated the speedy edit. The body of the post was a good summary of the argument as it presently stands, but it was painful to see the same “ZOMG, THEY’RE TAKING AWAY TRICERATOPS!” myth used to frame the article.
I’m thrilled that dinosaurs are so popular. Discoveries are coming so fast and furious that it is almost impossible to keep up, and a new wave of cultural dinomania seems to be swelling. That’s why I get so frustrated by misrepresentations of what we’re actually learning about dinosaur lives. We don’t need embellishment—whether it’s teasing us with the false threat of a beloved dinosaur’s disappearance or the idea that sauropods farted themselves into extinction. The wonderful resolution we’re gaining into dinosaur biology and evolution is best communicated simply, directly, and without having to find some snarky or inaccurately comedic hook that ends up distorting what we actually know. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that scientists sometimes play this game, too. Chemist Ronald Breslow tried to use armchair speculation of space dinosaurs to give an otherwise mundane paper a little spice—a ham-fisted and ill-executed grab for attention that I sadly saw some other writers agree with. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?
Of course, I realize that simply shaking my fist in the air and frustratedly growling “Do better!” isn’t going to fix the problem. There are seemingly innumerable internet news outlets, and never enough professional science writers, so it’s all too easy for dumbed-down churnalism and other misconstrued reports to richochet around the web. Maybe we’ve seen the last of dinosaur farts and space tyrannosaurs, at least for a while, but places like the Daily Mail, FOX News, and the various outlets that pass off barely modified press releases as news will undoubtedly come up with another headache-inducing hook in the not-too-distant future. If it’s not too much to ask, though, I’d like it if the usual suspects gave it a rest. Dinosaurs are amazing enough without the sensationalism.
April 27, 2012
When I first heard the news that paleontologists had discovered a giant, fuzzy tyrannosaur, I was giddy with excitement. The dinosaur, dubbed Yutyrannus, was a confirmation of an idea that researchers and artists had been cautiously exploring for years. While most of the feathered dinosaurs discovered so far have been very small and often quite bird-like animals, Yutyrannus was a roughly 30-foot-long bruiser which showed that even huge predators might have sported fluffy plumage. And if an imposing predator like Yutyrannus sported a fuzzy coat, the same might be true for the theropod’s notorious cousin, Tyrannosaurus rex. The tyrant king may not have been the wholly scaly monstrosity I grew up knowing, but an apex predator decorated by patches of simple protofeathers.
Not everyone shared my enthusiasm. “Tyrannosaurs were supposed to be scaly,” came the cantankerous cry from die-hard fans of more reptilian dinosaurs. Why are paleontologists so committed to destroying the fantastic imagery Jurassic Park embedded in our cultural landscape? Across the web, tyrannosaur traditionalists registered their displeasure. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen!” mourned one WIRED commenter, and elsewhere, Yutyrannus was presented as a “fuzzball” and “chicken from hell.” And while the outrage was not as great as when people mistakenly believed that paleontologists were trying to kill Triceratops, at least some dinosaur fans lamented the increasingly avian aspect of tyrannosaurs.
Paleo blogger Mark Wildman recently jumped in with a post titled “In Defence of Scaly Dinosaurs.” He was sad to see yet another proud dinosaurian lineage turn fluffy. “Those of us who like our dinosaurs scaly appear to be frowned upon,” Wildman wrote, “as if we don’t know what we are talking about and that we really ought to ‘get with it’ and rejoice that the dinosaurs are covered in fuzz and feathers. Well that isn’t going to happen—certainly not by me and, I am sure, not for many others.” And to dapple Tyrannosaurus with feathers would be the ultimate indignity. Citing the awesomeness of Tyrannosaurus in Dinosaur Revolution, and how silly the feathery Gigantoraptor looked, Wildman challenged readers: “Do you really want the ultimate theropods, the megastars of the dinosaurian world—the tyrannosaurs—displaying colourful yet gaudy feathers and dancing like a demented turkey cock?”
I actually wouldn’t mind a strutting tyrannosaur, even though I admit that Dinosaur Revolution‘s Gigantoraptor sequence was a little over the top. And none of this is to say that Wildman objects to the evidence of feathered dinosaurs. He makes it quite clear that he’s entirely on board with the science. All the same, his post and other comments about how Yutyrannus has somehow ruined tyrannosaurs made me wonder about why it is so fashionable to register cranky displeasure with the way dinosaurs have changed. Some people just don’t like feathery dinosaurs, many wept and wailed at the false assertion of journalists that Triceratops might disappear, and “Brontosaurus” still stirs up strong feelings among those who grew up with the thunder lizard. It’s cool to show contempt for new discoveries in favor of the dinosaurs we grew up with. Before I knew the extent of the evidence, even I felt a little sad that so many of the scabrous, ugly dinosaurs I met as a kid were turned into pretty peacocks.
I can’t explain why this is so any more than I can explain why we adore dinosaurs in the first place. I don’t think anyone has successfully articulated why we’re so enthralled by these creatures. But I think Mike Brown identified one important thread in his book How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming. When Pluto was officially demoted from planet to dwarf planet, many people objected to the loss of one of our solar system’s icons. Brown recalled:
In the days that followed, I would hear from many people who were sad about Pluto. And I understood. Pluto was part of their mental landscape, the one they had constructed to organize their thinking about the solar system and their own place within it. Pluto seemed like the edge of existence. Ripping Pluto out of that landscape caused what felt like an inconceivably empty hole.
Of course, Pluto didn’t actually go anywhere. Its title simply changed. But the alteration virtually obliterated the cosmic body in people’s minds. Might the same be true for dinosaurs? For those of us who grew up with scaly, swamp-dwelling dinosaurs, the new images of fuzzy dinosaurs are conflicting with the Mesozoic world as we think it should be. A Tyrannosaurus with feathers isn’t really a Tyrannosaurus, but a different sort of creature that doesn’t quite fit what we had in mind for so long. This tension is inevitable. There is so much that remains unknown that any vision of the past is certainly going to change. I have no doubt that, a few decades from now, children who grew up with feathery dinosaurs will lament how future generations of paleontologists are altering the picture of dinosaur lives.
April 4, 2012
Earlier this week, the rotting corpse of a discarded dinosaur idea rose from the depths. Brian J. Ford, a television personality and self-styled independent researcher, decided that Apatosaurus, Allosaurus and kin just looked wrong ambling about on land. Unfettered by the accumulation of scientific evidence about how dinosaurs moved and the environments they lived in, Ford decided to set scientists straight by floating an idea that had been sunk decades ago—that all large dinosaurs spent their lives in water. And, like the bad science it is, the idea strained to explain everything about dinosaur biology. Not only did the idea supposedly explain why non-avian dinosaurs went extinct—their watery homes dried up, of course—but the aquatic setting also explained the small arms of the tyrannosaurs. The great tyrants, Ford said, would catch fish and hold them close for visual inspection before downing the sashimi. Ford’s speculation is a buffet of nonsense. There is so much wrong with it, it’s hard to know where to start.
Ford certainly has a right to his opinion. The weight of the evidence absolutely crushes his ill-formed idea, but there’s no rule against making poorly substantiated claims on the internet. Heck, much of the web is sadly founded on such sludge. But I was taken aback by how many news sources not only took Ford seriously, but cast him as a kind of scientific underdog. In a BBC4 Today interview—which helped spread this swamp of insufficient evidence and poor reasoning—host Tom Feilden cast Ford as a Galileo-type hero, boldly defending his revolutionary idea while the stodgy paleontological community refused to budge from its orthodoxy. Despite Natural History Museum paleontologist Paul Barrett’s admirable attempt to set Feilden straight, the radio host concluded that Ford’s idea was a new and exciting notion, even though the image of wallowing sauropods was part of the old image of dinosaurs that had been cast out in the 1960s. As artist Matt van Rooijen highlighted in his latest Prehistoric Reconstruction Kitteh cartoon, it would seem that the old is new again.
Other news sources followed Feilden’s lead. At the Daily Mail, a source not exactly known for reliable science coverage, reporter Tamara Cohen recapitulated Ford’s argument. Paul Barrett again offered a dissenting view at the bottom of the article, but the article promotes Ford’s idea anyway. “Dinosaurs DIDN’T rule the earth: The huge creatures ‘actually lived in water’ – and their tails were swimming aids,” the headline gasped. Hannah Furness did much the same in the Telegraph, summarizing Ford’s statements at length before, in the last line, plunking down a quote from Barrett saying that Ford’s idea is nonsense. Elsewhere, FOX News and Australia’s Sky News ran a syndicated version of the story that followed the same form, and the Cambridge News didn’t even bother to get a second opinion on Ford’s work. But my favorite howler came from the internet-based TopNews, which concluded that “it had [sic] become all the more imperative that further research is done on [Ford's] theory so that some sort of conclusive findings can be presented.” No, it isn’t imperative at all. Ford’s idea is not even close to a theory, or even science. Ford’s evidence-free approach doesn’t make any testable predictions, and there is no actual scientific debate to be had here. Repeating “Dinosaurs look better in water” ad infinitum isn’t science, no matter how many journalists are enamored with the idea.
Paleontologists quickly jumped on the idea. Dave Hone and Mike Taylor called out Ford’s idea as old-school nonsense. Scott Hartman dug in at length in his post “When journalists attack!” and Michael Habib wrote a takedown of the bog-dwelling sauropod idea from a biomechanical perspective. And, earlier today, Don Prothero rightly cast the controversy as yet another media failure in reporting science. Prothero writes:
Once again, we have a glorified amateur playing with his toy dinosaurs who manages to get a gullible “journalist” to print his story with a straight face and almost no criticism. Feilden didn’t bother to check this guy’s credentials, consulted with only one qualified expert and then only used one sentence of rebuttal, and gave the story the full promotion because it was a glamorous topic (dinosaurs) and challenged conventional wisdom.
Poor reporting is entirely to blame here. “Amateur, armed with dinosaur models, says all of dinosaur paleontology is wrong” would be a more accurate way to cast the story, and seen that way, it isn’t really worth talking about. But it seems that merely having a controversial, unfounded opinion can be the price of admission for wide media attention.
This is hardly the first time poorly supported paleontology claims have received more attention than they deserve. While it was a minor event, in February io9 ran a story highlighting the unsubstantiated notion that the little pterosaur Jeholopterus was a vampiric little biter that supped on dinosaur blood. The author, Keith Veronese, was clear that the idea was not accepted by paleontologists, but he still romanticized the idea of an outsider rattling the academic cage. The paleontologists behind the Pterosaur.net blog refuted the vampire pterosaur idea and questioned the usefulness of promoting ideas that lack any solid evidence, though I have to wonder how many people found the specialist rebuttal.
And then there was the legendary hyper-intelligent, artistic squid. Last October, a number of journalists fell for the spectacularly nonsensical idea of a Triassic “Kraken” which supposedly created self-portraits from ichthyosaur skeletons. While veteran science reporters wisely avoided the hyped story, enough journalists paid attention that the hype spread far and wide through syndication. I tore into the nonsense, calling out what I believed to be terrible reporting, and I heard a lot of tut-tutting from my writer colleagues that I was unfairly bashing all of science journalism.
To which I wanted to ask “Well, where were you in all this?” I’m thrilled that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal didn’t parrot the fantastic claims, but the story was still copied and pasted to places like Yahoo!, FOX News, MSNBC, and elsewhere. The story was put in front of a lot of eyeballs, even if cherished journalistic institutions didn’t take part. While nonsense is proliferating, should we really feel smug and self-assured that we didn’t fall into the same trap? Don’t we, as people who care about accurately communicating the details of science to the public, have a responsibility to be whistleblowers when spurious findings are being repeated without criticism? I believe so. We all snicker and sigh as the usual suspects promote sensational claims, but I think it’s important to take that frustration and call out credulous, gullible, over-hyped reporting whenever it might bob to the surface.
July 6, 2011
In late 2009, paleontologist Paul Sereno and colleagues announced the discovery of a tiny Cretaceous tyrant. They called it Raptorex, and in a paper titled “Tyrannosaurid Skeletal Design First Evolved at Small Body Size,” the researchers who described the animal interpreted its anatomy as an indication that the big-headed, small-armed body plan of immense predators such as Tyrannosaurus and Albertosaurus first evolved in small bodies. But not everyone agreed that Raptorex truly was a unique, tiny tyrant dinosaur. After all, the specimen was originally sold at a fossil show as a juvenile Tarbosaurus, and a brief Nature News article published last autumn said that a different team of researchers were preparing a paper which identified Raptorex as a young Tarbosaurus. That paper, written by paleontologist Denver Fowler and colleagues, has now been published in PLoS One.
Fowler and co-authors point out that the status of Raptorex as a unique, small tyrannosaur depends upon two lines of ambiguous evidence. The first concerns the geologic age of the animal. The Raptorex skeleton—given the designation LH PV18—was purchased at a fossil show and did not come with detailed information about where it was found. Judging where the fossil was found and the age of the surrounding rock depended on tiny fossils included in bits of rock still stuck to the skeleton. Sereno and colleagues attributed the skeleton to the Yixian Formation, making it about 125 million years old, but Fowler and co-authors contend that the dinosaur probably came from geologically younger rock layers of the Late Cretaceous. If this is correct, and the Raptorex skeleton is not as old as had been hypothesized, then the dinosaur might not be an indication that trademark tyrannosaur traits evolved early and in small animals.
Raptorex may not have been a unique species of dinosaur, either. The original analysis presented the animal’s skeleton as that of a subadult or young adult, meaning that the dinosaur probably would not have grown too much bigger. Fowler and colleagues, however, argue that Raptorex was probably younger. LH PV18 may be the skeleton of a juvenile animal, which opens the possibility that the dinosaur called “Raptorex” is actually an immature growth stage of Tarbosaurus.
It may turn out that both sides of this debate are partially correct. Two months ago yet another team of scientists, led by Takanobu Tsuihiji, published a detailed description of a nearly-complete juvenile Tarbosaurus. The discovery of this individual allowed for a detailed comparison with other young tyrannosaurs, and the researchers included a section on Raptorex. After noting that juvenile tyrannosaurids often exhibit archaic traits—which may lead paleontologists to confuse immature animals for small, primitive species—Tsuihiji and colleagues pointed out that the Raptorex skeleton and their juvenile Tarbosaurus skeleton differed in some significant ways. In addition to a few minute skull features, the Raptorex skeleton is set apart from all other known tyrannosauroid dinosaurs in lacking a prominent crest on the upper part of the hip.
If the three traits mentioned by Tsuihiji and co-authors truly distinguish Raptorex from other tyrannosaurs, then it may be a unique species. It may turn out that Raptorex is the juvenile form of a large tyrannosaur species from which the adult is not yet known. Frustratingly, though, the PLoS One authors disagree with Tsuihiji’s group about whether the tiny crest on the hip—the most important of the differentiating traits on Raptorex—is present or absent. The paper by Tsuihiji and colleagues states that the crest is absent, but a personal observation by Peter Larson in the new paper is cited as evidence that a “subtle crest” is present. Fowler and colleagues agree that the Raptorex skeleton may represent a unique dinosaur taxon—a distinct genus or species—but, overall, the differences between it and juvenile Tarbosaurus are slight. At the very least, the idea that Raptorex was near adulthood and indicates that the famous tyrannosaur body plan evolved at small size is in doubt. Additional fossils with detailed geological data will be needed to settle this argument. For now, the tiny tyrant sits in paleontological limbo.
Fowler, D.; Woodward, H.; Freedman, E.; Larson, P.; Horner, J. (2011). Reanalysis of “Raptorex kriegsteini”: A Juvenile Tyrannosaurid Dinosaur from Mongolia PLoS One, 6 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021376
Tsuihiji, T., Watabe, M., Tsogtbaatar, K., Tsubamoto, T., Barsbold, R., Suzuki, S., Lee, A., Ridgely, R., Kawahara, Y., & Witmer, L. (2011). Cranial osteology of a juvenile specimen of Tarbosaurus bataar (Theropoda, Tyrannosauridae) from the Nemegt Formation (Upper Cretaceous) of Bugin Tsav, Mongolia Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 31 (3), 497-517 DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2011.557116