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.
March 15, 2012
Brachiosaurus used to hold the title of biggest dinosaur ever. I remember when, as a young dinosaur fanatic, books and documentaries told me that this long-necked dinosaur was the ultimate prehistoric titan. Then Supersaurus, Argentinosaurus and other super-sized dinosaurs came along and ruined all the fun. Even worse, paleontologists recently realized that we actually know very little about what Brachiosaurus really looked like.
In 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs described Brachiosaurus altithorax from fossils discovered in the 150-million-year-old Late Jurassic strata of western Colorado. The dinosaur, which Riggs believed to be the largest known, was represented by a huge humerus and assorted elements of the shoulder girdle, hips, hindlimbs, vertebrae, ribs and a few other miscellaneous parts. Despite the relative smattering of material, though, the proportions of the bones led Riggs to conclude that he had found a previously unknown dinosaur that was significantly larger than Apatosaurus, Diplodocus and other giants which lived at the same time.
Fossils discovered by German expeditions to Tanzania seemed to fill out the form of Brachiosaurus. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Late Jurassic deposits of Africa were believed to be roughly equivalent to those of western North America, and so dinosaurs discovered in Tanzania’s Tendaguru Formation were often assigned to genera known from the Morrison Formation of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. As a result, paleontologist Werner Janesch described partial skeletons and skulls of a large sauropod dinosaur from Tanzania under the name Brachiosaurus brancai. The fact that the material from Africa was more complete allowed paleontologists to get a better idea of just how big the dinosaur was—Brachiosaurus brancai reached over 80 feet long and may have weighed more than 25 tons.
But there’s a major problem with this approach. Paleontologists recently determined that the brachiosaurs from Africa and North America don’t actually belong to the same genus after all. Artist Gregory S. Paul noted differences between the two brachiosaurs in 1988, and in 2009 sauropod expert Mike Taylor confirmed that the two dinosaurs were different enough to warrant placement in separate genera. Furthermore, a skull fragment tentatively assigned to Brachiosaurus hints that the traditional picture of the dinosaur may have been skewed by reliance on fossils from Tanzania. While the North American form has retained its name, Brachiosaurus altithorax, the dinosaur from Tanzania is now called Giraffatitan brancai. Thanks to a name change, we know significantly less about Brachiosaurus than we thought we did.
Then again, a reevaluation of another Jurassic dinosaur skeleton may provide a rough idea of what Brachiosaurus looked like as a baby. In 2007, Daniela Schwarz-Wings and colleagues described a juvenile sauropod skeleton found in Wyoming’s Howe Stephens Quarry. This Late Jurassic specimen was designated SMA 0009, and was initially thought to be a young diplodocid dinosaur. But in a new paper published in Palaeontology, Schwarz-Wings, José Carballido and colleagues have amended their diagnosis. Additional preparation of the partial skeleton revealed that the dinosaur was not a close relative of Diplodocus and Apatosaurus at all, but was more closely related to Brachiosaurus.
Schwarz-Wings and co-authors refrained from assigning SMA 0009 to a particular dinosaur species. The fact that the animal is a juvenile confounds precise identification attempts—dinosaurs changed significantly as they grew up, and the traits seen in adult dinosaurs may not have been present in juveniles. Likewise, the revised idea that SMA 0009 is a brachiosaur makes comparisons difficult since paleontologists have yet to assemble a complete picture of an adult Brachiosaurus. Still, since the young dinosaur is grouped closely with Brachiosaurus, and Brachiosaurus was the only dinosaur of its kind present in the Morrison Formation, there is a good possibility that SMA 0009 is a young Brachiosaurus. Until someone finds more complete remains of this rare and enigmatic dinosaur, however, Brachiosaurus will remain a dinosaurian enigma.
CARBALLIDO, J., MARPMANN, J., SCHWARZ-WINGS, D., & PABST, B. (2012). New information on a juvenile sauropod specimen from the Morrison Formation and the reassessment of its systematic position Palaeontology DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2012.01139.x
RIGGS, E.S. (1903). “Brachiosaurus altithorax, the largest known dinosaur.” American Journal of Science (series 4) 15(88): 299-306.
TAYLOR, M.P. (2009). “A Re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropod) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensh 1914).” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 29(3): 787-806