Do I Get My Dinosaur or Not?

December 1, 2013 11:01 p.m.

So did scientists discover ‘soft tissue’ from a T-Rex that died 68 million years ago? And when am I going to get my pet dinosaur?

TPM Reader DM takes up the discussion after the earlier cold water from TPM Reader DF

I have to take issue with a couple things that DF said in the blurb you posted in the editor’s blog. I am a micropaleontolgist/paleoclimatologist, so like DF, I don’t have a dog in this fight, to use another taxonomically challenged metaphor. But I have also followed this particular story since the original articles, and have found the back and forth rather fascinating. I agree completely with DF that the latest study is not a confirmation, as we desperately need an outside group to replicate these results. But there are a couple things to keep in mind here.

First, when the original article was published the immediate response of a large chunk of the community was to just scoff it off as bad science. I even heard a few less generous individuals whisper that it could potentially be fraud. And how could this possibly make it through the peer review system. Etc., etc. People don’t say that any more. Some 8 years have gone by since the original announcement, and while most people seem to be skeptical; there is much more effort on what they are actually looking at than just discounting the results. There have been numerous suggestions. Contamination. Bacterial Biofilms. A lot of papers have been published on the subject (50 citations as of today). But none have really proven conclusive either. So we are still left with this question of, what is this stuff. Obviously it is real. So is it dino flesh? Again, as someone who has always focused on microfossils, I don’t know. But I listen to my colleagues in the vertebrate world, and there is some interest. But until someone can come up with a definitive alternative explanation, this idea isn’t going to go away.

Second off, there are other groups that think they have found preserved organic remains, although none quite as sensationally as a T. rex. One recent example from 2011 (Edwards et al. 2011, Infrared mapping resolves soft tissue preservation in 50 million year-old reptile skin, Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences) found what I think is a fairly convincing argument for 50 million year old preserved skin. Granted, that is 18 million years younger than the proposed T. rex, but if something as delicate as skin can survive, why couldn’t something like bone marrow survive deep inside a giant dinosaur’s femur, for example? So it isn’t just the one group that is mysteriously finding all this organic material. Other groups are finding it in other sites as well.

Third off, DF seems all too eager to discount any results from this group, which is rather unfortunate. He pulls out one example of the proposed phylogeny, and because it is certainly unexpected, he is willing to throw out the whole study. Maybe their phylogeny is wrong. It probably is. Does that mean, suddenly, that their claim to have found organic matter is suddenly suspect? Of course it doesn’t. I know (with the benefit of hindsight), that some of my previously published papers have incorrect interpretations in them. As new evidence arises, my interpretations adapt and change; but that doesn’t mean my original data was wrong.

Fourth, I have to take strong objection to DF’s claim that this sort of science somehow detracts from the other ‘important’ science, and I am very glad you already touched on that point. As someone who has published on a number of mass extinction events, I get what DF is getting at. My work will never end up on HuffPo, and I will probably never be contacted by the AP for a media story, but it is still important. Sometimes it would be nice to get that pat on the head occasionally. But when it comes down to it, the sexy science keeps the public interested. So when the Congress proposes to axe the budget for NASA or the NSF, there is a public outcry. Not because they are desperate to hear more about the changing architecture of foraminiferal shells (the most amazing single celled creatures ever), but because they love dinosaurs. And stuff like Comet Ison. And those exciting, sexy sciences keep the money train moving for the rest of us. We recently got word that the International Ocean Discovery Program (formerly the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program) was just reauthorized by Congress, a program that is very important to me personally, not to mention possibly the oldest international scientific collaboration in the world that you have, unfortunately, probably never heard of despite proving plate tectonics. And no small part of that was because of the sexy side of it. There were numerous stories about it in the news recently because they were drilling near the Titanic. Did the science have anything to do with the Titanic? Of course not, they were drilling contourite drifts from the Paleogene to understand the advent of deep water formation in the North Atlantic 55 million years ago. But that isn’t what got the program in the news, into the public eye. It was drilling near the Titanic during the centennial of its sinking. Sexy science sells. Sexy science keeps the money flowing. Please keep reporting on all the sexy science you can find.

Last, and most importantly, both DF and I have been following this particular story for many years. And while the media coverage peaks and fades, the investigations continue. And this is what scientific disagreement looks like. It isn’t carried by political parties giving speeches. It isn’t held by making documentaries, or even scientists publicly yelling at each other. It is reasoned debate carried out through many experiments, replications, duplications, modified hypotheses, and papers. If you don’t think the conclusions made by a group hold together, you prove them wrong with your own work. But it is generally done respectfully, and through science, not through a megaphone.

Lastly, the paleoclimate part of me, the part that has spent the last decade studying the effects small changes have on the global ecosystems, wants to just say that climate change should scare you. Not apocalypse scare you of course, because as a species we will pull through just fine (albeit likely with major disruption, both of the political and military variety). But the animal life as we know it won’t, and things are going to change. You can count on it.

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