ANOTHER UPDATE: 22/09/2014: Read this.
Mickey Mortimer) was revealed amidst a furore of academic and media swirl: Spinosaurus c. 2014 has not met the warmest reception from the palaeontological community. A sceptical tone, sometimes very openly so, can be seen in numerous articles from the first popular science write-ups to articles penned by professional palaeontologists. As we all know by now, the primary concerns centre around Ibrahim et al.'s (2014) new Spinosaurus aegyptiacus reconstruction, which Brian Switek describes as a 'hodgepodge [of] different dinosaurs... the new subadult skeleton, digital representations of the original and long-lost Spinosaurus bones, vertebrae and hands that may or may not belong to Spinosaurus, as well as replacement parts from an assortment of spinosaurs'. Allegations have been made that scaling errors are responsible for the unusual new bauplan rather than an unprecedented lifestyle, with the allegedly tiny legs being far more proportionate once the scaling problem is addressed. These undermine the credibility of the furthest reaching claims of the authors - theropod quadrupedality and a lifestyle/locomotory strategy akin to early whales. Two widely shared and commented blog articles on this topic over at Scott Hartman's Skeletaldrawing.com have cast enough doubt over the new reconstruction that the Spinosaurus 2014 authors publicly responded to the criticism, but the reply is really just a holding message. Other than pointing out well known problems of measuring images rather than fossils (which, to be honest, are unlikely to produce the large scaling problems levelled at the paper), the message is essentially 'all will be clear in an upcoming Spinosaurus monograph'*.
*For what it's worth, I took five minutes to measure up the new Spinosaurus skeletal restoration myself following Nizar Ibrahim's measuring instructions for dorsal vertebra 8, just to see if I could make head-or-tail of the debate. Differences in measuring landmarks were chalked up as being a potential problem, so I measured the ilium and femur blind to other methods, instead using whatever landmarks were most intuitive. For both the ilium and femur lengths, I arrived at almost identical scaling errors to Scott, and the legs should - according to the data in the paper - be c. 25-27% larger in the reconstruction. Something - the original measurements of the specimen or the reconstruction - just doesn't add up, and I suspect the latter, as I figure someone would have owned up to and corrected simple numerical errors in the paper by now. My working is below.
|Independent test of the alleged hindlimb proportion issues in the new-look Spinosaurus. Skeletal reconstruction from Ibrahim et al. (2014); see Skeletaldrawing.com for the posts inspiring this test, especially this and this.|
The response to the Spinosaurus reboot is of some interest. Controversial, questionably-supported claims are made in palaeontology all the time, but they don't get the online palaeontology community anywhere near as riled as Spinosaurus has in the last seven days. Ibrahim et al. (2014) clearly hit a nerve, perhaps because they have inadvertently created a 'perfect storm' for scientific backlash.
At the heart of the storm is a data vacuum about Spinosaurus - an odd state to be in seeing as we're now meant to have a good idea what it looked like. The main discussion about Spinosaurus in the last week has been methodological: that is, trying to figure out how the new reconstruction has been put together. This is because the paper lacks essential details concerning how the 'hodgepodge' of spinosaur bits were scaled to size or identified as Spinosaurus aegyptiacus in the first place. In skipping these details readers are left guessing - and discussing - how the proportions were ascertained and whether they are trustworthy. That people would want to know this was predictable: you can't propose a radical notion like a famous theropod being a semi-aquatic quadruped, even converging on whale ancestors, without academics, enthusiasts and dinosaur nerds wanting to know more. While the paper does have plenty of good data, it lacks transparent methods and discussions where it counts, leading readers to make their own tests and discoveries. Lest we forget, people like talking about dinosaurs online at technical levels, and it's only natural that blogging software and social media is being fired up to discuss these revelations. It's quite likely that there'd be less fuss made if the paper stood on sounder methodological ground but, ultimately, controversy sells, in part because the continual uncovering of new information and scientific debate makes for good copy.
Compounding this effect is the star of the show: Spinosaurus itself. By now, Spinosaurus has to be one of the most popular dinosaurs of all. It's the one widely known theropod to have a size advantage over Tyrannosaurus, has starred in a couple of big movies and documentaries, is undeniably cool looking, is a bit 'alternative' as dinosaurs go... for lots of reasons, it's a major dinosaur celebrity. Even among po-faced academics, the sheer size and unusual anatomy of Spinosaurs means most - probably even guys who work on brachiopods - find it a little bit more interesting than usual. Any publication on this animal is guaranteed a good amount of casual interest, but one where the animal is almost completely reinvented will send the online palaeontology community into overdrive. Did anyone else have to wait for the Science website to stop crashing when the embargo was lifted last week? I'd be interested to see how riled the internet palaeontology community got if someone questionably reconstructed a small ornithischian. For contrast, consider that the publication of another dinosaur with a radical lifestyle - the burrowing dinosaur Oryctodromeus - ruffled relatively few feathers when it was published, despite it's PR. I remember most discussion of it on the Dinosaur Mailing List concerning the formulation of its name.
Driving the storm is the considerable hype surrounding the paper, which bears little resemblance to traditional scientific press releases and is more akin to the launch of a summer blockbuster. 'Surrounding' is the right word, too, as tantalising glimpses of the new reconstruction were online weeks before the paper's release, foreshadowing the avalanche of 'official' art, articles, and videos which would follow. There are documentaries, a tie-in exhibition in Washington DC, press conferences and lectures. You'd think Spinosaurus and its wranglers were rock stars. I mean, can you name one other palaeontological PR event which needs dry ice?
The popular side of this release has been a resounding success, which - whatever you think of science being spun as a media event of this kind - is certainly well earned. In concert with National Geographic, Ibrahim et al. (2014) have put on a very slick, professional show with some wonderful art and graphics, and they've certainly made it difficult to miss. But publicity can be polarising, not to mention difficult to steer. It seems the PR for Spinosaurus 2014 has somewhat backfired in the palaeoblogosphere, the conspicuous, sensational nature of the story encouraging interested minds to investigate and test, and ultimately question the findings at the core of the hype. I expect the extensive publicity surrounding a widely-questioned paper also brings a faint sense of irritation to some, prompting them to advertise the fact that the conclusions are not as watertight as the documentaries, exhibition and magazine covers indicate. Whereas other studies with problematic conclusions would slip away into the literature to be discussed within the closed confines of scientific journals, Spinosaurus 2014 cannot hide easily: the advertising and publicity for this paper is keeping the controversy relevant and prompting more responses. I do wonder what National Geographic, presumably footing the bill for all this press work, are making of the frosty scientific response to Spinosaurus 2014.
Between the data vacuum of a radical new proposal, a megastar fossil animal and persistent reminders of a controversial study, it's hardly surprising that the online palaeo community has spent the week giving the Spinosaurus reboot a good grilling. What does the future hold? With the promise of a Spinosaurus monograph, we can be sure that there will be more discussion eventually, but, more realistically, the next major ripples will follow response papers. Some authors are already in talks about this and - given what's been demonstrated online already - there are strong cases to be made against the main hypothesis of the Spinosaurus reboot. Is a rebuttal article appropriate with another paper on the way? Yes, entirely, because we have to work with data which is available and test the hypotheses presented to us. In this case, the new-look Spinosaurus and the many implications made about its habits have been quickly questioned - deemed irreproducible, even - by a number of scientists, and this should be 'formalised' as a genuine concern about the initial paper. The upshot, of course, is that the eventual monograph will have to take this into account, which should make for a stronger publication, and hopefully an improved understanding of Spinosaurus itself.
I can't help think that there are a few causalities from the last week, not least being the good new data in Ibrahim et al. (2014), such as Spinosaurus weirdly tetradactyl feet, unusually short femur and dense bones (Ibrahim et al. 2014). What do these mean, in light of the hindlimb scaling controversy? Is the long first toe more to do with spreading weight than creating a flipper? Are the thickened bone walls more to do with relocating the centre of gravity than swimming? There are interesting discussions to be had there, but they've been overshadowed by other details. Also, scaling issues or not, I imagine the 'dachshund' Spinosaurus is here to stay for a while, so we can look forward to having to downplay confidence about the new reconstruction of Spinosaurus for the foreseeable future. It's very doubtful that the press will be interested in a story about the uncertainty over a new paper, nor is National Geographic likely to replace the legs on its Spinosaurus model with question marks. This is a constant bugbear of working within science of course: the media is interested in new and exciting discoveries, but has virtually zero attention span for scientific debate.
Finally, is there anything to learn from this? For me, the message is that while publicity is largely about presenting conclusions and results, we can't just assume our audiences are passive. Particularly if you're discussing a fan-favourite species (and let's face it, 'fans' here includes a good number of vertebrate palaeontologists), people remain just as interested in what you've done as what you conclude, and omitting those details leaves papers, and those associated with them, vulnerable to misunderstandings and criticism. As demonstrated this week, even the combined might of Spinosaurus and its PR campaign is not immune to this: when the world's largest theropod took a bite out of the Internet, it was bitten right back.
- Ibrahim, N., Sereno, P. C., Dal Sasso, C., Maganuco, S., Fabbri, M., Martill, D. M., Zouhri, S. Myhrvold, N. & Iurino, D. A. (2014). Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur. Science, 1258750.