Tuesday, March 18, 2008

An Edmontosaurus named Dakota


It's no secret that I find ornithopods extremely boring. Even the crested forms are, apart from their unique headgear, fairly vanilla. When "Dakota," a mumified duckbill, was announced last year, a media frenzy soon followed. Brian has covered this story in far more detail, and today he revealed to the masses that Dakota is...*drumroll please*...

An Edmontosaurus. No species name is given. This fossil has been known since 1999, its genus was just released today, and its species is still unconfirmed. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that it's E. annectens, a species known from North Dakota already.

I'm extremely confused by the media frenzy that's swept the nation over this mummy. Dinosaur mummies are rare, sure, but without any kind of study, there's not much to go nuts about. As Brian notes, it's curious that not a single peer-reviewed publication exists about Dakota, yet two books have been penned (one of them a kid's book, one an awful popular science book). The National Geographic channel has aired two specials about Dakota, too.

Dakota needs to be studied and published. As I mentioned to my father-in-law, the fanfare surrounding Dakota seems to be in reverse to the usual way things are done. That is, a fossil is found, a publication is prepared (sometimes years later), and a press conference is held very near the publication date. That way, both the public and the paleontologists get to have as much in-depth information on the new find as they want. But all we know for sure about Dakota is that she's an Edmontosaurus and that she's got some preserved muscle and skin.

Remember Leonardo? He was a virtually complete Brachylophosaurus with LOTS of fossilized soft tissue (including evidence for a thick, deep neck in duckbills) but didn't generate half the frenzy that Dakota is now kicking up. And now Brian tells us that Dakota might be taken on a whirlwind world tour, which is a horrible idea. That would further delay study of the fossil! It's almost as if the paleontologists who found Dakota (or, more cynically, the National Geographic Foundation) does not want Dakota studied until they've made a few bucks off her.

You know how movies that are "not screened for critics" are generally awful? I wonder if that's somehow the case here. Maybe Dakota is all smoke and mirrors, and her remains just aren't that great, but we'll never know, because apparently nobody can publish a paper on her!

7 comments:

Blue Collar Scientist said...

Thanks for this - I've had these misgivings myself, and you've expressed them more eloquently than I could have.

Emile said...

It's no secret that I find ornithopods extremely boring.

Hey, that ain't nice! Ornithopods have feelings too! :)

Oddly, I thought it had already been announced to be an Edmontosaurus from the start. Otherwise, yeah, this sounds like another ploy to make a quick buck.

Brian said...

I think ornithopods can be a bit neat, but then again I like bovids, too...

I am very disconcerted about the way the fossil is being hyped, especially since its scientific significance is continually being played up without any papers ending up in the journals. Unless they're planning on released one massive monograph, I don't know why there is such a delay.

Louis Bérubé said...

Hey! I'll shove you down Oryctodromeus' burrow for talking about Ornithopods like that.

Mike S said...

I think there are lots of things that make ornithopods and especially hadrosaurs important and interesting... consider the dental batteries, beaks, unique jaw mechanics, crests, preservation of integument, size and sheer numbers of associated specimens ( that go along way in establishing relative characteristics in ontogeny, sexual dimorphism, implied group behaviors, etc...

While focus and attention are usually given towards theropods and / or other sexy new finds, the truth is, that if there was some preservational bias that only allowed for the occasional, rare discovery of hadrosaurid material, paleontologists would be falling all over themselves, looking for more bits and pieces to uncover the "mystery" of duckbilled dinosaurs !

That said, it is unfortunate that "Dakota" ( however good or bad it may be, in terms of information ) is merely the subject of exploitation, rather than careful, scientific scrutiny and publication within the literature.

Nathan said...

Is it so bad to raise the money it takes to study a specimen properly, and then study it? What's the hurry?

Blue Collar Scientist said...

Nathan,

You don't normally need two books, two TV specials, and a flurry of press releases to "raise money" to study a specimen properly. In this case Manning apparently got money from a National Geographic grant to study the dinosaur, but he hasn't studied it, not even producing the barest of scientific results after nine years. I happen to think that is a problem.

As for the rush? That's just improper to suggest. It has been NINE YEARS. That's plenty of time to publish at least some basic science on the fossil, and far more time than it normally takes to publish results for similarly significant specimens (assuming we can trust the claims about Dakota being all that).