Thursday, August 6, 2009

Maybe a Dino Ate Your Baby

Dinosaurs Sinclair baby
Paleontologist Dave Hone, who writes one of my favorite paleoblogs, Archosaur Musings, is in the news this week for a paper he wrote with Oliver Rauhut of the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology in Munich. The hypothesis they put forward is that theropods likely preyed upon juveniles much more than full-grown adults. It makes a lot of sense to me - predators go for easy meals, and I don't look at Edmontonia or Styracosaurus or Anatotitan and think "fast food." Hone and Rauhut also bring up the fact that compared to today's mammalian megafauna, large dinosaurs probably reproduced in much greater numbers - as evidenced by the nesting colonies of large herbivores we've found, or the egg sites of sauropods (which are more like those of sea turtles, indicating they didn't rear their young). A sure way to ensure the survival of your genetic material is to make a whole lot of it, something we see in all sorts of extant species. The greater number of babies hanging around, the greater the opportunities for predators.

This view is, of course, at odds with fantasies like T. rex squaring off against a snorting, dust-kicking Triceratops bull. Again, we are held down and forced to consider the idea that the more spectacular exercises of our imaginations may not be plausible. I would argue that this is just another example of why we "set childish things aside." Once we drop the idea that the natural world is there to perform a pageant for the entertainment of Homo sapiens, we take a step closer to developing a more profound (and I would argue, much more entertaining) appreciation of the world and our place in it.

I just started this blog (though for a few months I did weekly dino posts at Gentleman's Choice), and maybe have brought this up twice, and I already feel like I'm endlessly harping on it. I also feel like I endlessly harp on dumb science reporting, so...

Scientific Blogging writes,

"The 21st century has been a real disappointment for Tyrannosaurus Rex, by far the most famous dinosaur. Not even recent finds of slightly bigger, and maybe even more terrifying, species like Giganotosaurus could dent the aura of "T-Rex". But if 'The King' turns out to be just a baby killer the party may be over.
Yes, the party is over. You'll see T. rex suddenly disappear from coloring books and place mats and cartoons. Heartbroken kids will dump their lovingly painted models in the rubbish bin! They might even spit on them! It will be like the deep pain I felt when one of my heroes, Sergeant Slaughter, did the unthinkable and switched to the Iraqi side during the first Gulf War. Trust me, it was not pretty! I'd also like to know where they got the idea that Giganotosaurus was "more terrifying." I don't think a relatively small difference in size would make Giganotosaurus or Spinosaurus much more terrifying than T. rex. Despite the few feet of difference, my level of unease would be about the same in the presence of any of the three.

The last sentence in the excerpt annoys me as well, the "just a baby killer" part. Or, as the Telegraph's headline reads, "Tyrannosaurus rex 'picked on baby dinosaurs and ate them whole'". These just smack of anthropomorphism. I guess I'm nitpicking here. It's not the worst science reporting I've seen. At least the stories give a bit of space to quotes from Hone. Science reporting is probably a thankless job, especially in today's journalistic environment. I'm sure there's pressure to amplify things, to give John and Jane Public a single, quickly sketched image of the story before they click the animated ad next to it, and are suddenly enrolled in an online college.

Also, I had a sort of watershed moment this week: I commented on an Archosaur Musings post, an honest question, and recieved a thoughtful, illuminating answer from Hone. This is the first time I've ever asked a question of a scientist and gotten a response. Let me tell you, it's cool. If you think I'm not slapping myself for taking so long to figure out how great the internet can be as a source of scientific learning... trust me. I am. On to more catching up...

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