Today, like many others, I heard the news about the potential dinosaur which has just been described and may be the oldest yet known. Nyasasaurus parringtoni lived around 15 million years before the previous oldest dinosaur, Eoraptor, though N. parringtoni may not be a dinosaur, but even if it isn’t it is clearly very closely related. But that’s not exactly what I want to talk about, so if you want more details, some of the press releases can be seen here, here and here. The paper itself is free to read, which can be found here.
I encountered this information in the Metro newspaper, which had this article on page 19. I love seeing palaeontology in the news, so when the reporting is a bit naff it really bugs me (Science Daily often causes me to rant, so expect many more posts like this in the future). I don’t go looking for errors, they are to be expected, for example the dinosaur’s name should have been in italics, but to complain about that from a free newspaper would just be pedantic.
The first thing to note is not a scientific complaint, but just look at the image below, which is found on every press release, and tell me who the artist is. Yep, it is some guy called An artist. Many newspapers just take images without paying the artist, and sometimes they don’t even bother to credit them. Palaeoartists don’t make a lot of money off of their work, so to not even credit them is rather disgusting. Thankfully the website does correct the error by crediting Mark Witton (a friend of mine) and if you want to know more about how the image was produced, see his blog about it here, as it adds an extra dimension to the picture.
Nyasasaurus parringtoni, with Stenaulorhynchus in the background. Image pilfered from Mark Witton (got to make sure I’m not a hypocrite).
But anyway, the short article manages to make a rather silly claim. The second paragraph states that the discovery of Nyasasaurus “may force us to rip up the scientific textbooks”. But why? Very few textbooks mention early dinosaurs, and those which do will simply need some slight revision for any future editions. It simply extends our knowledge of dinosaur origins, whether it is a dinosaur or a dinosauriform. No paradigm shift is needed, no textbooks need to be ripped up, but some reporters need a slap on the wrist. It is needless sensationalism which just paints a poor picture of science. The public often have this strange view that scientists completely throw out entire theories for new ones, but such an occurrence is rare. On a smaller scale old ideas give way to the new, but this is part of the refining nature of science. This article makes it sound like everything we knew about dinosaurs and their evolution was utterly wrong, which is pure nonsense.
The textbook claim was my major quibble, but the title bugs me too (even the grammar). We have an interesting fondness for “firsts”, often talking about the first person to achieve an amazing feat, and palaeontology is no stranger to this. But in evolution it does not really make sense to talk of something as being the first, except perhaps as the first known. The title asks if Nyasasaurus was the first dinosaur to roam the Earth, but evolution occurs gradually in populations, so there is no single first dinosaur, and from a population perspective it makes no sense to talk of a first dinosaur population when it would have been barely distinguishable from the ancestral population. Just a slight change in words can have huge implications, so journalists reporting on science need to be careful.
It really is an interesting bit of news, filling in the gaps in our knowledge of early dinosaur evolution and how they fit into the Triassic alongside many other cool beasts (the crurotarsans are worth looking at). Most of the press coverage seems to be good, but the Metro has let us down with this one.