How to interpret the dinosaur study tearing the paleontology world apart

A fossil graveyard reportedly tells the story of the death of dinosaurs.
A fossil graveyard reportedly tells the story of the death of dinosaurs.
Image: Robert DePalma/University of Kansas
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In major dinosaur news, a study published this week announced that a newly discovered fossil graveyard shows the impact of the asteroid that struck Earth, destroying most living plants and animals, 66 million years ago. Many publications hyped this discovery as a “fossil graveyard,” and reported the study as offering proof that dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid impact, rather than declining before it hit Earth (which is an alternate theory for the end of the dinosaur era). This finding would indeed answer a major question in paleontology research.

“We’ve understood that bad things happened right after the impact, but nobody’s found this kind of smoking-gun evidence,” said co-author and Kansas University paleontologist David Burnham, according to The Independent. “People have said, ‘We get that this blast killed the dinosaurs, but why don’t we have dead bodies everywhere?’ Well, now we have bodies.”

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The truth of the study, though still exciting, is a little more complicated. Indeed, Burnham’s quotes were originally published in a Kansas University statement, but The Independent left off his next line: “They’re not dinosaurs, but I think those will eventually be found, too.”

Much of the media excitement is a result not of the study itself, which was published April 1 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), but a New Yorker article published March 29, ahead of the study’s embargo. The New Yorker had clearly worked on the story for months and, according to the New Scientist, reached an agreement with PNAS that it could publish early after another publication got hold of the study.

The New Yorker story contains many tantalizing details that aren’t actually included in the PNAS study—including, crucially, that researchers found dinosaur fossils at the site, located in the Hell Creek Formation in North Dakota. Whereas the article reports findings of dinosaur feathers, bones, teeth, and an unhatched egg complete with preserved embryo, the peer-reviewed study doesn’t mention any dinosaur remains, except for a brief reference in the supplements to one hip-bone dinosaur fragment. The author of the study and discoverer of the fossil site, Robert DePalma from the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History, told National Geographic the PNAS study is an introduction to the site and follow-up studies will have more details of the dinosaurs.

Several paleontologists, though, have expressed skepticism. “The weird thing is, DePalma has been very hyperbolic and cryptic for the last six years,” Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and an expert on the Hell Creek Formation, told National Geographic. “The paper is fine, and we can talk about its significance, [but we] have it paired with the New Yorker article, which has a lot more nuanced detail and a lot more claims. It just makes us all a little bit queasy.”

Other detractors are referenced in the New Yorker article, though several come across as envious rather than scientifically incredulous. Paleontologist Jack Horner, who had to revise his theory that the T. rex was solely a scavenger based on a previous finding from DePalma, told the New Yorker he didn’t remember who DePalma was. “In the community, we don’t get to know students very well,” he said. DePalma isn’t well known within the paleontology field, in part because he’s still completing his PhD.

Inevitably, a study of this magnitude will lead to both puffery and jealousy; scientists are only human, after all. Like all scientific discoveries, this finding won’t be proven by one isolated paper. It will take several peer-reviewed articles, and corroboration by other paleontologists, before the findings are accepted as indisputable proof that the fossil graveyard shows how dinosaurs die. The skepticism and discussion in response to the study aren’t a sign of error, though: that’s just how science works.