Riley 🏴‍☠️ Skeleton Keys! @Laelaps Distant cousin of T. rex. Author of My Beloved Brontosaurus, Written in Stone, & Skeleton Keys! Blogs @sciam. Aka Brian Switek. Genderfluid, they/them. Mar. 29, 2019 4 min read

There is so much that’s suspicious about this @NewYorker story that my bullshit alarm is going off at full blast.

@SteveBrusatte is already on this, but wow... this is someone with a severe case of Bakkeritis trying to fast track fame. 

DePalma contacted me prior to the publication of Dakotaraptor - just like Preston - wanting me to come out for a hushed discovery and to receive some dinosaur casts. I refused , particularly because of the lure of gifts. That’s conflict of interest territory and a definite 🛑.

This is the stuff that makes paleos immediately wary. Dressing and like acting like Indiana Jones or a pulp novel caricature of a paleontologist, releasing conclusions to the press first before there’s a paper or peer review. And here’s the @NewYorker going “Sensational!”

(Although, DePalma clearly learned from the most visible people in the field. There was no paper behind Horner’s “T. rex is a scavenger” argument, and Bakker was all about theatrics whether there was any research or not. This is the same impulse turned up to 11.)

Apparently there is a paper, and it’s underwhelming. And it seems it doesn’t mention any of the brow-raising finds supposedly made.

So this is what happens when @NewYorker gets taken for a ride. I liked Tyrannosaur Canyon but Douglas Preston is far from an experienced science journalist (Dinosaurs in the Attic came out in ‘86!) in this area and easily led along by not knowing wtf he’s being shown.

The story itself mentions DePalma is a bit shady, but it only feeds this underdog narrative that was apparently more important to the editors. “Shady” is a mild way to put what’s going on here.

Here’s the official press release. Even the opener makes me heartilt. 

The Western Interior Seaway had largely drained off the continent by the end of the Cretaceous. What was left were comparative puddles.


I just had a look at the paper. If you’re hoping for a dinosaur graveyard, ha, no.

Fish may or may not have choked on impact debris and seismic activity - perhaps triggered by the impact - might have caused local disturbances that buried the plants and fish at the site.

As @SteveBrusatte already pointed out, the feather, the mammal, the burrow... all that stuff is nowhere to be seen.

The paper also crams a lot into one space, involving geochem, seismology, taphonomy. It’s a lot of claims in a small space, which makes me want to look again.

So why does any of this matter? There are a few points.

@cricketcrocker pointed out how stories like the @NewYorker piece erase Indigenous people and their culture through a focus on Indiana Jones type adventure (look who wrote the article, after all):

This is also about how science gets done. What oversight exists -or doesn't- at private land sites. Where the fossils go. Who controls access, relevant to testing previous results.

This has shown up in court, in regards to another ballyhooed find: 

It also involves how science is communicated to you. DePalma basically did an end run around the embargo lift to get the hyped version of the story to a broad audience before anyone could review the claims. "K-Pg fish pile" isn't as headline-grabbing as "DINO KILLER TIDAL WAVE."

This isn't a new thing. "T. rex was a giant scavenger" *(Horner) and "Duckbills sonic blasted their enemies" (Bakker) are both examples of this. Go to the press, get your fame, let the academics argue while the public goes "Wowwww."

And we've seen this before. Remember Ida? The Link? The fossil that was supposed to be the key to our backstory but only... wasn't. 

It's probematic when personalities become platforms of authority to just say whatever to get attention - and book deals, and documentaries, and museum attendance... - only to have those stories overturned and the public go "Wait, but I thought you said..."

Maybe I'm a little cynical, but I feel like the "Hey, wait a second..." reaction is pretty much limited to the science and scicomm communities. Whatever criticism or critique we offer will not reach as far as the original, fantastic claims. I'm not sure how to change that.

It relies on people actually giving a damn, digging in beyond "Will this move copy." That's part of doing actually journalism rather than storytelling. Looking at you, @NewYorker.

One more thing: the site can’t document “the day the dinosaurs died.”

Dinosaurs aren’t dead (hi birds!)

The K/Pg extinction was global and played out over millennia. Nonavian dinos didn’t just fall down worldwide when the asteroid struck

It’s unclear how fast the site formed

You can follow @Laelaps.


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