The Plesiosaur and the Mainstream Media

ABC News has in interesting article on the finding of two new species of plesiosaur in Australia. Overall, the article isn’t bad, but there are a few problems with it.

The finds date to about 115 million years ago with one of the species being transitional between older species living around 175 MYA and younger species living around 65 MYA:

Opallionectes was also a plesiosaur, but much larger about 20 feet long with masses of fine, needle-like teeth for trapping small fish and squid. Its name means “the opal swimmer from Andamooka.”
“It’s a missing link between older forms (species) of the Jurassic period found in England about 170 million years ago and the much younger ones found in Antarctica and Patagonia which are about 65 million years old,” Kear said.

Could we please, please stop with the missing link crap?
Kear elaborated a few paragraphs later:

“These species fill a time frame not represented in the world. There are older (fossils) from Europe and younger (fossils) in North America and not much in between. We have the missing pieces in the puzzle.”

But that’s a minor quibble compared to a paragraph later in the article:

Colin McHenry, paleontologist at the University of Newcastle, said the discovery “was not a revolutionary find that overturns our ideas of what’s gong on” but would help scientists better understand the period from 140 million to 90 million years ago.

It seems like science stories in general and evolution stories in particular are frequently cast as “revolutionary finds that overturn our ideas”. Which is odd, because the idea is the evolution of life. So even if it would have been something radical, it would have affected our theories about how plesiosaurs evolved but not what we know about the processes of evolution (unless it was a Cambrian plesiosaur). So what was the point of the comment (seems like an odd one for a scientist to volunteer, so I wonder if McHenry wasn’t responding to a question)?

6 Responses

  1. And why, oh why,are they completely unable to report on plesiosaurs without mentioniung Nessie?

  2. I don’t know, but the linking of science with pseudo-science irks me…

  3. Coturnix, why Nessie? Because most people wouldn’t know what a plesiosaur is without some kind of reference. The article is written for a general audience, not just us science geeks. It’s harmless, and remember, the author wrote: “Plesiosaurs are popular in science fiction and are said to resemble Scotland’s MYTHICAL Loch Ness monster.” That’s a pretty strong qualifier.
    As far as this “revolutionary finds” deal, is it really just the journalists to blame? Scientists tend to hype the importance of their discoveries just a little, or at least the university press machines do. But overall, yes, I think it’s best reporters be a little cautious about such claims.

  4. ps. My question is why can’t reporters write any dinosaur stories these days without mentioning Jurassic Park.

  5. Mentioning Jurassic Park also irks me, mentioning Indiana Jones sends me into a full blown hissy fit…

  6. Nessie and Jurassic Park serve as pointss of reference. Erroneous points of reference, but points of reference. That is all. Imparting to either greater significance only serves to occupy time that can be better used.

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