August 24, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Dinosaur Graveyards and Arctic Tortoises: Who’s Got the Context?

Science articles often go beyond the data.  A jumble of bones found on an island is boring; people want a story of what they were, and how they got that way.  Many scientists and reporters are only happy to fulfill that curiosity.  But are the stories they tell, usually presented as fact, the only way to interpret the context?

  1. Wight wash:  The Isle of Wight is “one of the most important dinosaur sites in the world,” reported PhysOrg.  On this British isle, a great variety of dinosaur bones and other species are found in a “chaotic jumble” showing signs of fire and drowning.  Something dramatic happened here, and two UK paleontologists are quick to tell their tale:

    “Rainfall occurred all year round but during the summer months, when temperatures soared to between 36-40°C, evaporation exceeded rainfall causing drought conditions.  At these times vegetation became parched leaving it vulnerable to fires caused by lightning strike.
        “Occasionally very heavy rain would follow electrical storms and wild fires causing flash floods.  These swept up all loose objects in their path, swallowed complete dinosaur skeletons and eroded floodplain sediments.  The more debris and sediment the water collected the thicker and thicker it became until eventually it was like mixed concrete.”

    Can this tale be untangled from the data?  According to one of the paleontologists, “On the Isle of Wight you get a complete muddle of the smallest fossils blended with the biggest, nothing quite like it has been seen anywhere else in the world.”  The article claims that the Isle of Wight once lay farther south at the latitude of Gibraltar.  The new study, it claims, “revealed” that “the island’s once violent weather explains why thousands of tiny dinosaur teeth and bones lie buried alongside the huge bones of their gigantic relatives.”  Why the violent weather, lightning fires, floods and concrete muddle did not happen on the mainland simultaneously was not explained.

  2. Arctic reptiles:  One does not normally envision alligators and tortoises roaming on Arctic ice, but according to Science Daily, these cold-blooded animals “thrived” there on Ellesmere Island 50 million years ago, despite being relegated to very little sunlight six months of the year.  University of Colorado scientists are certain they have figured it out.  Back in the Eocene, they surmise, it never got below freezing on Ellesmere.  It was a balmy forested swamp back then, like Louisiana.  It’s still a bit north, Dr. Jaelyn Eberle admitted: “the existence of large land tortoises in the Eocene High Arctic is still somewhat puzzling, said Eberle, since today’s large tortoises inhabit places like the Galapagos….”  Interesting that bowfin fish were also found mixed in with the fossils, which including a surprising assortment of animals like “giant tortoises, aquatic turtles, large snakes, alligators, flying lemurs, tapirs, and hippo-like and rhino-like mammals” in a “lush landscape.”  Interesting, also, that the paleontologists are concerned about coal miners disrupting the fossil beds.  Coal – in the Arctic?  Eberle managed to make her research politically relevant by describing the Eocene as a “a deep time analogue” to modern concerns about global warming.
  3. The early sponge:  In an attempt to show that animals started their emergence long before the Cambrian Explosion, some Princeton scientists have described traces in Australian rocks said to be 650 million years old as the first sponges – among the simplest of multicellular animals.  The BBC News shows the squiggly lines in rock from the Flinders Ranges as a kind of Rorschach test for visualizing animal life.  After all, based on Darwin’s tree, the Geologic Column and molecular phylogeny, sponges should have appeared about that time.  Problem is, we have no idea what they would have looked like.  Are they really animals?  A skeptical Aussie scientist described the traces as “coco-pop breakfast-cereal-like forms” that anyone could use to claim were the “oldest sponge-grade fossils.”

It’s doubtful many readers would be attracted to a story about a chaotic jumble of dinosaur bones, a chaotic jumble of reptile and mammal bones, and a chaotic array of lines in rock from the Aussie Outback.  Seeing into the bones, using them as a crystal ball to envision deep time, provides more satisfaction for scientist and reader alike.  Whether the data will bear such phantasmagorical scenarios is another question.

Try our interpretation: a global flood.  Why not?  If storytelling is the thing, that one has a lot going for it, including adequate mechanisms, eyewitnesses and a lot less special pleading.

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