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23Sep 2010

Lots of ink: Two bizarre (or, near normal for these guys) Ceratops horned dinos from Utah

Dinos in the news again, this time from the bountiful late-Mesozoic strata of Utah.  The  news follows a comfy, familiar, surefire plot - they're pretty big, very bizarre, and arrive in public with a colorful story of how these two new species of horned dinosaur were found and then exhaustively exhumed and analyzed. Best of all for reporters, editors, and art directors, the newsmaking institutions behind the discoveries provide colorful paintings of the parrot-beaked oversized rhino-like things with their  multiply horned muzzles, eyebrows,  and flaring frills of bone.

Do I sound jaded? I'm not. Love these guys. This is so in part because of the familiarity of the story. Just about everybody even half literate in North America for the last century-plus has shared an image, implanted in childhood, of dinosaurs with three main characters. There are A) big toothy biped meat eaters along the lines of T. rex, B) long necked giants with their icon the mis-named boneyard mash-up called Brontosaurus and now straightened out as Apatosaurus, and as in this case, C) the goofy rhin0-like fullback of a browser called Triceratops and its kin. Lesser actors include dim-bulbed armored dinos, duckbilled goofballs, velociraptor gangsters, etc., but A, B, and C are the mainstays.

The news is that in the journal PLoS One, prepared specimens of two new species of ceratops, named Utahceratops gettyi and Kosmoceratops richardsoni, have been recovered from 75 million-year-old sedimentary rock in a national monument in the southern part of Utah. Leaders of the analysis are at the Utah Museum of Natural History. The lead author is already a public figure - host of a PBS dinosaur program. Weird they are (the dinos, not authors). That word gets a workout in coverage. One has a really really big head, the other the most ornately frilled frill yet - like others in the family, presumably for sexual and other social signaling more than for fighting. So they say.

Stories:

  • Salt Lake Tribune - Mark Havnes: Scientists unveil new Utah dinosaurs ;
  • AP - Brock Vergakis: 2 new dinosaur species discovered in southern Utah ; Not long, and little context other than to mention Triceratops in the lede.
  • Bloomberg - Elizabeth Lopatto: Dinosaurs With 15 Horns, 7-foot Heads are Discovered in Utah ; Nice job by phone, with effort to explain why these interest the scientists - such as that the two species seem to have lived at about the same time, occupying roughly the same niche. on what was then a huge island or small continent.
  • National Geographic - Rachel Kaufman: Two New Horned Dinosaurs Found in Utah / Bizarre beast lived on an ancient "lost continent," experts say; Hmm. Nice enough job, but enough with the  "lost continent." This is not to pick on this writer. Several outlets use the term. It's right off the press release. But there is no explanation there whether ancient Laramidia can be called lost or why it merits quote marks. It was either lost or it wasn't . If the quotes mean so-called lost continent, reporters should feel no obligation to use it. Reporters would be smarter to see through it as a press agent's trick for stirring up interest by slyly evoking  The Lost World novel by Conan Doyle.  It's better called a former or vanished continent. Nobody ever had it and then couldn't find it. Atlantis is a lost continent but it's fiction. This one's rocks are all over the American West, full of bones and stuff. I supposed people sometimes call Gondwanaland and Laurasia lost continents too, but that's sloppy usage as well.
  • ABC (Australia) Annabel McGilvray: Horny find uncovers triceratops' ancestors ; Ms. McGilvray has it as a local story, of sorts, as one author is at an Australian university. She also says the land was on a lost continent, but without the dumb, qualifying quotation marks. Presumably she takes the meaning to be synonymous with former continent. She didn't write the hed, one suspects. One is confident neither of these was Triceratops' ancestor. One of them, maybe, but not both. Predecessors, relatives, okay.
  • BBC - Katia Moskvitch: Fossils of new species of horned dinos found in Utah ;
  • Guardian - Ian Sample: Horniest dinosaur ever discovered - Kosmoceratops - found in Utah ; Isn't there a sort of rule that a story's hed and lede should not tell the same joke? Sample's first graf says this creature "can lay claim to the dubious title of the horniest animal every to walk the Earth." The headline writer already gave away the punch line. Besides, maybe there are non-ceratopians with more head protuberances than this thing had. But Sample doesn't skirt cultural references of all sorts, having fun. We even read of Raquel Welch and her fur bikini.
  • LiveScience - Charles Q. Choi: Really Horny Dinosaur Heralded from Lost Continent ; Wow same joke. And Choi's lede qualifies Laramidia's status, calling it a now-lost continent. No quotes, at least.
  • Scientific Blogging - "news staff" : "Lost Continent" Of Laramidia Finds Two New Dinosaurs ; Hmmmphhhttt. And the lede calls the place a long-forgotten world. Forgot? Like the land that time forgot? What does that mean? And the continent found these bruisers? Sigh....I'd give up but have to remind myself that journalists have always played fast and loose with the language.

Grist for the Mill:

Utah Mus. of Nat. History Press Release ;     PLoS One Article ;

- Charlie Petit

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