Seen one humongous Mesozoic reptile fossil, seen 'em all, eh dinosaur fan? A few reporters and editors fell into a trap inadvertently laid by a Bristol University press release (see Grist below) with a headline that says "Ancient sea reptile with gammy jaw suggests dinosaurs got arthritis too." You all out there who remember school science classes on the vanished age of reptiles, or who have covered these things or just paid attention, know that not all gigantic creatures of dinosaur days were dinosaurs. Major exceptions were the ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs, pliosaurs and so forth that swam in the sea, and the flying pterosaurs including the iconic pterodactyls that roamed the sky.
The news is simple and an easy choice for news editors looking for a quick, science filler to round out the page or website. A grad student for her thesis looked into the mangy-looking Jurassic mandible on one of the university's stored specimens. It looked like a degenerative condition much like arthritis. This creature's head is about six feet long. The teeth look cruel. But it is not a dinosaur. It is a pliosaur, a marine reptile more than 25 feet long. It may have eaten an occasional small dinosaur that happened into its lagoon. The paper is, it says here, in the current issue of the journal Palaentology, although I cannot find it.
A few outlets repeated the press release by implying in their headlines that this is a dinosaur. Some declared it a dinosaur also in their stories' texts. Some, thank goodness, got it right. Some even appear to have exerted effort on this story beyond what it took to put the press release on their computer screen or desk and merely rewrite what had been handed them. The odd thing is, the headlines and other assertions of arthritic dinosaurs may be to some extent justified. Seems to me this is not the first evidence of arthritis from dinosaur times, including in dinosaurs. But don't point at a pliosaur for proof.
Stories that say or imply this was a dinosaur:
- Metro (UK) Dinosaurs suffered from painful arthritis, say scientists ;
- Telegraph (UK) Dinosaurs struggled with arthritis just like humans ;
- Daily Mail (UK) Rob Waugh: Fossil shows off that even the DINOSAURS suffered arthritis 150 million years ago ; Surely Waugh knows better. But the lede is "Dinosaurs suffered painful arthritis in their huge joints..." and then cites only the pliosaur as evidence.
- HealthDay News: Dinosaurs may have suffered from arthritis ;
- RedOrbit: Skull of Jurassic Sea Creature Shows That Even Dinosaurs Had Arthritis ;
- ANI (India): Pliosaurs may have suffered painful arthritis ; Hed good, lede not.
- Gather.com - Felicia Floyd: 'Loch Ness Monster' Dinosaur, Pliosaur, Suffered From Arthritis in Enormous Jaw ; What a concatenation of errors amplified during rewrite this is.
Stories that don't mix their ancient extinct reptile clans:
- LiveScience - Charles Choi: Ancient 'Loch Ness monster' suffered from arthritis in jaw ; Choi's a serious pro. Naturally, he called up one of the authors and took ownership of this story away from the press release. This story runs at several outlets.
- Business Standard/Press Trust of India: Pliosaurs had arthritis: The lede has this inserted by somebody who pays attention; "... not dinosaurs but ancient sea reptiles that lived 150 million years ago.." ;
- ScienceNOW - Erin Loury: Jurassic Arthritis Was a Jawbreaker; A shorty, but not a whisper about dinosaurs. Of course if this outlet (AAAS Science Mag) screwed that one up there'd be painful conversation with the boss.
Grist for the Mill: U. Bristol Press Release ;
- Charlie Petit