Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Doncaster, Ichthyosaurs, and Dodgy Journalism

I always like writing about things which are close to home, whether it is my family home in Doncaster or down here in Portsmouth where I study. I've known about this particular piece of news for quite some time now and had a look at the published paper a couple of weeks ago. Finally the press release has been printed, so I can hop on that wagon and follow suit (erk, mixed metaphor). Up in the Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery is a beautiful ichthyosaur specimen known as Fizzy (chosen by a young girl in a competition) which is near complete and contains gastric contents - the last meal of the hapless marine reptile.

Aside from the specimen being beautifully preserved, it is also important for another reason. It extends the temporal range of Ichthyosaurus by 3 million years into the Pliensbachian (Early Jurassic). This incredible specimen had been in the museum collections for a few decades before my friend and colleague (can volunteers be colleagues?) Dean Lomax recognised its scientific worth.
Dean Lomax in Whitby, in front of a huge dislodged rock.

If I had the time I could flesh this out into an intriguing and insightful story about palaeontology, twisting and turning like a Thalassinoides trace fossil. We'd be able to look into the history of ichthyosaur discoveries, with such luminaries as Mary Anning making an appearance. We'd learn about the frivolity with which museum specimens used to change location, often with no information, rendering them almost useless to science. We'd hear all about how the specimen was misplaced, misidentified and misunderstood for many years, before it became pride of place on display in the museum. Major finds are usually thought to be done in the field, yet we would find that this one occurred in a small museum storage room. We could look at the preservation of the fossil and get insights into the life and death of old Fizzy. We could even take a look at Dean's career thus far and how he is taking what I call the "autodidact palaeontologist" route, now able to call himself a research palaeontologist with a peer reviewed publication under his belt (to see some of his other publications, check out Deposits magazine). We could also peer into the world of biostratigraphy, with the use of the belemnite to identify the age and location of Fizzy - information which was previously lost.

Instead, we can take a look at an area which some palaeontologists fear, one which can become hilarious and cringe-worthy - the press! Our local newspaper, The Star, mentioned the discovery on the front page and dedicated the whole of page 3 to it (imagine if The Sun did it, as if they were declaring fossils to be better than boobies!). I was once told that if you want to get quoted in a newspaper about palaeontology, or if you want an article published, then it is more likely if dinosaurs are mentioned. In an article on an ichthyosaur there is no reason to mention dinosaurs really, sure they were contemporaries and are not too distantly related, but their interactions would have been rare. In the article in question they are mentioned twice within the first two paragraphs, whilst also referring to Dean as Dino Dean. The article even contradicts itself by calling it a "sea dwelling dinosaur" but later mentioning that they are "often mistaken for swimming dinosaurs". They even get the news about the extra 3 million years wrong!

The Star press release.
So if you read the article you might wonder why a dinosaur expert is discussing a dinosaur which is not really a dinosaur and may get a little confused. Although the article is a tad ridiculous, it does bring publicity to our beloved museum and will hopefully cause people to come see Fizzy and the rest of the display collection.

Dean's article was published in Paludicola, a New York based journal. The press release can be seen here. Also check out Dean's site Palaeocritti for more details.

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