Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Brontofarts, Brachioburps, and Titanotoots

Sinclair Dinosaur
No, the other kind of dinosaur gas. Photo by Jason Clor, via Flickr.

If you're reading this blog, you've surely heard about the correspondence published in Current Biology this month which proposed that the titanic sauropods could have produced methane in such large amounts that they could have been a significant factor in the warming of the climate. No surprise, it's been absolutely manhandled by the popular press, which has once again shown its ability to go far beyond the scope of a scientific paper to draw conclusions the authors never intended. Fox News was the worst offender, stating outright that "Dinosaurs 'gassed' themselves to extinction."

I know a story is making a splash when I'm fielding questions from people I know, and my initial reaction was "eh, maybe?" I'm no expert, I've repeatedly stated, and some of the methods used by David Wilkinson, Euan Nesbit, and Graeme Ruxton were well beyond my current understanding. But it was clear to me that their work was presented as a proof of concept and a launching point for further work, not a definitive statement. It's full of assumptions which are built on assumptions, and would require a mountain of research to be demonstrated as plausible. Jon Tennant at Green Tea and Velociraptors is less diplomatic about it. "The less-than-two-page report, however, is pretty devoid of actual science, and is the kind of analysis that I’d expect from an undergraduate. A bad undergraduate." Brian Switek also wrote about the strengths and weaknesses of the work, as well as calling attention to the media's fumbling of it, at Dinosaur Tracking.

My main reason for posting about this paper is that Dr. Thomas Holtz, one of the most visible American paleontologists, summed it up in the most succint, powerful way I've yet read in response to a question on Facebook. It's a great final word on a subject that may or may not receive follow up research in the future, and it's worth quoting here in its entirety.
On the one...er... hand, they are probably correct that sauropods were major methane producers. But in the paper itself they don't deal with any other sources, sinks, or fluxes of greenhouse gases, so it is impossible to say whether these actually contributed to warming.

Nailed it. Wouldn't you know it, Dave Hone has an interview with Dr. Holtz up at Archosaur Musings today, so do head over to Dave's place and read it.

3 comments:

  1. First it was sauropods getting it on, now it's sauropods letting one rip. What will be the next topic in this excellent series of posts?

    How about something from the other end, say, something to do with their nasal cavities? Perhaps we could have a vote? Yes, I'd pick that one!

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    Replies
    1. Really, Mr. Robinson, I thought yours was a mind of higher order...

      ;)

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  2. It's been a week of high-brow content, which we are only too pleased to bring you. I'm actually working on a post that proposes that the little "pinky" of derived hadrosauroids was used for just that purpose: booger pickin'.

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