Two recent fossil discoveries have prompted a radical change of thinking in scientific circles. That’s the fast headline, anyway. A closer examination of subsequent controversies — not every scientist holds the findings in the same esteem — suggests that, unlike say mathematics or physics, palaeontology is open to different interpretations. Nothing is exact. And that opens a whole other can of worms, metaphorically speaking: We may never know the answer to the big questions.
This past week, the journal Nature reported that a cat-sized fossil discovered in Scotland (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v543/n7646/full/nature21700.html) could be the prime candidateas our common dinosaur ancestor. If true, that would fly in the face of a century of dinosaur classification.
Weeks earlier, fossilized remains discovered on the Hudson Bay coast of Quebec were judged to be the earliest findings of their kind ever found — proof, in other words, that life on Earth has been around a lot longer than anyone realized and that, furthermore, evolution happened in the blink of an eye.
A blink of an eye is about as long as it took for the doubters to weigh in — in part because no one, not the least palaeontologists who’ve devoted their entire careers to studying dinosaurs’ family tree, wants to be told that some of their most cherished beliefs about evolutionary history are dead wrong.
Huge plant-eating sauropods like the Brontosaurus have traditionally been classified with meat-eating theropods like the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex, even though there are key skeletal differences between the two groups — itself a sign that the entire classification system may be flawed.
The doubters are determined to have their say, though. The experts are divided, as the old expression goes.
The Scottish findings, these doubters say, amount to little more than fake news — at best an overreaction motivated by good but wrong-headed intentions, at worst a thinly disguised ploy to grab easy headlines and boost burgeoning careers.
The latest findings that the Scottish big-cat-sized creature, Saltopus, is the closest to what our hypothetical common ancestor might have looked like, are themselves little more than hypothesis, according to Max Langer, a palaeontologist at the University of Säo Paulo in Brazil who is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading authorities on dinosaur research.
At stake is the traditionally accepted notion that the oldest, most revealing fossils are to be found in the Southern Hemisphere, not the the Northern.
Matt Baron, a graduate student at Cambridge University who led the three-year dino project in the UK, said that while it will never be possible to pinpoint the origin of dinosaurs with any degree of certainty, his findings have raised new questions about the Northern Hemisphere possibly being the origin of humankind’s dinosaur ancestors.
“It may just be that dinosaurs originated in Scotland,” he told The Guardian newspaper.
Without getting too complicated about it — the earlier Quebec findings, for example, hint that life may have originated long before the break-up of the continents into northern and southern hemispheres, as depicted in Scottish geologist Iain Stewart’s 2011 BBC documentary series Rise of the Continents.
(Recommended viewing, by the way; Stewart is the David Attenborough of geological filmmaking and a respected evolutionary thinker in his own right.)
For many palaeontologists, the idea that dinosaurs may have originated in Scotland has about as much veracity as the notion that Nessie is out their in Loch Ness somewhere, still terrorizing locals in small boats.
Baron’s findings, coupled with similar studies sponsored by London’s Natural History Museum, suggests that scientists’ classification of dinosaur ancestors into two specific groups — a belief held since the 1880s — may need a major rethink. There are also suggestions that many of the earliest dinosaurs may have had feathers as well as scales, and that the original precursor of today’s mammals may have been an omnivore, not a carnivore.
Baron told The Guardian that he did not come by his conclusions lightly.
“We didn’t want to be these palaeontologists who told the world that Diplodocus and Brontosaurus weren’t dinosaurs,” he said. “We’d be like the guys who said Pluto isn’t a planet.”
For a more clinical take, follow the link to an informative piece by science writer Evan Gough at Universe Today: