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Davide Bonadonna

Science

2020 was an appropriately messy year for paleontology

Learning about the past, learning about the present.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has understandably slowed paleontology work in the field and the lab, there have still been some remarkable discoveries made (along with some controversies). Let’s take a look at some of the new things we learned in 2020.

A pair of Jurassic Park theropods get a makeover

While we’ve always known that the real Dilophosaurus wetherilli lacked the neck frill and venom of its Hollywood counterpart, a new study by Adam B. Marsh and Timothy B. Rowe gave us the most comprehensive look at the animal to date, including new insights into the animal’s ecology and phylogenetic relationship to other theropods. The jaws, once thought quite frail, were stronger than expected, suggesting Dilophosaurus would have been able to handle larger prey, making it the apex predator of its environment.

2020 was an appropriately messy year for paleontology
That’s more like it. Credit: Brian Engh / The Saint George Dinosaur Discovery Site

Perhaps the biggest splash (pun intended) in 2020 was made with the description of the tail of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. In a study led by Nizar Ibrahim, it was found that Spinosaurus had large neuro-spines atop its tail vertebrae, leading to the hypothesis that Spinosaurus spent most of its time in the water and operated as an aquatic pursuit predator. The study received a lot of headlines erroneously suggesting this was the first evidence of swimming dinosaurs, but it still provided an exciting look into the lifestyle of this early Cretaceous predator.

Soft (boiled?) eggs

This year also saw several discoveries about the lifecycle of dinosaurs and mosasaurs. On June 17, two independent studies on eggs emerged, offering a little bit of insight, and a little bit of mystery.

Lucas J. Legendre et al described a fossilized soft-shelled egg from Antarctica. Due to its size and morphology, the authors proposed this was potentially the egg of a mosasaur, an type of aquatic reptile. This was incredible news, as previous understandings of the mosasaur lifestyle suggested they gave birth to live young.

Mark Norella, Jasmina Wiemann, and Darla Zelenitsky described soft-shelled eggs from the dinosaurs Protoceratops and Mussaurus. The fact that these two dinosaurs were not closely related suggests that soft-shelled eggs were an ancestral trait among dinosaurs, and that hard-shelled eggs evolved in different groups independently. This discovery helped answer why fossil eggs of more derived groups of dinosaurs were so much better preserved in the fossil record than those of their ancestors.

Bonus: the Norella study now calls into question whether the egg in Legendre et al really was from an aquatic animal, or from a dinosaur.

Grappling with ethics

At times, paleontology can seem like a distant, ethereal field of study, removed completely from both recent history and the present. That being said, the field is made up of people, and people can be awful.

The beginning of the 2020 saw the description of Oculudentavis, originally hypothesized to be an avian dinosaur, but some scientists questioned that identification. Further controversy emerged when it became clear the specimen, a skull preserved in amber, appeared to come from deposits in northern Myanmar.

2020 was an appropriately messy year for paleontology

The journal Nature, which originally published the paper, has since retracted that study at the request of the authors, and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has called for the stop of study on amber specimens discovered from that region since 2017, in order to prevent science’s financial contribution to a human rights crisis.

A paper published in the December issue of the journal Creataceous Research described a new type of theropod dinosaur, one with well-preserved feathers and spines that appear to have emerged from the shoulders. But after the study by Robert Smyth, David Martill, and the other authors was published, the legality of the fossil’s exportation from Brazil was called into question. The paper has since been removed, as the investigation is underway, but it highlights the need for scientists to be aware of and respect the laws of the nations whose fossils they work on.

While the controversies of 2020 have brought a cloud over the field, it also shows the need for scientists and journals to prioritize ethics in the act of discovery. The new information we’ve learned shows how many secrets of the ancient world remain to be found, but it’s important we don’t violate our current world in the process.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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