THE DEATH OF DINOSAURS AND SCRAPPING SCIENTISTS, AND A NEWBIE IN THE MIDDLE

There is a significant moment in history that interests you, one that occurred well before any humans were around to record it by word of mouth, carving in stone, or in cave paint, scrolls, pamphlets, books, lithographs, photographs or iPhones. Wouldn’t it be great if we could invent some machine to reach into time and pull out an image of that exact moment? Images from the Napoleonic wars perhaps, or of Napoleon in forced retirement on St. Helena reconstructing his triumphant battles for his attendants as he declines in his final years. Or the ravages of the plague. Or maybe of the first time Homo sapiens stepped on to what are now European or Australian lands.

None of that is possible of course, at least not yet! But geology has just served up something very similar for its sister field of palaeontology (in that geological forces have served up an immense pile of fossilised biology). A fossil bed has been discovered in America that appears to be an imprint of the exact moment of mass death and destruction visited upon earth due to a massive asteroid strike (link). Yes, that asteroid strike. The one that despatched the mighty T-rex 66 million years ago, along with almost 80% of the rest of existing species (over 99% of life). Known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary (link) it was one of the most destructive events in the history of our planet.  It was also, for many years (and still sometimes is – read on), one of the most divisive issues in the world of palaeontology. The idea that a single asteroid strike caused such a massive die off of existing life was hotly contested without any “smoking crater” as it were, since such a strike would undoubtedly have left a detectable indentation in the earth where it struck. And nobody could find one of suitable magnitude.

Many other theories were put forward, including that the extinctions were the result of greenhouse gases slowly leaking from the Deccan traps in Siberia (link) which would have caused a more unhurried rate of extinction than appears in ever accumulating evidence. Actually, some observers state that the extinction may have been a result of the two events, life was weakened by the release of gases from the Siberian traps, and then delivered a devastating blow from the asteroid strike.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980 two teams of researchers working separately – one searching for petroleum who found geophysical evidence of a giant impact crater near Chicxulub, Mexico but were unable to substantiate their findings without any rock for evidence, and another who published evidence of a layer of iridium that appeared to be laid down around the globe at the time of the K-Pg extinction event (iridium being found in very high levels in asteroids). The teams quickly became aware of each other’s work, and que paleontological controversies that were fired up that burned for years.

First proposed in the 1950’s, what became known as the “Alvarez hypothesis”, after the authors of the seminal 1980 publication (link), this has become the most widely agreed upon explanation describing the cause of the K-Pg extinction event 66 million year ago.

Yet such is the heat of the controversies with this scientific issue, each time a further piece of evidence emerges (and there are many) and described in publications that appear to further support the Alverez hypothesis and the role of the Chicxulub impact, many voices pipe up to question it. What appears to be spurious scientist infighting, is in fact, science at work. For sure, there are rampant egos, unpleasant personalities and lots of possible score settling going on, but this is part of it all.

And so to my point – the first publication of data gleaned from these astonishing deposits in North Dakota, named Tanis after the lost Egyptian city, has attracted widespread press attention, much acknowledgment from the science community, and lots of “I’m not so sure yets” from many more. The lead author, Robert DePalma is not even a doctor yet, he is a PhD student, and he has found himself in the midst of one of the hottest areas of science.

The site appears to be an immense “slosh” site where thousands of fish and dinosaur species as well as debris were washed up (possibly by an impact related super tsunami, or possibly giant waves caused by seismic activity post impact – known as seiche waves) from what they believe to be an estuary of an ancient river system. There are fresh water species mixed up among many creatures that would normally be found out at sea. All of it was swirled together and covered in layers of mud and debris preserving thousands of species in perpetuity as fossils, and in astonishing detail. It has been strongly linked to the K-Pg extinction event and the Chicxulub asteroid strike by the presence of shocked quartz, impact rubble and lots of small glass spheres. These spheres are the result of molten material blasted up into atmosphere at the point of impact at speed and which then rained down as beads as they cooled. At many of the other K-Pg sites these beads form a clearly perceptible layer. But in Tanis they are dispersed throughout deposits, suggesting that everything was mixed around together as if in a giant washing machine. It is expected that these deposits will keep the geology and palaeontology worlds busy for decades.

Nothing like this has been found before, and at first glance it appears to one of the most important scientific findings of the decade. It is precisely because of this that many scientists are sceptical as to its significance. Science works this way. A scientists’, or team of scientists’, word cannot be simply taken for granted. For one to have a big discovery accepted, one best be prepared to take a lot of flak. The flak is merely the process of being exposed to varying points of view and approaches to the data. If the data is good then the work should emerge from it intact. If not, a career could get flushed down the pan definitively.

This one is interesting though as we can watch the process in real time, although one feels there may be a degree of jealously emanating down from the more established egos on this one. Which is ok also. The lead author is very new in the game for such a momentous strike. Nobody is directly questioning his data or his integrity, but they want to see his data, and they want access to his site to verify his claims. I am not sure of the mechanisms of palaeontological research digs (are there dig rights, or can any scientist call up and ask to see it once they are properly affiliated? I don’t know), but surely those requests will be resolved.

What is interesting is the nature of the attacks. It appears they are digging for something to hold on to, with which they can trash him. They have attacked his manner of data release (conference papers in 2013 and 2016 where he was somewhat disbelieved), the lack of data in the current paper (this paper describes only fish species), as well as errors he made in earlier stages in his career (he once accidently included a turtle bone in a reconstruction of a raptor species – indeed a chiefly embarrassing scientific snafu no matter what way one paints it), as well his cryptic manner of communication about the site over all.

As I said he is young and largely inexperienced, and the intensity of the attention his work is now receiving would undoubtedly be unsettling. Even experience professionals can collapse under such pressure.  He may have known this, and that could explain his reticence about the site in the years before he finally published. Presenting at conferences is nerve wracking for early career researchers (believe me, I know about that) and may have also stilted his confidence in speaking about it so easily. And now the storm has broken he may indeed be balking. As for calling him out for previous mistakes, well, yes, he should be checked out to prevent a case of fraudulent scientific advancement (I discussed this previously – link), but also mistakes can be made by anyone, and students are most at risk.

As for not including more details about his dig site in his first publication describing it; to that I say rubbish! It seems to be a site with much to describe. And the author states himself that more papers are coming. It would seem the best way to publish this work is to put forward the fully researched data first. Wise given the attention it attracts. Fish came first here, there will be much more I have no doubt.

Science is at work here, and it will argue and examine and re-examine until an agreement is reached. Claws will scratch and egos will get hurt, or win out, depending on the way of the eventual data. In the middle of it all is a new guy with a big claim, that appears at first glance to be a bona fida once in a lifetime discovery (he appears to have, for all intents and purposes, to have won the scientific lottery). I for one hope he fights through it and comes out the other side.

You can read more about the reactions in the science community to the Tanis site find here at National Geographic (link).

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