A little storm is to be found brewed beneath a BBC Today blog this week. The post, Dinosaurs even the score, is by the program’s science correspondent Tom Feilden. It describes evidence reported in the journal Geology that back in the Cretaceous a carnivorous dinosaur used its clawed feet to dig into a colony of burrowing mammals. It has a fanciful pic, of King Kong facing off with a T. rex (or were these allosaurs? I can’t remember) to capture the mood if not the plausible fact of dinos attacking mammals.
It’s a perfectly readable story.
Oh my. Look at the comments. The second one is from Brian Switek, aka Laelaps, writer of a popular paleontology blog. He says mildly “This post is quite similar – especially in the introduction – to a post I wrote last week for the Smithsonian blog Dinosaur Tracking.” The post is A Mammal’s Worst Nightmare...
Similar, yes it is. Same, no. But very similar.
Here is Switek’s lede and 2d graf from last week:
Dinosaurs overshadowed mammals for most of the Mesozoic, but evidence of actual dinosaur-mammal interactions are very rare. On the mammalian score, a specimen of the relatively large Cretaceous mammal Repenomamus robustus described in 2005 was found with the bones of baby dinosaurs in its stomach—it had apparently fed on young Psittacosaurus shortly before it died. A new set of fossils from southern Utah, though, evens the score for the dinosaurs.
In Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, within the 80-million-year-old rock of the Wahweap Formation, paleontologists have discovered evidence that small predatory dinosaurs dug down into the soil to reach the burrows of small mammals. As reported in the journal Geology, the vestiges of these events are left behind as traces within the rocks—scratches made by dinosaurs and dens used by mammals—and by looking at them together scientists can replay what might have happened during those Late Cretaceous days at the end of the Mesozoic era.
Here, a week later, is the upper part of the BBC piece:
We know from the fossil record that dinosaurs and mammals must have co-existed for millions of years, and yet we know almost nothing about the nature of that relationship.
One clue, which appears to give mammals the upper hand, comes from the fossilised remains of a relatively large mammal, repenomamus robustus, discovered in 2005. It was found with the bones of a baby dinosaur in its stomach – apparently it had snacked on a young psittacosaurus shortly before it died.
Score it one-nil to the mammals. But as the old adage goes, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and most palaeontologists suspect the true nature of the relationship – given their size and dominance – is that predatory dinosaurs regularly preyed on mammals.
New evidence supporting this, more conventional predator-prey relationship, is emerging from the 80-million-year-old rocks of the Wahweap Formation in Utah’s Grand Staircase National Monument. Reporting in the journal Geology a team lead by professor Edward Simpson from Kutztown University has discovered evidence that carnivorous dinosaurs may have dug down into the soil to reach small burrowing mammals.
There are significant differences. No lifting of fully identical text is apparent. But some passages are very nearly the same. The story angle’s construction is not different. Each starts by introducing the odd man out – a five year old report on mammals that ate dinosaurs (baby ones) – and then skips to the dramatic new reconstruction of what must have been the norm of dinosaur carnivores gobbling up scurrying mammals. (Following two sentences added after initial post put up Wed. evening). Reading the full posts further along, one finds that a quote in the BBC article is nearly the same as a passage in the Smithsonian post that is not presented as a quotation. As far as I can tell, no press release was put out that might provide a common origin for the overlaps.
If one reads further down the BBC post by Feilden, several of his readers are seeing plagiarism, demanding apology or a clarifying explanation. I’m hoping for mere clarity. Other readers are exercised that Feilden would use a pic from King Kong, as it is so very unscientific. But the movie frame is amusing and clearly just a mood-setter. On that, he gets a pass. Probably on the whole thing. But this must be sorted out first.
*UPDATE: Switek tells me by email that he tumbled to the story July 14 after seeing a brief ref. at a dinosaur email alert list he reads as part of beat checks, that he thought up the mammals-that-ate-dinos reference and intro himself upon remembering that separate report, that there was no press release he ever saw, and that despite efforts by him and his editor, and a substantial twitter conversation, he has heard nothing from BBC.
UPDATE 2: The audio file of Feilden’s interview with the lead scientist. In addition, Feilden has today e-mailed Switek to say he did read the latter’s Smithsonian post, and the paper, before writing his own account, and that it was an oversight not to have linked to or otherwise acknowledged Switek’s work. The audio of the broadcast, one must note, contains no statement from the researcher that sounds at all like the quotation-marked line in Feilden’s blog post – the “quote” that is so nearly the same as what Switek originally composed on his own to share what he had learned. One must also observe that Feilden is capable of marked hyperbole – such as his remark on the audio recording that this interesting but hardly astonishing episode in paleontology “completely revolutionizes” understanding of dinosaur behavior.
(Thank you Dan Vergano for the tip on the two posts).
– Charlie Petit