And the T. rex goes… cock-a-doodle-do?

13 04 2007

I’m sure everyone remembers the Mary Schweitzer’s huge discovery of tissueinside a Tyrannosaurus rex thighbone (and how creationists tried to hijack the study to support their own ideas, and still are), and now some of the organic material from that bone has been analyzed. The conclusion; Tyrannosaurus rex may be most closely related to chickens, with frogs and newts being the runners-up. But wait, why would extant amphibians show a closer relationship than, say, crocodiles or other birds? Are chickens meant to represent birds in general or just chickens? The USA Today article (and most news reports I’ve seen) have had fun calling the dinosaur thighbone a “drumstick” and seem to want to drive the point home, but until more independant studies are completed the findings should be considered carefully.

What put me off most about the article, however, was this quote from Hans Larsson of McGill University;

Dinosaurs will enter the field of molecular biology and really slingshot paleontology into the modern world.

Yes, yes, paleontologists are still running around a-fussin’ and a-feudin’ like Cope and Marsh, content to stay in their dusty labs measuring fossils like Cuvier and Owen did ages ago. In the past few decades paleontology has utilized various tools like computer programs, CAT scanners, advanced microscopy, innovative reconstruction techniques, and others, so I hardly think paleontology is still stuck in the early 1900’s. While it is certainly amazing that organic material has been preserved, we also must ask the question of how well such material is preserved. Will we be able to study such material with enough accuracy to really use it to determine relationships? I don’t know much about genetics and microbiology (unfortunately) but I am a little skeptical, and it seems that these days microbiology trumps other sources of information (at least that’s the way it is sometimes treated).

Indeed, I haven’t seen the actual paper and I don’t know if I’d be able to make sense of it if I did, but I am a little skeptical. There is no doubt that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but why would the closest relatives of a Tyrannosaurus rex be chickens, frogs, and newts? It’s likely that the USA Today article oversimplified things and I still think there is a lot of misunderstanding about what Mary Schweitzer actually found in the first place because of mass media, but as with anything else these days I think it’s going to take a lot of further study before we can safely say we’ve got this all sorted out.


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7 responses

14 04 2007
15 04 2007
Almeda

I heard an interview with the paper’s authors, and they carefully pointed out that the database of protein sequences they were using to compare to is VERY SHORT on reptiles in general; there’s not a single crocodile in it. They were expecting crocodiles to show up as closest, and still expect that once someone adds crocs to the database it’ll ping up as being close to the (now-in-the-database) t-rex. :->

15 04 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the update; unfortunately I don’t have a subscription to Science so I haven’t been able to see the actual paper. As far as genetics in general I think we need a lot more data than we have now to really illuminate relationships, but the fact that we have data for a Tyrannosaurus at all is amazing.

17 05 2007
Laelaps

[…] point to the preserved tissue being original, at least in part. I initially posted about this story a few weeks ago, and while the studies seem to give stronger evidence for organic material in the bone (and once […]

13 07 2011
Tablet

I was wondering if you ever considered changing the structure of your website? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or 2 pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

26 07 2013
Mathias

I do not leave a comment, but I looked at some of the remarks on this page And the T.
rex goes cock-a-doodle-do? | Laelaps. I do have 2 questions
for you if you don’t mind. Could it be just me or does it look as if like a few of the remarks appear as if they are coming from brain dead individuals?😛 And, if you are writing on additional social sites, I would like to follow you. Could you make a list of the complete urls of your shared pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

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