Recently there have been a couple of palaeontological stories hitting the headlines and the way that they were reported has … well, really got my goat. The subject of the rant isn’t contained to science stories – it seems that any topic in the media needs to be either dumbed down or sexed up. If it can be both then even better, especially if there can either be a portmanteau created or a snazzy nickname.
I will freely admit – right up front – that palaeontology isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and not everyone understands the implications of finds or the context in which they were found or even how to pronounce some of the names. For example, Qianzhousaurus sinensis doesn’t exactly trip of the tongue, even if Anzu wyliei is less of a tongue twister.
Qianzhousaurus is in the news at the moment and is a long-snouted tyrannosaur (phylogenetic analysis is still out on if its located in the Tyrannosaurinae or Albertosaurinae subfamily- and yes that matters) that lived at the same time and the same place as other, larger, tyrannosaurs (such as Tarbosaurus bataar and Zuchengtyrannus magnus). That is, in what is now Asia.
Apparently, due to the fact that it has a long, thin snout (longer and thinner than other members of the tyrannosaur family, at least) and because it is vaguely related to everybody’s favourite sexy killing machine, Tyrannosaurus rex (which lived in what is now North America), what does it get dubbed?
Pinocchio rex. (Well, if you’re lucky – it also appears as Pinocchio Rex and that capital R also makes my blood boil.)
Because its … with the nose … and the … tyrannosaur … do you see … snout … uh-huh.
Travelling a few months back in time to March of this year, we find the glorious oviraptorosaur Anzu wyliei, as unearthed from the Hell Creek formation in the Dakotas. Anzu is currently the largest and most complete of its kind known from North America (Gigantoraptor from Mongolia was far larger).
As a feathered theropod, its already a bit sexy. Oviraptorosaurs have very birdlike skeletons. Some researchers (such as Gregory S. Paul, Michael Benton and Teresa Maryańska) think that they lie within the class Aves (i.e. are flightless birds). Others (such as Alan H. Turner, Julia A. Clarke and Mark Norell) disagree, saying they are non-avialan maniraptorans. Basically, the line between what makes a bird a bird and not a dinosaur is one that isn’t so much blurred as possibly non-existent.
But I digress.
Due to the location and the fact that this fellow had a cracking great crest, a beak and some formidable claws, it has been dubbed “the chicken from hell”. Sadly, this was not a nickname thrown up by the press themselves but had been included in the official press release that was associated with the discovery. It turns out that the research team , whilst working on the find, began to refer to it this way. The description then was off and whizzed around the internet. Who could resist such an utterly bedazzling phrase?
National Geographic described it as “a devilish version of the modern cassowary”. The Washington Post called it “a freakish bird-like type of dinosaur”. Smithsonian Science said “one scary chicken … no BBQ is large enough for this discovery”. The Guardian went for “[it] resembled a beefed-up emu”. The Boston Globe offered a rather less sensationalist article – although loses marks for comparing the bony crest with “a rooster’s comb” – decidedly not bony.
As previously mentioned, this is a symptom of the way in which media proffer up stories. You might say that these are ‘niche’ stories – only of interest to a specific few. If that is the case then we don’t need anything sexing up to digest it. You might say that it encourages people who might not otherwise be interested in a subject to investigate something new. Granted – but how far in to the article do they read before they think “This isn’t about sexy chickens at all!” and click away to whatever does float their boat?
Can we not, please, have a bit of intelligence in science reporting?
I leave you with this piece of utter journalistic trash from The Washington Post (which, admittedly, up until this point had produced a well-written article):
Did it . . . cluck?
“We have no evidence that it clucked or crowed,” Lamanna said.
What would it have tasted like?
“I can’t answer that question with any degree of certainty,” he said, but he suggested that it might have tasted a bit like alligator or ostrich.
Alligator famously tastes a little bit like chicken. But ostrich — an animal that is scientifically a dinosaur and is our closest analogue to the Chicken From Hell — tastes like beef.