This story about pterosaurs (prehistoric flying reptiles that lived at the same time as dinosaurs) and flight was published by Live Science and picked up by the Huffington Post. There are problems… it reports on a talk by Chatterjee, et al. given at a national scientific conference. That’s fine, but it fails to mention that an abstract from a talk is not the same as referencing a paper published in a journal. Anyone can give a talk at a convention (well, not anyone, but it’s not that hard, Creation “scientists” do it on occasion). But the problem with this story is what it doesn’t tell you.
If humans had lived 67 million years ago in what is now Texas, they would’ve had a hard time missing the giant flying pterosaur called Quetzalcoatlus, which was the size of an F-16 fighter jet. The biggest animal ever to fly in the history of the world, this pterosaur dominated the sky with its 34-foot (10 meters) wingspan.
Fossils of the creature have been found in Big Bend National Park, in an area that was heavily forested in the late Cretaceous. But this presents a puzzle: How did it fly? The region lacked the cliffs that make flight for such large birds easy to conceive.
A new computer simulation has the answer: These beasts used downward-sloping areas, at the edges of lakes and river valleys, as prehistoric runways to gather enough speed and power to take off, according to a study presented Wednesday (Nov. 7) here at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.
This version of attaining flight is at odds with the current idea of how these creatures launched: pterosaurs became airborne via powerful leaping with all four limbs. Quite direct. Simple. Requires no “runways” or cliffs. Just muscle and air.
What’s the deal with the new idea? Pterosaur.net tells us.
Chatterjee et al.’s abstract and press release do not explain why the many arguments supporting pterosaur quad launch are problematic or why arguments and methodologies to estimate relatively high masses for pterosaurs are incorrect. Instead, they’ve decided that such scientific rigour doesn’t matter, and gone straight into informing the public that giant pterosaurs took flight in the way described in their presentation, and that all other opinions on the matter are wrong.
By bigging up their abstract rather than a peer-reviewed publication in which their methodological details and discussion are explained in detail, Chatterjee et al. have given the impression that their work is more scientifically credible than it actually is. Science journalists have lapped the release up, presumably because giant pterosaurs are cool, but they have not mentioned the lack of a detailed peer-reviewed study behind the findings, nor (in the majority of cases) bothered to find out what other palaeontologists make of the story.
Author and fantastic artist Mark Witton notes that this kind of stuff has been done before and it’s worrying. Science journalists are not taking the time to check and see if the story has merit and what other experts think. Science is about working through these ideas. Promotion of some exciting (but potentially flawed) new research, taken at face value without critique, is dangerous and can confuse the public. Science discoveries are not like entertainment news. They have consequences and writers should be paying attention.