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Seven Reasons to Kill Someone (Involving Palaeontology): 1 
19th-Feb-2014 12:07 pm
palaeo

So a few episodes of Star Trek ago, Becca asked me: “Have you caught up on Elementary yet?” and I said “NO! But I know the most recent episode involves DINOSAURS.” And she said “I WANT TO KNOW YOUR THOUGHTS WHEN YOU DO SEE IT.”

So there resulted an email “chain” that was really just me emailing her every five minutes while she was asleep, but then she work up and said “You should post this email chain so the whole internet can read it!”

This isn’t that post.

But this post DOES contain SPOILERS for the episode called Dead Clade Walking. On the other hand, you’re not watching Elementary for the whodunnit plots, are you?

The details of the palaeontology  used in the show I’m letting go because TV never gets anything exactly right – but I do think that the writers could have maybe done enough research to get the word ‘palaeontology’ right. They kept called the scientists archaeologists, which is already a BONUS MOTIVE for why palaeontologists might want to murder someone.

notarchaeology

And now, if you’re willing to brave spoilers, come with me below the jump…

So Dead Clade Walking features a palaeontologist who kills a black market fossil collector because he was dealing with a fossil of a juvenile Nanotyrannus from a deposit above the K-Pg Boundary, and would thus provide evidence that non-Avian dinosaurs survived the end-Cretaceous Mass Extinction. This was when I sent an email that said “I can think of seven reasons a palaeonotologist might commit murder, and none of them are ‘dinosaurs survived the K-Pg event!’”

And I wasn’t the only palaeontologist who found this wanting, as a motive.

This is because the exact date the dinosaurs died out is not actually that interesting. What’s interesting about dinosaurs from a palaeontology viewpoint is their ecology – how they lived and how they interacted with other organisms; their evolutionary relationships  - their relationships to birds, crocodiles, and their relationships to each other; and their biogeography - where they lived, because this helps build up a picture of how continents and ecosystems have changed over time. The fact that they do disappear suddenly at the boundary between the Cretaceous (K) and paleogene (Pg) is interesting because diversity in general drops sharply at that boundary – about 75% of all species went extinct at the event. One species of non-avian dinosaur surviving would be a gift to palaeontology because of what it might help to tell us about extinction recovery.  But no one’s reputation would be ruined by the existence of such a fossil. It would disprove no existing theory and radically change the way we think about nothing.

But on with the actual list: Seven Reasons to Kill Someone (involving Palaeontology)

1. You just found out your Dimetrodon thesis was written about deliberately mislabeled specimen.

One of the subplots in Dead Clade Walking involves Sherlock Holmes realizing that a Dimetrodon specimen on display at the “Tricounty Museum of Natural History” (not a real place), that the curator had been promoting as “the world’s only complete Dimetrodon, was in fact a frankenmonster constructed from a number of sources, with bones bought on the black market.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with supplementing bones from more than one individual to make a complete skeleton for display: the famous Carnegie Diplodocus “Dippy” was constructed from at least three individuals in order to make a complete skeleton. ‘Complete’ specimens are rare, very rare. So rare, in fact, that in palaeontological terms, ‘completeness’ is a relative, not an absolute term. It’s reasonable to say “a complete skeleton” if you only have 85% of the bones, because it is ‘more complete’ than a skeleton representing 50% of the bones. But the educational and public interest value of an (absolutely) complete, mounted skeleton on display is very great indeed. So curators use a combination of real bones from multiple individuals, casts, and expertly constructed models to create their displays. And as long as each bone is  curated and catalogued accordingly, the research value isn’t diminished either. 

But. Fraudulently claim that a set of bones all came from the same horizon, probably from the same individual, when in fact they were sourced from wildly different locations, and you put at risk every study that compares the bones on that assumption. Relative lengths of the fore and hind limb, for example, can tell us a lot about locomotion and posture of an animal, but HAVE to be taken from the same individual. Studies on post-mortem processes (taphonomy) on different specimens of the same location would be useless if the bones turned out to be from different locations.

The most complete Dimetrodon specimen found to date is Wet Willi, in the collection of the Houston Museum of Natural History. Dimetrodon is a genus of many species, but Wet Willi was the first member of his particular species - Dimetrodon giganhomogenes to be found with a skull, a part of the body which can tell us a lot about an animal. And that’s just an example – complete specimens are usually, and rightfully, subject to extended documentation and study, and it’s not unusual for a PhD student to build their entire thesis on a description of a particularly interesting or complete specimen.

If the antagonist on Elementary had falsified a complete skeleton out of specimens sourced on the black market, and someone had used that ‘complete individual’ as a basis for an extended study, like a doctoral thesis, only to discover that their work was completely useless, I could easily imagine them braining said antagonist with a block of fossiliferous limestone.

Tune in next time for more REASONS TO COMMIT MURDER (if you are a palaeontologist)! I might actually talk about dinosaurs!

This post can also be found at Thagomizer.net. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.

Opinions 
23rd-Feb-2014 01:08 pm (UTC)
New Tricks (BBC police drama) had a murdered palaeontologist episode last week. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b012gkk4
As it was set in th NHM I had fun nit-picking and pointing out errors.
26th-Feb-2014 10:34 am (UTC)
I know! Sadly I didn't get a chance to see it because my parents were watching it and when they realized the subject, they had the following conversation:

"Shall we stop and wait for Debi?"
"Nah."

And when they'd finished, they didn't have the following conversation:

"Shall we delete this from the hard disk like we usually do, or shall we leave it for Debi?"
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