Random incoherent rants vol. 2: Paleontologists can sometimes be attention whores

I urge you to look at the badass motherfucker in the photo below:

Alan Grant

You bred Raptors?

He is, of course, Sam Neill in the role of paleontologist Alan Grant, the main character in Jurassic Park, one of my childhood heroes and one of the reasons when I was a kid I wanted to be a paleontologist. Now, compare him with this guy:

Jack Horner

My hair is a Maniraptora. Your argument is invalid.

(BTW, if you get the joke in the caption, you earn my instant and outmost respect. Also, you’re a nerd.)

This is the famous real life paleontologist Jack Horner, but I started to suspect that his methods are just as fake as the ones of the fictional character Alan Grant. I’ll elaborate: I’ve come to think that the theories he elaborates are chosen on the base of how innovative and grounbreaking they look, instead of how close to reality they might be. An open, antidogmatic mind that accepts new ideas is fundamental in a scientist, but this doesn’t mean that every new theory is automatically more valid than an older one.

I’m talkin of course about Horner’s opinions on the T-Rex’s feeding behaviour. Specifically, Jack is known for his theory that T-Rex was an obligate scavenger, based on the facts that it was too big and slow to chase the prey, it had such small arms and a very good sense of smell. However, none of these points convinces me: first, even if the most moderate estimates of T-Rex’s speed were true, we must remember that its possible preys where big and probably slow too (and the wiki section about its locomotion, which I’ve just conveniently checked, confirms it). Second, who the fuck needs arms to kill the prey, when you have a mouth like that, capable of the most powerful bite known to man? Third, a good sense of smell can be used to locate dead animals as well as living animals, so it’s not a proof. Long story short, I (and most other people, for what I know) think that good ol’ Rex fed on both living animals and corpses, just like the vast majority (if not totality) of modern apex predators. No reason not to eat a dead animal if you have the occasion, not to waste time and energy in the hunt. No reason to wait for a corpse, if you have the occasion to easily overpower and kill a living animal that you located.This is the most reasonable hypothesis, and as far as I know there’s no reason not to think it’s correct.

However, what makes me suspicious about the reasons that took Horner to formulate this hypothesis is that, as far as I know (I could be wrong), it is only about Tyrannosaurus. There’s a bunch of giant predator dinosaurs with small arms (some even bigger than Tyrannosaurus), but Jackie talked only about T-Rex, because it was the most famous, a true legend – and while crushing a legend can make you famous, crushing, let’s say, Charcharodontosaurus certainly won’t. Horner even contradicted himself about the “big size=scavenger” argument when he was working as a consultant for that unworthy abomination that is Jurassic Park III. In the special features of the DVD, he said that he envisioned Spinosaurus as the hunter and Tyrannosaurus as the hunted because Spino was much bigger. What? That’s the exact opposite someone should expect from a man that argued that T-Rex was too big and slow to catch living preys.

So, was Jack’s theory all a stunt to become famous for destroyng the image of the most notorious dinosaur of all time? I don’t know, but this doubt somehow prevents me from taking too seriously even some of his more recent theories, because they all have the same characteristic: they try to subvert a previous idea. And again, while the mind must be open to new ideas (as Darwin certainly knew very well), this doesn’t mean necessairly that newer ideas are more correct than older ideas. Jackie recently argued that Dracorex and Stygimoloch are probably just juvenile forms of Pachycephalosaurus. This is counterintuitive since the first two have horns and the last hasn’t, but I have to admit that this doesn’t mean anything: we know of structures (like the one used by newborn sea turtles and other reptiles and birds to break the shell of their egg and hatch) that are present in the young and not in the adult, so this *might* be true in this case too. Another of his recent hypothesis of this kind, however, is that Triceratops is just the juvenile form of Torosaurus. Well, actually the hypothesis was made by John Scannella, but Horner approved it, and argued that ceratopsian skulls are made of metaplastic bone, capable of changing shape and size of the whole structure over time. What. The. Fuck. I mean, yeah, they share similarities, but a complete change of structure in the skull so late in the development, when the full size was already reached? I dunno, maybe. If you really have to consider them as part of the same species, isn’t it more likely that they’re of different gender (with Torosaurus, which had the largest frill, being the male)? I don’t know, on the light of what I think about Horner and the T-Rex, I can’t help but have a little suspect that this might be another stunt to gain notoriety by subverting what we know about Triceratops, another widely-known dinosaur. I’m probably wrong, and Horner may have a million good reasons for his hypothesis, but I still have doubts.

What I’m trying to say here is that I have the impression that some paleontologists (Horner is not alone; his “rival” Robert Bakker seems pretty crazy too) feel that they are free to make up whatever the fuck they want since nobody will ever see a living Tyrannosaurus or Triceratops to prove them absolutely wrong. And that’s a shame, because paleontology is a very fascinating science, and should be based on the principles of science, not thirst of notoriety and attention.

N.B. Once again, is what I’ve said is total bullshit, don’t take it too seriously; there’s a reason it’s called “Random incoherent rants”.


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