Science: Dinosaurs

Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006; 12:00 PM

Washington Post science writer Rick Weiss was online Monday, Oct. 2 at Noon ET to discuss his Science Page feature story that debunks one of our long time theories about the dinosaurs.

In New Look Suggests This Dinosaur Is No Beast , he writes: Bones preserved inside the fossilized stomach of an adult Coelophysis (a birdlike dinosaur), long believed to be the remnants of a snack-sized baby Coelophysis and the primary evidence for cannibalism by that species, are actually bones from a crocodile of sorts - the kind of prey that even the most ethically demanding paleontologist would find perfectly acceptable.

The rehabilitation of Coelophysis's reputation is a reminder of the difficulty of inferring animal behaviors from bits of bony evidence. But as museums prepare to revamp their displays - and as publishers mull culling those loveable images of dino parents eating their own kids - it is also a reminder that science means never having to say you're sorry.

The transcript follows.


Rick Weiss: Hello folks,

A quick disclaimer as we begin this hour-long chat: I am no expert on dinosaurs. For one thing, I am about 45 years too old (seems like grade-schoolers always know the most about these critters). For another, I only dabble in this beat -- that's one of the pleasures of science writing -- though I may be doing it more since our longtime dino-specialist, Guy Gugliotta, recently retired. I will answer those questions I know something about and perhaps speculate on a few others, but am also happy to get into whatever other science topics interest you, including today's announcement of the Nobel prize winners in medicine/physiology, which I will be writing about for tomorrow's paper.



San Francisco, Calif.: I guess we have lot of pressing issues in this world today that affect peoples lives than this current discovery of classifying an animal that existed millions of years ago into cannibal or not. This does not in anyway change any thing.

This comment is not meant to be a criticism but just an indication of how priorities differ from people to people. I read a recent article couple of months ago about a discovery where scientists proved that ancient man millions of years ago used tooth picks. I mean how are these things going to change poor peoples lives else where. I guess the developed world should be bit more responsible where the money is spent in my humble opinion.

Rick Weiss: This is a fascinating question to open with: In effect, why bother looking into these questions when there are so many more pressing things to take care of? I guess it would be nice if the money that went into this study of dinosaur cannibalism had gone instead to save some people in Darfur. Of course, for reasons huge and depressing, that was not going to happen. Here is my positive spin: Every little discovery like this is testimony to human intelligence and creativity and speaks to our species' immense curiosity and capacity to answer questions that seem totally un-answerable. How are you going to figure out how an animal that's been extinct for tens or hundreds of millions of years BEHAVED? And yet, we have figured out ways -- ways to date the rocks, to infer behaviors from bone locations. No other species has such a capacity, as far as I can tell. Perhaps this study will inspire others to focus our species' problem-solving capacities in new ways. Perhaps there is hope for us. I don't know. But if we stop being curious about everything, we are finished, I am sure.


Woodbridge, Va.: As a child I recall watching my cats eat their young when the kittens were still born. They appeared to 'eat' them whole. Of course they also ate the placenta and cords.

So...why shouldn't the dinosaurs eat 'still-hatched' young? I do not dispute the recent finding; I only question the earlier conclusion that such dinosaurs were 'cannibals.' And why wouldn't eating the dead young be a protective instinct against scavengers? Thank you

Rick Weiss: Researchers I spoke with for this story reminded me that plenty of species -- including probably some dinosaurs, at least some of the time -- eat their young under dire conditions. Making babies is a huge energy investment. If things go badly -- if they are born during a prolonged drought or during some other period of hardship, for example -- and it looks like they are not going to have much chance of survival, the cold calculus of evolution would encourage parents to eat those young -- to regain some of the energy spent on them, the better to be able to try again in the next reproductive season.


Shaw, D.C.: I appreciate science writers including you who clearly are making an effort to avoid anthropomorphizing evolutionary processes. My pet these days is -evolutionary strategy- -- as if plants and animals sat around and planned how to evolve. How hard do you and your editors work on this?

Rick Weiss: It is tempting to impute certain human traits on animals for the purposes of story telling and I would not want to come out flatly against it. I think it can make science stories more fun to read, attract readers who might otherwise not think they like science, and perhaps help people make connections they would not have made between themselves and other life forms. At the same time, of course, it runs a serious risk of adding fantasy to fact and steering people astray. So some balance is needed, and sometimes using playful language can help remind a reader that we're being a little loose here when we talk about, say, an animal's feelings or preferences. One rule I try to keep for myself is to never speak of evolution itself as a strategy or a goal-oriented process. I didn't used to worry about this so much, but with the recent resurgence of Intelligent Design and other wrongheaded views of evolution, it seems more important than ever to be precise in this regard.


Alexandria, Va.: I have a non-dinosaur science question. Isn't the technology that enable scientists to develop the the bionic arm that can read brain activity in order to move the arm more harmful than it is good? How long before this technology is being used to "write" impulses in the brain instead of read them. I think, that this is very dangerous ground that is not causing as much concern as it should.

Rick Weiss: Is this John Grisham or Robin Cook asking this question, in disguise? Great material for a new novel. Anyway, I don't think we have to worry much about using this technology to "write" thoughts into people's brains. So far, at least, the raw materials of thought (the patterns of brain activity that add up to thought) are way too complex to write from scratch. I do wonder how long it might be before people with electrodes in their brains (as, say, part of the arm device you mention) find their arms doing something not because they had the thought to do it but because someone else's garage door opener triggered an inadvertent salute or something. I am only half joking here. I also think that before we can learn to "write" thoughts we will learn to "read" them, which seems like a bad thing too.


Chongqing, China: There is a claim in Northern China, that there is a "bird like dinosaur" that has quite recently been unearth. From the TV look of it, it did have a bird like appearance. Have you heard of this discovery? Thanks.

Rick Weiss: I've not heard of this but of course there are many "bird-like" dinosaurs, including Coelophysis, the animal I wrote about today, which some people have likened to a giant turkey. It had three-toed feet that look a lot like bird feet and, most important, has the hollow bones we all find familiar today in birds. Many people today consider birds to be living dinosaurs. I must say, I'd have a very different relationship to birds today if they had row after row of razor-sharp teeth in those beaks.


Long Island, N.Y.: I second the emotion that the pursuit of scientific discovery is like art -- something we do for its own sake and because of what it does for our souls. Years ago, people said we shouldn't spend money on the Space Race when there were hungry people starving in our own cities -- a worthy sentiment, but people are, sadly, still starving, but our reaching the moon inspired the whole world.

Now for my question: Speaking of rehabilitating a dinosaur's reputation: I and my kids think it's awfully unfair to brand the species Oviraptor as "egg-thief," when all it was doing was guarding its own eggs! Any chance of a name change?

Rick Weiss: You are right that research has now reversed Ovaraptor's bad rep, and that the thinking is now that it was a good parent, incubating its eggs and perhaps even feeding its young. Of course, something like Ova-philopterous ("egg lover"?)might be just as bad -- sounds like something the Egg Council wants us all to be. Perhaps we should leave well enough alone. These guys are extinct, remember. And everything I wrote today notwithstanding, libel law does not apply to the dead.


To San Francisco: Humans are naturally curious. I'm not sure who funded the recent discovery, but, fortunately, US taxpayers support curiosity by funding research of many kinds. Some disciplines, such as biomedical research, yield practical discoveries for human health. Others yield knowledge of natural history. One can argue that this knowledge may be used for conservation and, therefore, benefits everyone and everything on the planet. However, isn't it better to know about the world that existed before us than to ignore it?

Rick Weiss: Case in point, today's Nobel prizes. Here we have a couple of guys who were exploring something pretty darned obscure -- the regulation of genes by RNA molecules in a tiny soil-dwelling worm that eats bacteria. Yawn.

But today there are people in clinical trials getting an experimental but promising drug to treat the most common form of blindness in adults -- a drug invented specifically because of the work that flowed directly from those worm experiments, as it became clear that some of the mechanisms at work in those worms's RNA and DNA is at work in people too, and that the approach was a good way to shut down genes that were causing trouble. You just never know.


Glen Arm, Md.: Why was it always assumed that dinosaurs had to be cold blooded in the past? The original 'experts' had zero proof for that conclusion, originally. The best I could find was the claim that since the creatures were descended from reptiles, they had to be cold blooded. This is and never should have been considered proof - mammals are also descended from reptiles, too and no one argues that we are cold blooded. Also, some people/scientist still make this ridiculous claim, today. Yet, over the past twenty odd years scientist have used isotope tests of fossilized bone cross-sections to show that these creatures must have been warm blooded, and even capillary density studies of fossilized bone cross-sections - all of which were consistent with the warm blooded idea (besides growth rates, which were similar only to manuals.) Of course today, we now have an image of a four-chambered heart from a dinosaur fossil (reptiles only have three) and most amazing of all, have soft tissue from a T-rex that is nearly identical to that found in the bones of modern birds. Hence, it is impossible today to claim that dinosaurs were cold blooded; that is, unless you break up the dinosaur family into unrelated groups to exclude those fossils, which would still be begging the point. Thank you, Dennis

Rick Weiss: This goes way beyond my current level of expertise but I post it for all you dino-experts to chew on. [euphemistically, of course, though (and perhaps I am part Mayan here) it seems to me that with a few bites of four-chambered dino heart in me, I could probably leap tall buildings in a single bound]


Washington, D.C.: Hello, my question is a little off the mark but how did you become a science writer? Did you get a degree in science and later started writing for a newspaper?

Rick Weiss: At last, a question on something I am a true expert on: my personal rise from adversity to spectacular success!

Okay, seriously, I took one of two major routes to the same desk, namely a science major in college (and, in my case, almost a decade working in science, doing research and working in hospital labs) followed by a decision to write about science instead of doing it (in my case punctuated with a Masters in Journalism ten years after getting my BS. to make that transition). But just as many of us seem to take the other route: Major in English or journalism or some other humanity, become a writer, and then decide to specialize in writing about science. With all the training that comes on the job with regard to the science (including fantastic opportunities to call any expert in the world and usually get a great personal tutorial) we all end up pretty much equally adept at the science -- especially considering that much of the science I write about today is pegged to research and even entire fields of research that simply did not exist when I was in college in the 70s - biotechnology, for example.


Boston: Hi Rick, No question, just keep up the good work.

Rick Weiss: Wanted to make sure to post that one.


Kensington, Md.: When reading the Washington Post article about Sterling Nesbitt, I was interested in the fact that he made his discovery by touching a cast of the fossil. How was this cast made?

Rick Weiss: I'm afraid I don't know which of several methods was used to make those brass castings, but I can tell you as a frequent NYC subway rider and visitor to that great museum that the castings are gorgeous and part of a larger revamping of the NYC subway stations over the past couple of decades. That particular station has not only the brass models but also fantastic mosaics on the walls and platform floors depicting many of the animals in the natural history museum. It is a real thrill for kids arriving by train, and for the rest of us who are supposedly above such frivolous stuff.


Toronto, Canada: Thank you very much. What is the status of the cold blooded vs. warm blooded debate and how might that relate to dinosaur behaviour including child care, cannibalism, etc. Gratefully, Stephan

Rick Weiss: Again, I must claim general ignorance on the cold-blooded dino vs warm-blooded dino debate, but it would be wrong to assume that certain traits that we think of as "warm" -- such as caring for young, being altruistic, etc. -- are linked to warm bloodedness. Cockroaches -- which, believe me, are as cold blooded as a lifeform can get -- seem to take pretty good care of their young, even providing a sort of nonmammalian milk. Some beetles also make great parents. Bees seem to almost purposefully die for the colony. In the end, this is a debate about temperature regulation and ecological niche, not about larger aspects of behavior. That's one thing I found so interesting about the research I wrote about today -- the use of cold hard bits of evidence not to figure out some of the straightforward things we want to know about dinosaurs, like where they lived or how their bodies worked, but to figure out something about their Behavior. To me, those are the kinds of things that help me relate to these animals more anima to anima.


New York, N.Y.: In answering the questionable assumption that anthropology is a waste of effort. Well I for one am interested in our homo sapiens past. Of course it is not a life altering experience to read this type of material. But I believe it does add to our knowledge...which I guess is the point.

Rick Weiss: Yes, for example: I have yet to see a report of dinosaur skeletons with human bones in their guts. Can we at least all agree on this much?

To the extent that ANY finding about ANYthing adds to the general understanding that EVIDENCE is the currency we all should be dealing in when it comes to understanding the natural world, I am all for it.


Houston, Tex.: Just a quick comment to your first poster. His/her comments come from their ignorance about how science progresses. For example, the Nobel prize today stemmed from discoveries made from studies (RNA interference) with a small worm. RNA interference has become a major tool in scientific research today, which has led to potential clinical applications directly as well helped pave the way for many new important medical discoveries. The polymerase chain reaction, perhaps the most widely used technique in molecular biology today utilizes the polymerase from bacteria that live in thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. The study of these bacteria alone would seem somewhat esoteric and useless. The point is that major revolutions in science that have major impacts on human health depend on discoveries that come from seemingly unrelated and esoteric fields.

Rick Weiss: It is one of the great things about science that, as an approach to gaining knowledge, it does not depend on having a goal. You don't have to know: I am trying to find a drug for macular degeneration. You can just apply the rules to a question about anything. The rules themselves will keep you on the track of truth. It was an unexpected result from a "control" group in an experiment -- a key part of every experiment in the scientific method -- that led to today's Nobel announcement. You just never know.

Thanks to all of you for writing in.


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