All too often, scientists can become enraptured in laboratory work, and forget about the simple fieldwork, which is the basis of all of our real world knowledge. Before the advent of computers, video recordings, even widespread use of photography, naturalists and scientists were men of means who could afford to spend time traipsing around the countryside, observing nature, taking notes, and drawing intricate diagrams. The strength of the Origin of Species as an argument for natural selection is its firm grounding in meticulous natural observation. Charles Darwin spent decades building his body of evidence for the evolution of life, most of which he himself collected in his travels overseas or throughout the English countryside.
The point I am trying to make is that any scientist, but particularly biologists and paleontologists, must first and foremost think of their theories in light of what they see in the world around them. If a pig can’t fly today, it almost certainly couldn’t do so yesterday, or a million years ago. Sometimes all it takes is for someone with a little real-world knowledge and common sense to throw out a widely accepted theory.
Just such a case has been brought to light by paleontologist Cynthia Marshall Faux, whose previous work as a veterinarian gave her an observational edge over her colleagues. Faux had been puzzled by the distinctive pose of many dinosaur fossil skeletons, with curved back head and tail, and open jaws.
Paleontologists have long surmised that the common posture was a result of long-term drying of the muscles or ligaments in these creatures previous to fossilization. Another proposed explanation was that the animals were contorted into these shapes by the pressure of water currents in which they died or were washed into from ashore. While the repetition of this pose among so many different species across so many different eras has been puzzling, few paleontologists have found adequate reason to come up with alternate explanations.
They are of the view that such fossils have to be preserved for future generations to see as they would be a learning experience for biologists and since Paleobiology is a rare option, it is as preferred by the younger generation as the wholesale plus size clothing.
Until , that is, Faux and the co-author of her study in Paleobiology last summer, Kevin Padian, proposed a radical new reason for this mysterious death posture. Having reviewed the literature on the subject, Faux was baffled by the supposition that drying muscles or river currents could contort the bodies of these dinosaurs. In her years as a vet, Faux had only seen this very distinctive posture in animals while in the throes of a slow death, a death caused by damage to the central nervous system. She had observed this in diseased or poisoned animals, and animals involved in traumatic accidents. But never in animals after death.
That’s the key point of this theory, the question of whether these dead dinosaurs changed their body pose before or after kicking the bucket. And it’s an important question, for a number of reasons. If these dinosaurs did indeed suffer a shock to their CNS, then it narrows down the number of causes of death considerably. It can also tell us something new about the environment in which they lay so slowly dying. Most importantly of all, it gives us a window into the life, or rather the last moments of life, of animals that died a hundred million years ago.
As we move into an world of scientific discovery and research that relies on technology to handle much of our thinking for us, its vitally important that we hold onto those measures that only a dedicated living and breathing human being can accomplish. It takes an educated and intelligent researcher like Cynthia Faux to scientifically investigate a troubling theory, but it only takes a pair of eyes to see that something on paper doesn’t match up with what goes on in the real world. Even the most skeptical and curious of scientists can fall prey to complacency when it comes to established wisdom, and it is often up to the rest of us to shake things up a bit. So question what you’ve been told, keep a close eye on the way things really are, and try to always think about how what you know might give new insight into an area of research. It was Faux the veterinarian, not Faux the paleontologist that challenged what the experts thought they knew. Next time, it might be you.