High impact paleontology

Roy Plotnick
Shattercone at the Kentland Impact Site

Two weeks ago, I made a long overdue visit to the Kentland impact site, a scant ninety-minute drive from Chicago. Exposed in a quarry is the central part of a 7.5 -kilometer crater of somewhat uncertain age. In comparison, Meteor Crater in Arizona is only 1.2 km in diameter. The crater is deeply eroded, with the original surface expression long ago removed. Nevertheless, the tilted beds, jumbled stratigraphy, some 600 meters of uplift, breccia, and abundant shattercones attest to the force of the ancient impact. Must have been a hell of a bang.

About the time I was visiting the crater, an article appeared in the New Yorker that also made one hell of a bang. It told the story of how Robert DePalma, a PhD student at the University of Kansas, had uncovered a truly remarkable site. Dubbed “Tanis,” it apparently captured the very last moment of the Cretaceous. The tale it told was very compelling; working with a minimum of funding and little professional recognition, DePalma had discovered layers packed with complete freshwater fish, with marine fossils such as mosasaurs and ammonites, with feathers and amber, and with a mammal in place in its burrow. And, most excitingly, a pterosaur, a wide range of dinosaur bone and teeth, and an egg with an embryo inside. Capping this all off was the presence of microtektites attributable to the impact, as well as strong evidence of an associated flood event. Whew! I must admit I stayed up past my bedtime to avidly read the article on my phone.

My first reaction, as was that of most of my colleagues, was to ask: “where is the scientific paper where all this is formally described?” To our surprise, it had not yet appeared. The New Yorker had broken one of the fundamental understandings of press reporting of a scientific discovery; the news is embargoed until the journal releases the paper. When the paper did shortly appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was met with the equivalent of the reaction to the Barr summary of the Mueller report. It was a detailed summary of the sedimentology of the site that makes a highly convincing case that it indeed represents a nearly synchronous record of the asteroid impact in the Yucatan. I am not a sedimentologist, but I found little to quibble with. The authors are to be congratulated. But to a large extent, the more spectacular statements about the paleontology described in the New Yorker article were also missing. Apparently, these will be reported in later papers.

Other issues have been raised with the New Yorker article. Riley Black, writing in Slate, faulted its use of the trope of the ‘heroic male paleontologist,” : “this was an opportunity to highlight the best of the field, to tell a rich story that brings all the diverse voices and perspectives working on paleontology in the 21st century to bear. We did not get that story. Instead, we got the same sexist schtick about one guy at one fossil site who’s going to figure it all out.” In a similar vein, Phoebe Cohen and Sam Giles on Facebook posted “Sensational Paleontology News Bingo!” summarizing many of the stale tropes used in the article, such as “Paleontologists are all scruffy and unkempt.”

A more serious issue arises with credit for discovering the site. The New Yorker article refers to an unnamed private collector who found the site, decided that is was a “bust” and told DePalma that “he was welcome to it.” In a posting in Facebook, Steve Nicklas of the commercial collectors Paleo Prospectors, stated that “The fossil locality was discovered in 2008 by Dr Steve Nicklas, Rob Sula and half a dozen other team members. It was Rob Sula who first discovered fossils in the immediate area. After careful examination of the site, another team member, William McLane, found a well-preserved section of sturgeon skull with remarkable ornamentation. Dr. Steve Nicklas figured out the fossil producing layer and exposed the first articulated sturgeon…” Fish specimens were jacketed and collected and eventually given to Lance Grande of the Field Museum for study (Grande has received an NSF grant to examine the specimens). Nicklas also indicates that “in 2012 we decided to try to find an academic paleontologist who had the necessary interest, time, and the ability to excavate the site… A good friend of ours, Ronnie Frithiof, recommended Robert DePalma. Mr. Frithiof was able to broker an agreement between Paleo Prospectors and DePalma. The agreement basically stated that we would surrender the immediate area of the “Tanis” site and in exchange, Mr. DePalma agreed to continue to pay the landowner an annual fee and to credit us for the discovery the site. Unfortunately, our agreement was verbal, and no written contract exists.” Nicklas added: “In no way do we want our misunderstanding with DePalma to minimize his great discoveries at the site. The only thing I want is recognition for the people in our group without whom this amazing site would never have been discovered in the first place.” He insists “The basic agreement was this: We would transfer our lease of the site to Robert in exchange for full credit for the discovery of the site and the opportunity to contribute to academic papers.” Again, the Paleo Prospectors group is not named in the New Yorker article (or anywhere else); while Nicklas and Sula are listed in the acknowledgements of the PNAS paper, their role is not mentioned. I hope that this issue is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction; Jan Smit, co-author of the PNAS paper, commented that “Robert always told us (co-authors) that you two were the original discoverers!” Perhaps a brief public statement or in the next paper?

“Tanis” site fossils being prepped at the Field Museum

My own issue with New Yorker article revolves around a single paragraph. We are told “The history of paleontology is full of tales of bribery, backstabbing, and double dealing.” The author then once more trots out the Cope-Marsh Bone Wars. We are further told “The days of skullduggery in paleontology have not passed.” Really? You bring out a more than century old story and then insist, without evidence, that it is still prevalent? I have known many paleontologists in the last four decades. Some have difficult personalities and clash over items both personal and scientific, but engaging in “skullduggery?” Maybe skull diggery. I strongly object to the calumny; my fellow paleontologists are honest scientists who I am delighted to know and interact with.

I hope that future press coverage will lower the temperature. As Robert DePalma told LiveScience: “the only information that anyone should be talking about is what’s in this published paper, because that’s the only thing that can be freely evaluated based on the scientific data.” Amen.

Roy Plotnick

Written by

Paleontologist, geologist, ecologist, educator. Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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