"Dakota" unveiled, but not in the literature

Is the National Geographic Society hurting science more than helping it? In December of 2007 the group launched a media blitz (including two books, a documentary, and a speaking tour) surrounding the exquisitely preserved specimen of "Dakota," purported to be an as-yet-undescribed species of Edmontosaurus. Although the NGS released a supplementary news report in March to keep everyone's interest going, I don't think I'm alone in expressing my frustration that this dinosaur has been widely promoted yet we're all still waiting for something, anything in the technical literature.

Those of you in North Dakota don't have to wait, though; you can see parts of "Dakota" (an arm and the tail) yourself. On June 14 an exhibit featuring the hadrosaur opened at the North Dakota Heritage Center and Yale paleontology student Tyler Lyson, who discovered the fossil in 1999, has previously commented that he'd like to take it on tour (and I really hope he means a cast and not the real thing). From what mass-media reports have said, though, much of the dinosaur is still encased in rock and it is uncertain whether it even has a head. Estimates state that it may well be another year before the dinosaur is fully out of the rock, so we'll probably have to wait a while longer before we get any more details about the animal.

"Dakota" will receive some competition this coming December, though. Another wonderfully preserved hadrosaur, the Brachylophosaurus named "Leonardo," will be unveiled at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The specimen was mentioned in Horns and Beaks but more information has yet to appear in the literature. Unlike "Dakota," though, "Leonardo" has already been uncovered and some pretty neat technologies were used to create precise replicas of the intricate detail of the fossil. One such replica is already on display and it will eventually tour in the country in a traveling exhibit. (Also of interest is that last month another hadrosaur was found by Steven Cowan, a pr rep for the Houston museum. It has been nicknamed "Marco.")

(Speaking of "Leonardo," I have some exclusive clips of Bob Bakker talking about the dinosaur and the exhibit. The problem is that I don't seem to have a program to make clips of the DVD that was sent to me. If anyone can recommend a program that can handle the ifo and vod files so I can cut out the bits to run a video series here, please let me know as it is really some interesting stuff. [Note; The video I have is not from the upcoming Discovery Channel documentary, but instead unique video sent specifically to be shared with you by the Houston Museum.])

When dealing of fossils of such importance it takes time to make sure they are cleaned and prepped correctly. (How many years has Tim White been working on his crumbly Ardipithecus remains now?) As curious as we are it takes time to do things right, and I would rather wait than see an important part of a specimen lost in a rushed process. Even so, in the case of "Dakota" I am frustrated that so much low-quality material was rushed into production long before anyone could even be given a good look at the fossil because it had not appeared in the literature. Hopefully things will become clearer in a few months, and if you live in North Dakota or Texas at least you have a chance to see these fossils up close before the rest of us.

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I hadn't even considered that the hype-machine created for these mummies might force a botched, rushed preparation process. Ugh...that's a dim prospect. Thank goodness that Leonardo is just about completely prepared, though. There are some great pictures of him (and several other spectacular Brachylophosaurus) on the Judith River Dinosaur Project website.

Take Dakota on tour?! I'm not sure what to say about that one, other than that I hope your theory about taking a cast around is correct.

By Adam Pritchard (not verified) on 09 Jul 2008 #permalink

Adam; What's even stranger is that the NG money for prepping Dakota is about to run out as the process has taken longer than expected. Two books and a documentary were produced but they may not see this project through to completion. I can't say why, but it doesn't look good to hype a fossil and then drop it less than a year later; I hope the money comes from somewhere to continue the work. Indeed, the NGS seems to want to make certain fossils "exclusives" for them only, putting pressure on the scientists to produce books and articles and documentaries before the scientific work is even done. I'm sure the money helps but given all the BS that comes with it I don't know how beneficial such associations are.

I've started actively ignoring Dakota news. I just don't care anymore. Until somebody publishes a technical paper about her, I will give that hype machine no support.

It's because the funding didn't come from the research-supporting end of the Society. It came from the media end of NGS. The hype and push has been part of this foolish story since day 1.