What’s Wrong with This Story?

Several skeletons, including that of a long-necked plesiosaur, hanging from a ceiling.

Look up to see a long-necked plesiosaur fossil cast near the ceiling in the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery at the museum. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

A recent story posted on dawn.com, Oil Sands Digger Uncovers Dinosaur, grabbed my attention, as did the beautiful rendering of a short-necked plesiosaur by artist S. Abramowicz (but attributed to Reuters) that followed the headline.

I was a little confused because dinosaurs and plesiosaurs were as different from one another as today’s cows are from cats. The story that followed told an interesting tale of a sharp-eyed heavy equipment operator working for Syncrude, the company’s continued collaboration with Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum, and an exciting new fossil discovery that will now be preserved for future study and exhibition.

The scientist quoted in the piece, my friend Don Brinkman, was clear in stating that the fossil discovered is indeed a plesiosaur, but a long-necked plesiosaur (sometimes called an elasmosaur), not a short-necked species like the one pictured.

Plesiosaurs were one of several kinds of giant marine reptiles that lived in the world’s oceans when dinosaurs prowled the continents. They must have been magnificent beasts, snapping at fish while gliding through the warm waters of the world’s oceans, powered by strokes from their flipper-like front and hind limbs.

Elasmosaurs, like the specimen with the impossibly long neck “flying” overhead in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery, could be more than 12 m (40 ft.) in length, with the head and neck making up two-thirds of the entire length.

Note to Media: Get the basic facts right, please:

  1. plesiosaurs aren’t dinosaurs
  2. short-necked and long-necked plesiosaurs aren’t the same thing
  3.  works by artists should be attributed
  4. plesiosaurs were wondrous, fascinating beasts, and one of the top marine predators of the Mesozoic Era—they don’t need to be incorrectly called “dinosaurs” to make them interesting.

About Steve Cumbaa

I'm a research scientist in vertebrate paleontology at the Canadian Museum of Nature, specializing in fossil fishes and marine paleoenvironments. Most of my field work takes place in Canada - largely in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Making new discoveries and exploring remote places is a terrific part of the job, but I also enjoy the opportunity to bring science directly to the public by giving talks, contributing to exhibits and websites, and writing articles and books, including several science books for children. My own four children are grown and pursuing their dreams. My wife Penny and I now share our home in Ottawa with our two large dogs.
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