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Prehistoric beasts had beautiful skulls

The Conversation used this image instead of one from Wikipedia (Artwork by Alex Bernardini, Simplex Paléo)
The Conversation used this image instead of one from Wikipedia (Artwork by Alex Bernardini, Simplex Paléo)

Science communication is tough! You have to deal with complex situations and questions, distill them down to more simple pieces while not making anything wrong by distilling down too much, and then share those pieces with an unknown audience.


On Thursday I was able to say that I was glad that a Gizmodo science writer had successfully communicated a complex situation. Today I have to say the exact opposite: somehow a science writer made something wrong when they didn’t even have to.

The research paper

It’s an article in PeerJ.

The science writing about the research paper

The Conversation is a website where researchers do some popular science writing. The lead author of the research paper put together this.


The science writing about the science writing about the research paper

Prehistoric Beast Evolved a Freaky-Ass Skull From Millions of Years of Head-Butting


It’s a silly title, but the 21st century is a place where silly titles exist, so I’m not worried about the title. What’s worrisome is the tone of the title; it implies that an animal evolved a feature over time by some force of will. That’s not how evolution works; animals do not choose to start moving their morphology towards some goal. You can believe that there is a conscious direction to biological evolution, it’s a fairly common belief, it’s just not a scientifically-supportable belief.

Filed to: dinosaurs

But there are no dinosaurs in this article, so why is it sorted to dinosaurs?

mammalian ancestor

No. Moschops and other dinocephalians are related to mammals (they’re cousins-many-times-removed of mammals) but they’re not ancestral to mammals.

What they found was a “bony labyrinth,” to house soft parts and other adaptations that probably came from generations of regularly knocking head.


I am confused by why the author makes this sound unexpected. Every vertebrate that has a skull made of bone has a bony labyrinth (not sure why that term is in quotes) to encase the inner ears; it is not something that only Moschops, or only dinocephalians, or only animals which “regularly knock head” develop.

CT scanning, which is sort of a complex x-ray

Almost every mention of CT scanning that occurs in Gizmodo articles has to include some short explanation of what CT scanning is. Is the Gizmodo audience assumed to not know what a CT scan is? It’s been used by medical science imaging since the 1970s; there are people writing for Gizmodo and reading Gizmodo who are younger than CT scanning technology.

The key advance, the researchers explain in a post on The Conversation, came from combining data from CT scanning, which is sort of a complex x-ray, with synchrotron scanning.


Read that sentence.

Read it again.

Read it a third time.

Savor that sentence, grok it in fullness.

Now answer me this question: did this fossil skull get scanned by two different methods? You don’t get points for a right or wrong answer, just answer what you learned from the article. Because the way I am reading that sentence implies that the fossil was CT scanned (for one source of data) and then synchrotron scanned (for another source of data) and then those data were combined. Does that sound reasonable or am I reading it poorly?



Wait for it.

Wait for it.

The fossil skull was scanned by one method: Propagation Phase Contrast Synchrotron micro Computed Tomography. It was CT scanned by a synchrotron.


Check out this image that wasn’t discussed or explained:

Illustration for article titled Prehistoric beasts had beautiful skullsem/em

I’m confused on why this image is used and not explained so I’ll try to science communicate it.
A is a right lateral image of the skull, the “chin” of the animal is on the bottom. The skull has a large noticeable crack going through it which meant that its two pieces had to be scanned as separate objects.
B is a right lateral partially transparent digital reconstruction of the skull with some soft tissues coloured and labelled: green is brain endocast (the portion of the skull that is empty for the brain to fit in), purple is inner ear endocast (the portion of the skull that is empty for the organs of hearing and balance), yellow is the hypophyseal fossa (where the pituitary gland sits), red are some cranial blood vessels. 1, 2, and 3 indicate coronal or frontal planes (two-dimensional images through the 3D xray volume) that are used in later images in the research paper.
C is a left lateral image, same colour labeling, the main (long) axis of the skull is indicated, as is the plane of the lateral or horizontal semicircular canals of the inner ear, and the angles between those two planes are indicated. I could probably make that a shorter explanation but I got other questionable phrases to cover.

Plus, there are lots of other thick-skulled prehistoric creatures, so study of this skull could further elucidate headbutting dinos in general.


That’s the point of comparative anatomical studies, yes; one studies life in order to learn how living systems work. But that doesn’t mean this particular research is about dinosaurs.

skull formed a helmet around its most important soft, brainy bits including … some of its facial nerves


I know what the author meant to say, the author meant to say cranial nerves, of which the facial nerves are a particular kind of cranial nerve.

All of this implied to the researchers that the animal could have taken part in head-butting, as part of a social behavior similar to what goats and other head-butting animals might do today.


Yes. That’s comparative anatomy at its best, when it’s taking data acquired from living animals to come up with reasonable hypotheses about extinct animals.

It also shed light on other species—plenty of dinosaurs had thick skulls.

Yes but why focus on dinosaurs?


Gizmodo science articles often cover new papers or new research which is covered elsewhere. This new Moschops research was discussed here and here and that seems to be it. So this article, besides the initial The Conversation article, is the only English-language article about the new Moschops research. That’s one of the reasons why it’s frustrating to see it get so many things wrong; it has a potentially larger audience than usual so why not get the science right

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