Triassic? No, Eocene Bird Tracks: How to Fix a Mistake in “Nature”

The whole point of this post is to show that sometimes scientists AND referees make mistakes. This one (see below) the authors corrected themselves, likely after catching hell from colleagues for the last 11 years. The referees are probably glad to retain their anonymity.

Figure 1. Bird tracks originally considered Latest Triassic, now considered Eocene, from Argentina.

Figure 1. Bird tracks originally considered Latest Triassic, now considered Eocene, from Argentina.

It all started a decade ago
when Melchor, De Valais and Genise (2002) reported very bird-like tracks in Latest Triassic sediments in Argentina. This was deemed worthy of the academic journal Nature because, if valid, this would have pushed the origin of birds, or bird-like dinosaurs, back from the Latest Jurassic to the Latest Triassic. A very hot topic! Respected paleontologist referees gave this the green light and it was published.

However, recently this paper was retracted.

Here’s the apologetic abstract
from Melchor, De Valais and Genise (2013) 

“Bird-like tracks from northwest Argentina have been reported as being of Late Triassic age. They were attributed to an unknown group of theropods showing some avian characters. However, we believe that these tracks are of Late Eocene age on the basis of a new weighted mean 206Pb/238U date (isotope dilution–thermal ionization mass spectrometry method) on zircons from a tuff bed in the sedimentary succession containing the fossil tracks. In consequence, the mentioned tracks are assigned to birds and its occurrence matches the known fossil record of Aves.”

Hopefully apologies have been accepted worldwide.
These three “came clean” and made their mistake known and I’m sure all three will continue to make important contributions to paleontology.

Some scientists do not accept apologies or corrections. Some rifle through trash for rejected ideas so they can pillory others. Some scientist can not accept their own mistakes. Some scientists reject solutions to problems by labeling them, “highly idiosyncratic (= a mode of behavior or way of thought peculiar to an individual)” just because they have new ideas not preciously considered by others. These are the scientists who are gumming up the works.

There are several papers that have been rejected by referees clinging to the status quo that solve several enigmas and clear up several mysteries using established scientific methods. Several of those rejections from referees who are “gumming up the works” provided the reason for this blog and

Melchor RN, De Valais S and Genise JF 2002. Bird-like fossil footprints from the Late Triassic. Nature 417, 936–938 (2002)
Melchor RN, De Valais S and Genise JF 2013. A late Eocene date for Late Triassic bird tracks. Nature 495, E1–E2 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/nature11931

1 thought on “Triassic? No, Eocene Bird Tracks: How to Fix a Mistake in “Nature”

  1. This particular blog post hit me on a personal level. I am familiar with the two main points that you write about: 1) sometimes scientists make mistakes, and 2) some scientists (and scholars in general) are complete jerks.

    I have no problem whatsoever with academics making a claim which later turns out to be untrue. I bear no bad feelings at all against these men and women – in fact, I embrace them. Too often, paleontologists and other scientists are afraid of making claims or assertions because they are terrified that they’re going to be wrong, that they’re going to be laughed at, and that their academic credibility will decline. To all of you aspiring academics out there, I say this – DON’T BE AFRAID!!! Take a risk, take a chance! If you’re wrong, so what? Think about what a timid mouse-like existence it would be if every academic behaved in the manner described above, always worrying about whether or not they might be wrong or if they wouldn’t be taken seriously. I have made many bold claims in my writings in my college research papers and in my book. A lot of the things that I had to say (and am still saying) were against the status quo. Admitantly, several of my claims are speculative with little hard evidence to back them up. However, as I have said in the past to my family, friends, and my students, I would much rather be bold, take a chance, issue a statement or a claim, and be wrong rather than always living in fear and consequently keeping my ideas to myself.

    As to the second point…oh boy. This one hit me hard. I can’t tell you how many PhDs I’ve come across in my time who were some of the most arrogant snobbish look-down-your-nose people that I’ve ever met in my life. They believed that since I didn’t have a doctorate my ideas were completely worthless. Instead, they humored me on my various hypotheses, like going along with a child’s belief in an imaginary friend. I thought that my ideas were perfectly valid and deserved serious consideration. However, since I didn’t have those magic three letters slapped onto the end of my name, my ideas didn’t matter.

    Academia, especially in a field like paleontology where much of the knowledge is unknown and necessitates speculation, requires “highly idiosyncratic” thinking. We NEED individuals. We need bright shining axe-weilding warriors of scholarship who aren’t afraid to charge into the no man’s land and get their hands dirtied and bloodied. Of course “the enemy” (the academic establishment) will resist them, and in their time the individual thinkers will suffer their fair share of defeats. However, as Thomas Paine once said “the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”.

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