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Dinosaur discoveries are rooted in patience

Wed., April 25, 2012

Washington State University veterinarian and paleontologist Cynthia Faux: “This stuff is not black and white. There’s so much gray.”
Washington State University veterinarian and paleontologist Cynthia Faux: “This stuff is not black and white. There’s so much gray.”

If you think science is glamorous, walk a mile in Cynthia Faux’s shoes – watching dead birds soak and beef tendons tighten.

If you have any doubt that science is fascinating and complex and ever-changing – if you have any doubt that it is, in Faux’s words, fun – then keep walking. Because the ways in which Faux and other scientists are watching these dead birds, among other things, is helping them creep toward more knowledge about the world of dinosaurs.

Faux, a paleontologist and Washington State University veterinarian, does not mind in the least that the latest step in this process is a new study that seems to contradict her own work.

“It’s just science, you know? ‘Oh, you found that? Let me see, too,’ ” Faux said. “That’s what makes it so much fun. This stuff is not black and white. There’s so much gray.”

Rewind a few years. Faux was working as a post-doctoral fellow at the Museum of the Rockies, with famous dinosaur scientist Jack Horner. Her dual scholarship in veterinary medicine and paleontology had led her to question the long-standing explanations for why so many dinosaurs are found preserved in a particular way: head and neck arched dramatically backward.

This position – opisthotonos – had been considered for decades a result of something that happened to dinosaurs after they died: rigor mortis, the tightening of ligaments or tendons, the effects of flowing water or saltwater on dino carcasses …

But Faux had seen the same posture in dying animals and didn’t find those explanations persuasive. She decided to test them, along with co-author Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley. First, she turned to an Asian grocer, buying pieces of beef tendon. She also bought three frozen quail. Tendons were pinned down and observed as they dried. Quail were floated in saltwater – again, with an eye toward watching what happened with the tendons.

Faux, who also worked at a raptor recovery center, dried dead red-tailed hawks to watch the effects of rigor mortis.

“I wasn’t going to kill anything to do this,” she said. “That was a line in the sand I wasn’t going to cross.”

In those soaking and drying creatures from the 21st century, Faux hoped to find answers to questions about life hundreds of millions of years ago. The comparisons are apt for several reasons – for one thing, birds are descendants of dinosaurs. And nature works today the way nature worked millions of years ago, in basic ways.

“The present is the key to the past,” Faux said.

In short, what Faux and Padian found persuaded them that most explanations for the death posture did not hold up. The beef tendons did not contract. The soaking quail did not arch backward. The raptors merely stiffened. They concluded that death throes, such as those Faux had seen as a veterinarian, were a better explanation for opisthotonos.

So what? Well, if dinosaurs were suffering death throes from the same things that cause that reaction in modern animals – such as asphyxiation, bacterial illness, poisoning or blood loss – “it tells us something about what was going on in the environment as they were dying, rather than the conditions their corpses faced after death,” said Padian in a WSU news release.

They published the research in 2007, and because the findings contradicted previous assumptions, they drew a lot of press coverage. The stories – or at least the headlines – treated the findings as a kind of final answer: At last! Knowledge! But in truth, it was just the latest inching of the giant inchworm Science, with another “answer” right around the corner.

In this case, it came from a team of scientists in Germany who soaked plucked chicken necks in water for three months. They found that tendons did shrink and draw the chicken necks backward. In February, a spate of news reports touted the new finding, pronouncing the long-standing riddle “explained” once again.

Faux says it’s too soon to do that. Some dinosaurs may indeed have had neck ligaments that shrank in saltwater. But what about the many fossils that were not floating in water for months at a time?

If you like your answers nice and neat, this may be unsatisfying. Faux does not like her answers nice and neat. She’s fascinated by the European study, and now she’s going to do what scientists do.

“I got some dead chickens,” she said, “and I’m going to look at them and see if I can replicate what they found.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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