Sometimes scientists make mistakes…

…and that’s ok! I think it’s important to talk about what happens when we do make mistakes, and the importance of it. Sometimes you misinterpret data, or do the wrong analysis, or get something wrong. Normally these things are caught in peer review, but sometimes the mistake is so difficult to catch, that it even gets through peer review.

Now I’m not talking here about new discoveries that years later turn out to falsify someone else’s conclusions. Those aren’t mistakes, that’s just science. But sometimes you make a mistake, and it isn’t until after publication that these mistakes are noticed. Something like misinterpreting a fossil.

This happens a fair bit, especially with partial fossils. We have a few cases of turtles being mistaken for dinosaurs, and after asking Twitter for help, found many more examples including a giant spider that turned out to be a sea scorpion (Tony Martin), a conifer that turned out to be a weird giant fungus (Susannah Lydon), mouth and appendage of Anomalocaris from the Burgess Shale being described as different species (Mike Dickson), and many more that you can read here for more examples people gave. Of course this is also an unfortunately common problem with pterosaurs. Since pterosaur fossils are often so fragmentary and poorly preserved, and since they have such a unique morphology, we’re guilty of finding weird things and calling them pterosaurs. Overlapping with the turtle problem above, there is the example of the flying turtle, as well as the mistaken fish.

A few years ago, my friend Greg (a PhD student at my old uni, University of Alberta) found a weird bone while doing fieldwork in Dinosaur Provincial Park. He spent a long time trying to figure out what it was, specifically looking at theropod dinosaurs because they are pretty commonly found and the right size, but he and his supervisor couldn’t place it. He got in touch with me since the specimen had very thin-walled bones and looked highly pneumatised, both pterosaurian features. We thought the specimen looked like a bit of pelvis, and it’s giant size was consistent with the finds of giant pterosaurs from southern Alberta. We interpreted it this way, Greg made some great drawings including muscle attachments, and we sent it off to review. After spending so long contemplating the specimen, we knew that there was a chance it wasn’t a pterosaur, although we had done everything we could to see what else it could have been. We were very pleased when the reviewers and editor of the journal (not pterosaur-only workers) agreed with our assessment, and we published the paper. Huzzah!

However, a few weeks later, I saw a tweet by another palaeontologist suggesting the bone was actually a skull bone of a tyrannosaur. I asked around, and found that a few people were agreeing. I know pretty much nothing about tyrannosaurs, so I didn’t know how likely that was. Could we have gotten it wrong? I mentioned it to Greg, and he started to have a look at the bone from a new perspective, with some help from the awesome collections at the University of Alberta. After a while, he came to the conclusion that we were, in fact, wrong, and it was actually a tyrannosaur squamosal.

After some discussion, we decided to publish a correction in order to make sure the public record was correct. This was really hard to do. Of course no one wants to come forward and say “nope, I was wrong”. But also, we wanted to make sure that the correct identification was out there for everyone to see so the science was correct, and we also didn’t thought it would be better for us to publish it than someone else years later. You can read Greg’s thoughts on it here.

Image of UALVP 5g200 (A and C) and an isolated tyrannosaur squamosal. Image from Funston et al. 2018.

It’s important in science that you are allowed to make mistakes, and that we can learn from them. In this case, I learned that tyrannosaurs have insanely thin-walled, pneumatised skull bones, rivalling those of pterosaurs. I also learned to be careful in identifying partial specimens, and that it can be very tough. I think it’s important to be able to look at specimens from several different angles and really make sure that what you’re not biased by what you think is.

But more importantly than anything, as scientists, you must be able to admit when you are wrong. It’s ok to be wrong. It happens. So often I see people hold on to ideas that others have shown aren’t correct. And I’ve seen people hold back for fears of being wrong. Obviously if you can, do it right the first time. And don’t take shortcuts if you know it’ll result in mistakes, but if you make an honest mistake, that’s ok too! Get on top of it, admit it, and move on. And in the meantime, enjoy Greg’s great artwork on the subject:

It’s a pterosaur-pelvis-tyrannosaur-squamosal!

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