EGU Blogs

Which palaeontology stories in 2015 captured the public’s imagination?

This was originally posted here!

Happy New Year everyone! It’s that time of year when all the summaries of an amazing year of research are coming out, and goodness, what a year it’s been! The folk over at Altmetric have been kind enough to summarise the top 100 articles of 2015, measured by their altmetrics scores – a measure of the social media chatter around articles. All the data are available on Figshare, and here I just wanted to highlight the palaeontology stories that stood out in the media this year according to the list.

#3: Incoming sixth mass extinction! Mass extinctions are periods in the history of life where there have been catastrophic and widespread deaths, leading to elimination of groups and the arrival of new organisms in their stead. There is now overwhelming evidence to suggest that humans are causing a sixth mass extinction, with the extinction of species happening at an unprecedented rate above the ‘normal’ rate. Not only that, but we’re also well within the extinction event, with the last few centuries seeing the worst declines in global biodiversity.

#20 New dinosaur nicknamed ‘Hellboy’! So another new ceratopsian dinosaur isn’t that fantastic, despite how cool the new taxon, Regaliceratops, looks. However, if you stick a proposal to your girlfriend in the Acknowledgements section of the paper, then you’re going to get a lot of attention! Cute eh, and a sneaky way of boosting your altmetric score! I wrote about another new ceratopsian, Wendiceratopsfor Discover Magazine, and both made my top dinosaur finds of 2015 list! Sadly, the authors decided to publish the article in a paywalled journal.

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Regaliceratops in all it’s horny glory! Image: Julius Csotonyi

#55 Brontosaurus rises from the grave! While only a small part of a pretty wicked, and very detailed, analysis of the evolutionary relationships of a group of sauropod dinosaurs called diplodocids, the resurrection of the name Brontosaurus was a bit of a nostalgic moment for dinosaur lovers all around the world. Previously, the name had been removed, as is the fickle nature of taxonomy, but a new study shows that in fact the specimens assigned to this name were distinct enough to keep the name valid! More details here in a post for EarthTouch.

#94 Usually, when palaeontologists discover a new dinosaur species, we have a pretty good idea about where it fits in the evolutionary tree. Chilesaurus was an absolutely mind-boggling discovery,  a beaked, plant-eating theropod from the Late Jurassic of South America! Only time and further analyses will tell how this crazy beasty fits in with what we currently know about dinosaurs. It’s nice to know that still, after centuries of excavation, the fossil record can still throw up nice surprises! Here’s a read-only link to the paper, which is also paywalled at source.

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Chilesaurus, what a freaky dinosaur! Image: Gabriel Lio

One of the nice things about this list is that it highlights work published in newer journals like PeerJ and Royal Society Open Science. This helps to demonstrate how altmetrics can be used as a measure of engagement for content published in newer journals which may not yet be recognised through more traditional impact measures. It also shows that you don’t need to shoot for ‘glamour’ journals in order to get significant recognition for your work – let your research speak for itself!

Another thing worth thinking about is if you’re going to publish a paper which is going to get a lot of media attention, don’t stick it behind a paywall. Imagine what you lose by disabling access to potentially hundreds of thousands of readers (and the numbers do get that high!), and what you can gain through the simple act of choosing an open journal.

Jon began university life as a geologist, followed by a treacherous leap into the life sciences. He is now based at Imperial College London, investigating the extinction and biodiversity patterns of Mesozoic tetrapods – anything with four legs or flippers – to discover whether or not there is evidence for a ‘hidden’ mass extinction 145 million years ago. Alongside this, Jon researches the origins and evolution of ‘dwarf’ crocodiles called atoposaurids. Prior to this, there was a brief interlude were Jon was immersed in the world of science policy and communication, which has greatly shaped his view on the broader role that science can play, and in particular, the current ‘open’ debate. He tweets as @Protohedgehog.
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