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WSU 'dino detective'
New study adds to 'death pose' debate
Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2012
By Linda Weiford, WSU News
WSU veterinarian and paleontologist Cynthia Faux. (Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services)
PULLMAN, Wash. - It's not often that serious scientific debate involves plucked chicken necks, beef from the butcher and Styrofoam peanuts. But this one does.
In an international mystery worthy of a CSI Jurassic Park special, a Washington State University veterinarian whose 2007 study caused an exciting double-take in the field of paleontology says a new study that claims otherwise doesn't mean her theory is incorrect. Rather, "it adds to our knowledge of how dinosaurs died and perhaps how they lived.
Ornithomimus edmontonicus a swift runner in life,
about 65 million years ago.
Cynthia Faux (pronounced "Fox), who teaches at WSU's veterinary college, bears the rare distinction of also being a paleontologist. After teaching large-animal medicine at North Carolina State University, she earned her Ph.D. in paleontology at Yale University in 2000.
She did post-doctoral work with the famous Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., who served as Steven Spielberg's scientific adviser for the Jurassic Park movies.
Dinosaur tales and 15 minutes of fame
The idea of dinosaurs roaming the earth fascinated Faux as a child, as it does most kids.
"As I got older, the intrigue never left, she said, sipping on a coffee mug displaying an etching of Torosaurus latus, a horned, 6-ton beast that lived 65 million years ago.
As for becoming a veterinarian, "I've just absolutely loved animals my whole life, said Faux, who, with her husband, owns a cat, two parrots and a 2-foot-long lungfish (an eel-like creature with fins whose ancestors lived alongside the dinosaurs) that slithers about in a large tank.
Fossil of Ornithomimus edmontonicus in "death
pose" at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada.
It is Faux the veterinarian who questioned the traditional explanations about why so many dinosaurs are found preserved in a bizarre posture - their heads and tails arched severely backward as if engaged in an agonizing form of limbo dance.
"In my years as a veterinarian I had seen the same posture in dying animals, said Faux, who teaches animal anatomy part-time at WSU. "I decided to test the possibility that, in certain circumstances, dinosaurs died similarly to modern-day animals.
After her findings were published, it was Faux the paleontologist who found herself facing the proverbial 15 minutes of fame - as paleontologists and geologists across continents, along with The New York Times, ABC and numerous science blogs, all weighed in on what she and her co-author had discovered.
"Dino Death Posture Explained, proclaimed Discovery News. "Dino Detectives Decode Death Dance, declared the research news website, Science a GoGo.
"Our work got a lot of attention, a lot of press. It's a little amusing to think about it now, Faux recalled.
The study, co-authored by Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was published in the journal Paleobiology. Their work didn't involve complex data or high-tech gadgetry in a laboratory, said Padian. Instead, it had more to do with Faux's "clever observations as a veterinarian, her wisdom as a paleontologist and plain old kitchen science, he said.
Examined modern-day cousins
Until Faux entered the scientific debate, paleontologists had offered two main explanations for what caused dinosaurs' heads and tails to curve backward: strong water currents had arched their bodies; or the drying and stiffening of muscles, ligaments and tendons during rigor mortis had contorted them. In either case, they theorized that dinosaurs were forced into the position after death.
"As a veterinarian, I had a problem with that, said Faux. "I'd seen a lot of animals go into that posture before death, resulting from conditions affecting parts of the brain that regulate muscle movement.
In fact, this reverse-bow posture is so common in modern-day medicine that it has a name opisthotonos: "It's part of a dying process, not a result of death, Faux said.
And so, in her experiments, Faux used beef tendons from the grocer, a collection of dead birds, barrels of water and Styrofoam peanuts to test the traditional theories.
She watched dead birds for movement as rigor mortis set in and saw no changes in posture. Additionally, she studied several euthanized hawks as they dried for two months on waxed paper and Styrofoam peanuts. Still, no movement.
She also pinned beef tendons to Styrofoam boards to test whether tendons drying and pulling at joints explained the pose, but "any shrinking was so miniscule that the pins stayed just where they were, she said.
Finally, to check the brine theory that high-salt conditions contorted dinosaur carcasses, she immersed dead birds in salt water. But this, too, failed to pull their bodies back over themselves.
"Given my observations, it was hard to imagine how salt water or rigor mortis could have pulled a heavy creature like T. rex into an opisthotonic posture, she said.
Instead, the study's findings suggest that many dinosaurs suffered death throes as they perished from asphyxiation, bacterial illness, heavy blood loss or poisoning, she explained.
If dinosaurs did die that way, "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 co-author Padian. Volcanic ash clouds, toxic algae and epidemic bacterial infections are all possibilities, he said.
Rubberband necks and watery graves?
Because science is fluid and rarely final, a recent study - in which two European scientists soaked plucked chicken necks in water - revealed something different. After three months, the birds' necks stooped backward up to 140 degrees, according to the study published in the February journal Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments.
This quickly changed the tide of opinion in the media:
"How Rotting Chicken Necks Explain a Long-standing Paleontologist Riddle, heralded an article in Discovery Magazine. "No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of this Fossil, announced The New York Times.
So which is it? Did dinosaurs have rubbery ligaments in their necks that curved rearward in salt water after death? Or did their bodies arc as they lay dying, a result of suffocation, sickness or injury that impacted their central nervous systems?
"Not one answer explains everything, said Faux. "It's not as though one theory disproves the other theory.
For example, as she and Padian point out, plenty of dinosaur skeletons found in the opisthotonic position have been found in non-aqueous sediment, where water was never present.
Why dunking dead birds in salt water produced different results in the two studies is a mystery. But like an episode of CSI that's To Be Continued when its forensic scientists can't crack a murder case, Faux hopes to conduct another course of research, she said.
"How dinosaurs died may tell us more about how they lived and, as a veterinarian, I'm interested in this.
Cynthia Faux, College of Veterinary Medicine, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cynthia King, WSU News, 509-335-4668, email@example.com