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Dinosaurs Max's Random Ramblings The History of Paleontology

Misinformation and the Media: Clickbait in Paleontology

Despite being a scientific field, paleontology often finds itself victim to clickbait of Gigantic proportions.

It should have been a simple headline: new carcharodontosaurid discovered in Uzbekistan.

Yet it wasn’t.

Clickbait is terrible. Nothing is more infuriating than finding the perfect headline only for the content inside to be completely different. By now, I am sure we’ve all seen a “you won’t believe this” or “guaranteed weight loss” headline while browsing the internet. While you’d think that the tabloid headlines are reserved for the gutters of the internet, this is not the case. Despite being a field of scientific research, paleontology is unfortunately not exempt from the plague of clickbait. This infestation is best demonstrated whenever one of two things is discovered: a large theropod, or sauropod.

Let’s start with the theropods. Below is an example of a bad headline regarding the discovery of the carcharodontosaurid mentioned in the introduction:

Doesn’t seem that bad, right? Here’s the reality. On September 8th 2021, a new theropod genus named Ulughbegsaurus was discovered in Uzbekistan. At nine meters long, Ulughbegsaurus was quite a bit smaller than the 12-meter-long Tyrannosaurus. So why is T-rex even in the headline?

Ulughbegsaurus lived 90 million years ago during an important transition period in the Earths ecology. At this time, carcharodontosaurids were the top predators of most global ecosystems. Their dominance, which had lasted since the mid-Jurassic period some 170 million years ago when they were still classified as allosaurids, was nearing its end. In the northern hemisphere, they would be succeeded by a far more recognizable theropod family: the Tyrannosaurids. In fact, Ulughbegsaurus lived alongside the early Tyrannosaurid Timurlengia and would have eclipsed it as top predator in their shared ecosystems. This is where the “five times bigger” comes from, as Ulughbegsaurus would have been almost five times as big as Timurlengia. What makes the headline even more infuriating is that the information within the article is largely correct; it’s just the headline that contains the misinformation.

What is the ideal headline to convey this information? How about we take a look at one courtesy of the Smithsonian Magazine to find out:

New dinosaur? Check. Large carnivore? Check. Terror to smaller tyrannosaurids? Slightly exaggerated, yet nonetheless possible. An acceptable headline, in my opinion.

Now on to the sauropods. Clickbait headlines in paleontology often stem from the discovery of gigantic sauropods. When discovered, massive sauropods often become hailed as the “largest dinosaur ever discovered.” Labelling every new sauropod as the biggest ever has become a tradition for paleontology reporting, as it seems that the world’s biggest dinosaur is discovered on an annual basis. While some claims are potentially valid, such as the discoveries of Dreadnoughtus (2014) and Patagotitan (2017), most specimens are too incomplete to be truly crowned the largest.

If this is the case, then why is the headline so common? It goes without saying that sensationalized headlines will get more attention. If a news site had a headline of “large sauropod leg discovered,” I doubt that article would do well. If it proclaimed that the leg belonged to the largest dinosaur ever, then it might do exceptionally well. Same goes for the theropod headlines. If a theropod was bigger than a Tyrannosaurus, then it immediately grasps the viewers’ attention. Anything else would just slip past the audience’s attention.

That’s the main problem. Most people are mostly interested in hearing about dinosaurs when it’s either the biggest or when it’s related to T-rex. I must admit, this is something I often consider when writing my own articles. Without looking into it, I would guess that I have mentioned Tyrannosaurus more than any other dinosaur. Though T-rex is awesome, there are in fact so many more weird and wonderful dinosaurs out there. That’s part of the fun I have in writing about dinosaurs. Acknowledging all the amazing dinosaurs, not just who is the biggest.

References:

I do not take credit for any images that are found in this article.

AFP. “Scientists Think These Ridiculous Bones May Belong to New Largest-Ever Dinosaur.” ScienceAlert, 21 Jan. 2021, https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-claim-they-may-have-found-the-largest-dinosaur-ever-known.

Bumpus, Jon. “New Dinosaur Species 5 Times Bigger than a T-Rex Identified by Researchers Sounds like the New ‘Jurassic Park’ Plot.” Outsider, 12 Sept. 2021, https://outsider.com/outdoors/new-dinosaur-species-5-times-bigger-than-t-rex-identified-researchers-sounds-like-new-jurassic-park-plot/.  

Magazine, Smithsonian. “New, Giant Carnivorous Dinosaur Was a Terror to Smaller Tyrannosaurs.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 8 Sept. 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/new-giant-carnivorous-dinosaur-was-terror-smaller-tyrannosaurs-180978599/.  

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