The Mesozoic Mailbag

Year in Review: Paleontology in 2022

Need a recap of the top discoveries, research, and events in paleontology from the last year? Look no further!

2022 was a massive year for the field of paleontology. As has become customary, new species and research flooded the headlines, helping create a more vivid picture of prehistory and the animals that inhabited it. 2022 was also a big year for popular media in paleontology, as numerous series, books, and events became more centerstage than the scientific discoveries themselves (at least in my opinion).

Instead of discussing every major headline in-depth in this article, I will discuss my top entries of 2022 in categories such as best book, best headline, etc. On that note, let’s celebrate the new year by reflecting on what made 2022 such a big year for paleontology!

Biggest Controversy: Tie – Tyrannosaurus and Spinosaurus cause a raucous

It shouldn’t be surprising that two of the most famous – and controversial – dinosaurs caused some trouble in 2022, but here we are. In March, paleontologist Gregory Paul published a study proposing that Tyrannosaurus be split into three separate species: T. rex, T. imperator, and T. regina. Suffice to say this wasn’t well accepted in the field; within 4 months, a ‘Tyrannosaur dream team’ had assembled to rebut Paul’s claim. While this feud may bleed into 2023, it’s clear from the first few days of 2023 that Tyrannosaurus is already an early contender to occupy this spot next year.

As for Spinosaurus, the years-long controversy about its aquatic capabilities continued at full steam. In March, bone analysis of Spinosaurus and its close relatives determined that Spinosaurus had dense bones capable of diving underwater. Verdict: Subaquatic hunter. Then, in late November, paleontologists led by Paul Sereno created models that determined it was incapable of diving. Verdict: non-aquatic. Given that new Spinosaurus research is published approximately every 6 hours, I don’t expect this controversy to stop anytime soon. 

Best Book: The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, by Steve Brusatte

In what was truly a great year for dinosaur literature, Steve Brusatte’s long awaited sequel to the Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs stands above the rest. Brusatte’s tale of Mammalia both exhilarates and informs, detailing how mammals appeared on the scene and answers what makes mammals so special. Though some parts of the book spend a lot of time on (seemingly) little things like teeth and inner ears, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals is a great book and one of the truly elite works about prehistoric mammals (which are sometimes in short supply).

Honorable Mentions: Mesozoic Art: Dinosaurs and Other Ancient Animals in Art, by Darren Naish and Steve White; The Desert Bones, by Jamale Ijouiher; The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, by Riley Black; Otherlands, by Thomas Halliday; The Monster’s Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How It Shook Our World, by David K. Randall; The Future of Dinosaurs & How Fast Did T. rex Run, By David Hone.

My Collection of 2022 Dinosaur Books!

Best New Species: Natovenator polydontus

A small raptor from the Late Cretaceous Period of Mongolia, Natovenator was likely the first aquatic dinosaur. With streamlined ribs reminiscent of diving birds and the appearance of a swan, Natovenator’s unique anatomy has led paleontologists to envision it as an aquatic animal capable of diving. Some close relatives of Natovenator, notably the enigmatic taxa Halszkaraptor, have been proposed to be aquatic as well, making Natovenator an important species for evaluating aquatic capabilities. The best part of Natovenator’s discovery was its timing: a mere day after Spinosaurus was declared to no longer be aquatic, Natovenator made its debut into the world.

Honorable Mentions: Meraxes gigas, a giant theropod from Argentina named after one of the Dragons from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire; Jakapil kaniukura, a small, bizarre ankylosaur also from Argentina; Bisticeratops froeseorum, a ceratopsian with a massive frill that was bitten by tyrannosaurids while in life.

Most Interesting Headline: Pachycephalo-roos?

This was a strange one. At the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual conference (more on that later), paleontologist Cary Woodruff proposed a strange concept: what if the dome headed Pachycephalosaurs reared up on their tails for combat like Kangaroos? It’s somewhat controversial, given that: A) the study refutes pre-existing notions of Pachycephalosaur headbutting behaviours; and B) that there are few post-cranial remains of Pachycephalosaurs. However, studies like this certainly add an extra layer of intrigue to lesser-known dinosaurs, perhaps generating further research into topics should be explored.

Honorable Mention: Were Mosasaurs – giant, aquatic reptiles – venomous? A notion proposed by Henry Sharpe.   

The ‘Media Darling’ Award: Prehistoric Planet

What can I say about Apple TV’s Prehistoric Planet that I haven’t said before? The five-part docuseries, produced by Jon Favreau and advised by paleontologist Darren Naish, has everything a paleonerd desires. Up-to-date depictions of dinosaurs? Check. Beautiful animations? Check. A wide diversity of dinosaur species? Check. David Attenborough narration? Check. The brilliance of Prehistoric Planet has set the tone for future dinosaur documentaries, and one can make the argument that it should be placed amongst the best dinosaur programs of all time.

©Apple TV+

Honorable Mention: Dinosauria. Though this five-part YouTube series began in 2021, it ended its run in 2022 and came to my attention this year. Created by artist David James Armsby, Dinosauria is a beautiful project that only gets better upon subsequent rewatches. Check it out!

©David James Armsby

Honorable Mention Just Because I Have to: Jurassic World Dominion. Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Still, it wasn’t a good movie either. RIP my guy Lewis Dodgson!

Best New Research: Ice-Ice Baby Mammoth

This may not be the most interesting headline but given that it was found in my home country of Canada, it’s the most personal for me. In June, miners working in the Canadian Yukon found something far more interesting than gold: a Baby Mammoth encased in permafrost. Named ‘Nun Cho Ga’ in the language of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people, this baby mammoth may soon reveal much about the world she lived in, some 40,000 years ago.

Honorable Mentions: Microraptor eating a small mammal; Ichthyosaur nursing sites; Megalodon’s Dietary Requirements; Ankylosaur-Ankylosaur Violence.    

My Experience of the Year: SVP2022

Every year, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology – the foremost organization of paleontologists in the world – hosts an annual conference. This year, I was lucky enough to attend as the event was hosted in my home city of Toronto. Picture a 19-year-old kid in a candy shop, fawning over every lecture and geeking out at seeing all the paleontologists I grew up with walking right alongside me. I’m not sure if cathartic is the right word for it, but four days straight of nothing but dinosaurs isn’t an experience I am soon to forget.

Honorable Mention: Taking courses in University that discuss prehistory; meeting people in class with similar interests as me; lucking into two TA’s that study paleontology; nearing article 100 at Max’s Blogosaurus.

All in all, 2022 was a great year for paleontology. May 2023 be as fruitful as its predecessor! And may the great Spinosaurus debate finally be resolved (or take a break, for God’s sake!)

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