I couldn’t help but comment on this recent story that somehow passed as a science news highlight on ABC’s Good Morning America last week. Here is a bit of the summary of that story:
There are boulders on the slopes of the mountain, and among them we noticed smooth globes,” expedition member Said Magomed Dzhabrailov, who heads Chechen State University’s Landscape Explorations Laboratory, said. “We got closer and saw that they didn’t look like stones. We concluded that they were dinosaur eggs because the shells, the whites and the yolks were clearly visible. Their diameter ranges between 63 centimetres and one meter,” which would be around three feet. ….
Ramzan Vagapov, one of the expedition members, says he does not believe the eggs were laid by dinosaurs and will deliver a sample to a group of Russian palaeontologists for further testing including carrying out a series of radiocarbon dating tests.
Quite a set of observations here most of which are indicative of either the reporters lack of knowledge or the discoverers of these nodules lack of experience. Notice that they (in this article the they is identified but in others they are called “scientists” which is not necessary appropriate) conclude they were dinosaur eggs because the “shells, the white and the yolks were clearly visible.” What? I thought this was an April fools joke when I first read this. I guess they mean that they see layers of stone which they could imagine equate with these parts of an egg. Obviously these “scientists” have no experience with dinosaur eggs as they are rarely, if ever, completely smooth but rather the fossilized shells of the eggs are always cracked at the very least. But this isn’t really the problem here. The problem to me is that I have seen it reported over and over that “scientists” are claiming these are the biggest dinosaur eggs. This would be an astounding find if it were true but the reason it would be astounding is not just that they eggs are huge but that their hugeness would raise fundamental questions about what we know about biology today. Now here is an example of very bad historical/observation science being done by scientists who probably have no, I hope, expertise in paleontology and being reported by those that know even less.
Dinosaur eggs are surprisingly (to the non-biologist) of very similar size. Even the very largest dinosaurs laid eggs that were hardly any bigger than the largest eggs found today. Theses are observations from the fossil record and these observation make sense biologically even though all we see are fossilized eggs. Eggs are limited in the size they attain for several reasons but one of the most important is that the embryos in the eggs must have oxygen to grow. Its the same principle for why cells are small. The larger the egg the greater the volume to surface ratio becomes. As a result oxygen, which much diffuse by passive processes through the egg, has less surface area to be absorbed from compared to the volume inside and so the inside of the egg will be starved for oxygen. Likewise, carbon dioxide produced by growing cells must diffuse out of the egg so that it doesn’t build up as a toxin. In addition, the thickness of the eggshell would have had to be very thick due to the volume of liquid inside making gas exchange even more difficult. Putting all these things together known fossil dinosaur eggs were already reaching the theoretical limit of egg size even when higher oxygen content in the atmosphere during the time of the dinosaurs in considered. So anyone investigating these claimed dinosaur eggs should have been very skeptical based on size alone.
But the size issue or even the yolk and white parts being observed in the stones isn’t the best part of this story. The last part of the story suggests that one member of the expedition was suspicious that the rocks where not fossilized dinosaur eggs. If this has been reported correctly, he proposes that the eggs be sent to some paleontologists to have them radiocarbon tested. What? Even if he said this doesn’t some editor know how ridiculous this statement is? Radio carbon dating is only good for objects less than 50,000 years old. The article mentions that they believed these fossils to be 60 million years old. Radiocarbon dating will do nothing to test the validity of the dates. Furthermore, even if these were fossilized dinosaur eggs there is almost certainly no carbon material left and so carbon-dating would be precluded anyway.
In the end this story seems to be the result of overanxious amateurs at the site combined with a more than willing community of reporters anxious for a catchy story about dinosaurs. Just because something might look superficially like a dinosaur egg, and I don’t even think that is the case here, enough is known about dinosaur eggs through careful study of eggs from hundreds of other locations that we can strongly reject the hypotheses that these are fossilized eggs. In fact, the hypotheses that they are dinosaur eggs should have been rejected far sooner.
Addendum after my original posting: I looked around and although this original report does not say those that found these eggs are “scientists” many other reports start as as “scientist have found.” I find it a rather common commentary on our society that we add “scientist” to a report to add authenticity but in many cases no science or scientists seem to have been involved in this discovery. The result is that when other scientists now say these claims of dinosaur eggs are bogus it appears to be a case of one scientists disagreeing with another scientists leading to a completely unnecessary and false appearance that scientists really can’t figure out what these formations are.
I suspect by radiocarbon they mean radiometric – the public all to readily equate those two techniques.
Adam, I hadn’t thought about that slip. Yeah, I’m sure you are right that they the reporter probably just inserted radiocarbon in there either consciously or more than likely subconsciously. Either way, your point is well taken that the public has little discernment about radiometric dating methods.
The article is full of such sloppy mistakes, the video of the discovery talks about how archaeologists are having a field day.
Great article; thanks for pointing things like this out.
I’m no scientist, but even I was scratching my head at the ‘three parts of the egg were clearly visable’ part. Were these dino eggs sunny-side-up? Was there a side of Jurassic bacon nearby, too? How the heck could they have known something like that?
I noticed this too, thanks for setting them straight. I was suspicious about the size too. In a perfect world new companies will pass there paleontology/archeology stories around to professionals before running them.
It’s a shame that hardly anyone hears the truth about these “eggs” and other fake “science” reports. Even if any actual research is done on these “discoveries” the general public never hears about it, so they continue to believe the original “news” reports.
As a geologist, I wasn’t taken in by the reports, but most people don’t have the knowledge or the interest to realize that these kind of stories undermine real science.
Hi Robert, thanks for your thoughts. Your exactly right in your concern about what remains in the public consciousness about these stories. We see this all the time where an initial story is sensationalized, usually by the press but sometimes by the scientists involved themselves, only for later careful examination and testing to suggest that the original story was wrong. Either the public remembers the original story and has no idea what happened since (eg. the Mars rock with supposed evidence of past life found but was subsequently studied and hundreds of papers produced which cast doubt on many of the original claims but those follow-up studies never made the news). What can be even worse is when someone discovers that they never heard about the better science done but they reject it as well because all they see are disagreements and just figure the story is always changing and so no one can believed. It is very frustrating to see how these popular stories have an especially strong impact on the public’s view of science.