Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Dino wars: is that dinosaur Kiwi or Aussie?

It's a cheap piece of rhetoric to invoke the long-running if affectionate New Zealand-Australian rivalry, but what with the current campaign to redesign the New Zealand flag in order to differentiate it more its trans-Tasman neighbour, I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss a science-themed story along these lines. In fact, the account bears some resemblance to the years spent arguing over Otzi, the Copper Age man found preserved in ice on the Austrian-Italian border. Although in this case, the focus of the disagreement isn't as clear-cut, since it concerns ancient remains found in both nations.

Even for a country with a population under five million, New Zealand has a seemingly minimal number of professional palaeontologists. That is, until you consider that the lack of industry application for the discipline's findings means its pretty good that there are any practitioners whatsoever. Numbers vary, but figures I have seen for the past few decades vary from less than a dozen to thirty or so professionals, most working for universities or state bodies. By comparison France, with twice the geographic area of New Zealand, has around one hundred professionals.

It isn't just the current financial crisis that has caused problems for would-be kiwi fossil hunters: funding has been steadily decreasing for the past half century and the emphasis shifted towards environmental research. This latter focuses on exploring the (very) long term changes that have affected not just the landmass as it is today but the largely submerged (90% or so) continent of Zealandia. This is of course extremely timely but it does enhance the idea that without much in the way of obvious practical returns, New Zealand palaeontology could dwindle to almost nothing. As it is, the country doesn't have a specialist palaeontological journal or even a dedicated palaeontological society.

The funding issue is claimed to be responsible for the loss of basic knowledge within the discipline, leading to problems such as taxonomic confusion and a backlog for formal descriptions, perhaps numbering some thousands of species, that are new to science. Of course New Zealand's distance from other nations doesn't help either, since the internet has frequently to be relied upon in lieu of direct representation at international conferences and the like. Therefore perhaps it's not surprising that there are only a couple of professional palaeontologists (part-time, at that) working on Mesozoic flora and fauna, including that much-loved clade, dinosaurs.

Luckily, this lack of professional numbers is partially redressed by dedicated amateurs, some of whom have played a pivotal role in dinosaur discoveries. The most famous is the late Joan Wiffen, who discovered New Zealand's first dinosaur fossils in 1974 after experts had proclaimed it unlikely any would be found (on the basis of the geological history of the current above sea-level land masses). I'm all for amateur fossicking and Joan Wiffen's four decades of dedication is an example to us all.

The heart of this piece concerns the discovery of the ninth dinosaur species found in New Zealand and serves as an instructive example of scientists at work knee-deep in messy reality rather than the unreachable ideal. One specimen that you won't find on FRED - the 95,000+ localities' Fossil Record Electronic Database - is the young theropod (carnivorous dinosaur) discovered in 2008 in New Zealand's dinosaur heartland, the Mangahouanga Stream between Taupo and Hawke's Bay. The specimen is only about forty centimetres long and is largely intact: a fully articulated skeleton only lacking a toe and a few tail end vertebrae. After 18 months careful preparation the reptile was in a suitable condition for high-level analysis, having - due to lack of budget - only received cursory examination during the removal of the overlying matrix. Having assessed the deposition layer as mid-Cretaceous the next obvious question was presumably which species did it belong to?

The most likely candidate for a species already scientifically described is the 5-6 metre gracile carnivore Australovenator wintonensis, which is known from fragmentary remains in central Queensland. At less than half a metre long, the New Zealand find would have to be a very young individual, which was the original opinion of the preparators. But the brief analysis of a visiting British palaeontologist put this into question, for although the upper jaw is missing from the adult Australovenator specimen, enough was present to suggest that the New Zealand skull is both too deep and too robust to be the same species. In addition, the kiwi remains has forearms that appear too long when compared to Australovenator, even accounting for variation in growth between youngster and adult.

Then in late 2009 the Australian Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology published an article claiming the New Zealand specimen was just an infant Australovenator. At this point patriotism started to kick in. Even though 'Australo' only means 'south' the word is close enough to the name of the larger nation to provoke the kiwi fossil community into a counter attack. A core group of Hawke's Bay-based amateur fossil hunters nicknamed the little dinosaur 'Hillaryonyx' (named after Everest pioneer Sir Edmund, of course) and the scene was set for a brontosaurus-sized brouhaha.

Although largely powerless, the passion of the non-professional fossicking community should not be underestimated. Everything that could be done to raise funding for a full analysis of the young reptile was undertaken: web articles were written, t-shirts were printed, even lyrics for a song called 'He's ours' (to the tune of the folk song 'No Moa!') On the basis of this, questions were asked in New Zealand parliament and as a result, and a bit of a whipround by some of the universities, money was found for eight months of part-time analysis by two palaeontologists with some experience on Mesozoic vertebrates. As mentioned previously, the reduction in funding for the discipline meant that there wasn't - and still isn't - a single full-time professional scientist dedicated to the era.

Once the analysis was complete the intention was to have a monograph published by GNS Science, a government-owned research institute, prior to public exhibition of the fossil. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, until several visiting Australian palaeontologists asked to see the prepared slab. They were at first stalled, and then later denied access, even to just photographs of the bones. Several arbitrary reasons were given, but the most likely motive for this behaviour was that the kiwi scientists were still assessing the species of the dinosaur. Which, given the loss of taxonomic knowledge mentioned above, was a tricky business if restricted to just New Zealand scientists. So much so, that it took the next two and a half years before anything further was heard.

The latest New Zealand dinosaur fossil

It's not known who was allowed to examine the fossil during this time but by late 2013 rumours surfaced that the dinosaur had been finally identified as a species new to science. A badly scanned interim report was leaked, containing several figures of the prepared fossil, included the photograph above. More significantly, the report listed eleven points of fundamental anatomical disparity with Australovenator, which have since proved enough to convince the majority of naysayers. The few who are still doubtful are all, needless to mention - but I will anyway - Australian. Until the beginning of this year it seemed the specimen would remain in limbo, but someone, somewhere, perhaps a leading university figure or government official, has pulled their finger out and New Zealand's latest endemic dinosaur species may soon be appearing in the records of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN).

So not exactly an ideal way to pursue science by any stretch of the imagination. But the story is proof that cuts in funding can cause all sorts of problems for science in the long-term, even if the matter appears trivial to the layman.

Oh, and as for the official name for the creature: Stultusaurus aprillis. How appropriate!