December 19, 2008

Science: Dinosaurs Were Claws-On Baby Daddies

A team of paleontologists have used an innovative statistical analysis comparing fossil leg bone characteristics to living, primitive birds like emus and rheas to show that male dinosaurs helped incubate eggs and care for their young.

The study is published in Science. Paternal involvement in egg incubation and newborn feeding and caring is the norm--over 90%--among birds, and there is a growing body of research showing similarities between birds and dinosaurs.

Oh wait, did I say paternal "involvement"? The press release for the study actually refers to "male-only" care.

"Scientists have long debated which care system, male-only or both parents, evolved first," [lead author and MSU paleontologist David] Varricchio said. "The new research indicates that male-only care came first, evolving within the closest dinosaur ancestors of birds."
And in fact, the study's objective was not just determining the presence of male dinosaurs in the nest, but of correlating the numbers of eggs in a clutch to the male-only care system.

The study also inadvertently helps finger the culprits who use unrelated, preliminary scientific research to bolster trite, annoying perceptions of dads' involvement in child care. The Washington Post writer described the dinosaur "stay-at-home dads" with terms such as "rare," "new age," "pea brain tyrants," and--the most Cretaceous of all--"Mr. Mom." Reuters' lede for the story is no better: "You can call it dino daddy day care." Even Science Magazine's own press release says, "There's plenty of evidence to suggest that dinos baby-sat [sic] their offspring."

Compare that to the study's press release title, "Montana State study finds super dads, possible polygamists among dinos." Varricchio explains the key finding on clutch size this way:

It's possible, he said, that the males mated with several females who laid their eggs in one large clutch. When the females left, the males incubated and protected the eggs on their own.
Could you imagine a major news outlet framing this finding in terms of polygamy? Or talking about how dino baby daddies stepped up to the plate and didn't scatter their kids among their various dino baby mamas?

update: ok, culprit update. It's the publicists. "Rare" comes from the other press release, from FSU, whose lede sounds like a line emu baby mamas have been puttin' up with for--now we know--millions of years:

Sure, they're polygamous, but male emus and several other ground-dwelling birds also are devoted dads, serving as the sole incubators and caregivers to oversized broods from multiple mothers.

Fossils Show Dinosaurs As Stay-at-Home Dads [washpost via jean]
also, "You can call it dino daddy day care." [newsdaily/reuters]
Montana State study finds super dads, possible polygamists among dinos. [eurekalert.org]
The actual paper: Avian Paternal Care Had Dinosaur Origin, 19 Dec 2008, Science [sciencemag.org]

1 Comment

I just can't believe how many great puns you can make out of this study.

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