Dinosaur graveyard dividing a field
For some it's the find of the century, but for others it doesn't quite add up. At least not yet anyway.
An extraordinary site discovered in North Dakota, in the US, is said to be home to a treasure trove of fossils which show a meteor impact 66 million years ago that generated a tsunami-like wave in an inland sea that killed and buried fish, mammals, insects and a dinosaur.
The devastating event created a fossilised graveyard that has preserved ancient animals and debris from the space rock that give insight into what was going on in the minutes and hours after arguably the most important mass extinction event in Earth's history.
At least that's the theory.
A palaeontologist named Robert DePalma, a doctoral student at the University of Kansas, has been working at the site with his team since 2013. Although simplified, the above theory is how he has come to understand the life-changing site he has stumbled upon.
He believes after finding a diverse bed of fossils and tektites (gravel-sized bodies formed from terrestrial debris ejected during meteorite impacts) he has discovered a site that represents the all important K-T (or K-Pg) boundary - the terrestrial layer that separates the Cretaceous and the Palaeogene period.
"This is the first mass death assemblage of large organisms anyone has found associated with the K-T boundary," Mr DePalma told Berkeley News.
"At no other K-T boundary section on Earth can you find such a collection consisting of a large number of species representing different ages of organisms and different stages of life, all of which died at the same time, on the same day."
According to him, that includes a number of dinosaur remains. In other words, almost incontrovertible proof that dinosaurs went extinct due to ecological fallout from an asteroid impact.
What's shaping up to be one of the biggest palaeontology stories of the century, was sparked by a widely shared New Yorker article titled "The Day the Dinosaurs Died" filled with a number of incredible claims. But it preceded a research paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that didn't quite live up to the hype paved by the magazine.
Digs like this are funded by museums, universities and even governments but due to the big bucks that can be at stake when it comes to fossil collections, there is also a private industry that exists around digs.
In this case, Mr DePalma has reached an undisclosed commercial deal with a rancher who owns the land where the site is and has kept his discovery very close to his chest for the past five years.
The New Yorker article, which is as much a profile on the 37-year-old Mr DePalma as it is on the dig site, paints the picture of a site that is "the Holy Grail" and more of the palaeontology world. But few people have actually seen the hallowed chalice, so to speak.
Purdue University geophysicist and impact expert Dr Jay Melosh, who wasn't part of the research but edited the paper called it the "discovery of the century" for the field.
But many others have raised questions about why such incredible claims have been aired out in the media, but not in the academic world.
Dr Stephen Brusatte, a Palaeontologist at University of Edinburgh and author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, is among those that have questions around the extraordinary claims made by the team that have, until now, quietly presided over the site
"This is an awesome site, but I don't see any evidence for a dinosaur graveyard! Something is weird," he wrote on Twitter.
In an e-mail to news.com.au, he said he was "very excited about this discovery" but noted aside from a single partial dinosaur hip bone mentioned in the paper, ideas of a dinosaur graveyard being reported in the media lack any real evidence so far.
"The New Yorker article reports a dinosaur graveyard with bones of many types of dinosaurs, along with feathers, eggs, and even embryos," he said. "I'm afraid there just isn't any evidence, aside from a single partial bone, for me or other dinosaur palaeontologists to assess right now."
Dr Brusatte, 35, is widely recognised as one of the leading palaeontologists of his generation. He has written over 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers during his decade of research in the field and has also named and described more than 10 new species of dinosaurs.
He finds it strange that many of Mr DePalma's claims presented in the media were not mentioned in the PNAS journal article.
The New Yorker piece reports about long feathers found at the site which DePalma is "convinced are dinosaur feathers", the bone remains of a mammal distantly related to primates and signs of what he believes was an ancient burrowing mammal.
"Lots of stuff in the New Yorker article is completely absent from the paper," Dr Brusatte added. "The geology is very credible but there isn't enough evidence yet to assess the dinosaur aspect of the story."
Brian Switek is a science writer who specialises in palaeontology and the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favourite Dinosaurs.
He also finds it odd that such a high level of secrecy has been maintained around the site, while only some details have been included in the peer-reviewed journal.
"I do think it's strange if so much preliminary work was done, and they are certain the finds in the New Yorker article are part of the same bonebed, that those fossils were not mentioned even in passing," he told news.com.au.
It is typical practice for palaeontologists to compile "faunal lists" of species present at a dig site, he explained, and he was surprised that one was not provided in the paper.
Mr DePalma and his team have cited concerns around poaching for not opening the site up to many other researchers - something which does reportedly happen in the field. But Switek said such an argument "doesn't hold water" in professional palaeontology.
"The locality information and details should be shared with other professionals who wish to investigate, assist, or otherwise research this site in accordance with the basic ethics of science," he said.
The hype around the site, largely produced by the New Yorker article, has left "a lot of people scratching their heads, particularly because of the mismatch of claims in the story versus the evidence in the paper," he added.
Mr DePalma was unable to be reached for comment but has reportedly said more research papers pertaining to the site are on the way.
At least one thing is for certain, as Mr DePalma's thesis adviser at Kansas University said, the site will keep specialists busy for at least half a century.
And as Dr Brusatte told news.com.au: "It would be awesome if it's all true."