Machaeridians in the news

An almost-complete armoured worm - Plumulites canadensis - has been described, more than a decade after it was discovered in some Ottawan rubble. Machaeridians don't often make the news, even in fossil-hunting circles, so this is exciting for people like me who are actually interested in them. It is somewhat saddening then (but wholly unsurprising) to read so many inaccurate or jumbled reports on the find.

Prehistoric fossil pulled out of Ottawa construction site, notes one online news source, but the picture they use to illustrate the article is of the Precambrian fossil Dickinsonia from Australia. Wrong fossil, wrong age, and wrong place, and not an annelid worm either, but apart from that an excellent choice. The article also claims the machaeridian is 'only one of 8 specimens identified' which is not true. There are hundreds of plumulitid and other machaeridian fossils known. I've trawled through the dusty drawers of the Natural History Museum stores and seen plenty of them. The rarity is that the specimen is (almost) complete, rather than a single plate or a lithified mess.

Another report tells us that one of the most important things about the fossil is that it 'predates* dinosaurs' . This must be a significant aspect, otherwise why would the journalist mention dinosaurs in the first sentence. Surely it's not because they don't know any other types of fossil?

Anyway, no-one can find the man who found the fossil and gave it to the Royal Ontario Museum, one James Sherwood. Turns out he didn't find it anyway, someone else did and then gave it to Mr Sherwood, so it probably doesn't matter. The fossil probably doesn't matter either: we boffins might consider the worm 'so rare and fascinating that it made January's issue of Palaeontology' but 'laymen can only take their word for it.'

There are two problems with this. Firstly, your papers don't have to include rare or fascinating fossils to get published in Palaeontology. Just ask anyone who's read Herringshaw et al. (2007). Secondly, laymen have to take scientists' word for it, otherwise they'd be scientists, and laymen would be out of existence. Or is the journalist implying that the Voice of the Common Man should be listened to, even if they haven't got a clue what's palaeontologically important or not?

In the end, of all the plumulitid pieces published online, this article is probably the best as the journalist doesn't try and re-write much of the story. Instead they let the authors do the talking, reducing the risk of genuine science being confused into nonscience. If only their colleagues could follow a similar approach.


*presumably they mean 'predate' chronologically rather than trophically. The idea of a small marine worm eating giant terrestrial lizards before they existed is a bit too crazy.
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