Wednesday 13 August 2014

Lies, damned lies, and 'Thalassodromeus sebesensis'

Yesterday, a huge team of authors called out the science behind 'Thalassodromeus sebesensis', an alleged new pterosaur species 40 million years and thousands of miles out of time and space (Grellet-Tinner and Codrea 2014). As with many outlandish palaeontological claims, the evidence behind 'T. sebesensis' really falls apart rapidly under scrutiny, principally because the alleged pterosaur remains actually represent an unremarkable piece of turtle plastron (Dyke et al. 2014).

A, the plastron of the fossil Romanian turtle Kallokibotion magnificum, compared with B, the alleged holotype 'cranial crest' of 'Thalassodromeus sebesensis'. For further details, see yesterday's post.
Since then, the response to our comment has been published (Codrea and Grellet-Tinner 2014). I'll admit to being surprised that Codrea and Grellet-Tinner maintain the specimen as a pterosaur, and consider the arguments raised against our points as weak, hypocritical and problematic, but whatever: the two arguments are now out, and the palaeontological community can judge for themselves. CT scanning is apparently planned for the specimen (Codrea and Grellet-Tinner 2014), which should put 'T. sebesensis' to bed once and for all.

This post isn't really about that, though: it's about correcting a mistruth in Codrea and Grellet-Tinner's response. Their comment shows little decorum or professionalism, attempting to undermine our response with ad hominem potshots at some authors of Dyke et al. (2014), including criticism of their editorial skills and the taxonomic confusion surrounding specimens described by the authors. Moreover, they criticise us for not examining the specimen, UBB ODA-28, before publishing our response. They state that:
"...UBB ODA-28 is housed in an official and recognized Romanian institution, thus available for examinations to anyone interested. This includes Dyke’s July 2nd 2014 written request to examine UBB ODA-28, which was immediately granted, although, Dyke went on writing its hasty comment without examining UBB ODA-28."
Codrea and Grellet-Tinner, 2014, p. 3-4 (my emphasis)

Well, this isn't really true. Some of it is: Gareth Dyke did write to ask for permission to look at the specimen this year - specifically between July and September - but 'immediate' access was not granted. Rather, eventual access was promised following on-going studies, including CT scanning of the specimen, the dates of which was not disclosed. This is not, as Codrea and Grellet-Tinner describe, 'immediately' granting access, but nebulously promising access at an undetermined future date. 

This may not seem like a big deal, but our integrity is being questioned for having not seen the specimen, so we - the authors of Dyke et al. (2014) - think the record should be set straight. There's no doubt that examining specimens is the way forward in any research. But it was clear from Gareth's correspondence that accessing UBB ODA-28 was going to be difficult for the immediate future, and all the while the science behind 'T. sebesensis' remained extremely problematic and in need of swift rebuttal. Why? In short: none of us concerned with pterosaurs or European palaeontology want to deal with this outrageous, nonsensical claim in future publications. Hence, we fell back on using the published accounts of UBB ODA-28 to construct an argument against the pterosaur identification. Given that our authorship team has collectively amassed thousands of hours examining actual thalassodromid pterosaurs, as well as turtle plastrons, and how obvious the turtle affinities of the specimen are, this method seemed more than sufficient for the task at hand. Despite allegations from Codrea and Grellet-Tinner, these were not the actions of a team hastily assembling a rebuttal, but a collective of experienced individuals succinctly calling out obvious flaws in bad science.

So there we go: that's our side of that mistruth. Hopefully, that's the last we'll hear of 'T. sebesensis' around these parts, for there are much more interesting and exciting things to cover: palaeoart guides, Triassic fuzzy saltating xerocoles, dinosaur fat humps... all coming soon.


  • Codrea, V. A., & Grellet-Tinner, G. (2014). Reply to Comment by Dyke et al. on "Thalassodromeus sebesensis, an out of place and out of time Gondwanan tapejarid pterosaur" by Grellet-Tinner and Codrea (July 2014)"  Gondwana Research. IN PRESS
  • Dyke, G. J., Vremir, M., Brusatte, S., Bever, G., Buffetaut, E., Chapman, S., Csiki-Sava, Z, Kellner, A. W. A., Martin, E, Naish, D, Norell, M, Ősi, A, Pinheiro, F. L., Prondvai, E, Rabi, M, Rodrigues, T., Steel, L., Tong, H, Vila Nova B. C. & Witton, M. (2014). Thalassodromeus sebesensis-a new name for an old turtle. Comment on" Thalassodromeus sebesensis, an out of place and out of time Gondwanan tapejarid pterosaur", Grellet-Tinner and Codrea. Gondwana Research. IN PRESS.
  • Grellet-Tinner, G., & Codrea, V. A. (2014). Thalassodromeus sebesensis, an out of place and out of time Gondwanan tapejarid pterosaur. Gondwana Research. IN PRESS


  1. David Marjanović13 August 2014 at 09:14

    I really hope Gondwana Research lets you publish another response!

    1. GR policy is that responses and comments are limited to one round of exchanges per paper, so we don't have an invite to continue this discussion in their journal. We could write another paper, but we think we've done our job with the first. The response to our comment has been positive, so I think we've convinced all relevant parties that 'T. sebesensis' is bogus. There's not really much else we can say anyway without seeing the specimen, other than calling out Codrea and Grellet-Tinner for their personal attacks and pointing out they haven't addressed our arguments.

  2. Good luck - this sort of thing has a habit of running and running. Throw in a few ad hominem's, a sprinkling of gish gallops and a dash of trolling and you have all the ingredients for a long ride. It may be a good while before anything positive happens. I will be interested to see how this situation progresses compared to analogous ones in nanoparticle chemistry and biochemistry - a race between fields to see which can actually do science effectively!
    In the meantime, it would be worth posting your comment and link to your response to the paper on PubPeer - this serves as an excellent central repository of critiques of papers. The link for this paper is:

  3. All this said, with it not being a pterosaur, do you still think undetected Tapejarids and Thalassadromedids at the end plausible?


    1. I don't see any reason why not - the newly described tapejarid Caiuajara is from (poorly constrained) Upper Cretaceous deposits, so the gap between at least this lineage and the end-Mesozoic is not as great as it was. However, if they are there, they certainly seem to be rare: we have quite a good record for Maastrichtian pterosaurs, and all but one fossil represents Azhdarchidae.

  4. Yikes. Guess we have ourselves another Averianov.

    As a side note, how do you see Andres et al. 2013's assessment of Bakonydraco as a tapejarid within the Tupandactylus + Tapejara wellnhoferi clade?

    1. Andres et al. aren't the only people suspicious of Bakonydraco having links to Tapejaridae/inae: Alex Kellner (I think) has also suggested the holotype mandible may belong to his version of Tapejaridae, which also includes thalassodromids/ines (sigh, it's so tedious having to consider multiple interpretations of pterosaur phylogeny all the time!).

      Personally, I'm not sure what features ally Bakonydraco to tapejarids/ines - they seem quite different in several details, and newly referred material certainly looks more azhdarchid/thalassodromid like. Unfortunately, azhdarchid/thalassodromid crania are quite similar in several areas, and we've yet to find truly diagnostic skull remains. That said, the deposits holding Bakonydraco have yielded lots of elongate azhdarchid cervicals and no obvious thalassodromid fossils. This, indirectly at least, seemingly points to the azhdarchid ID being more likely.

  5. I agree that there is a extremely high similarity with Kalokibotion plastron. No doubt is a turtle, I would say... But you should first find a way to examine first the so called crest of "Thalassodromeus sebesensis" I know very well Vlad Codrea and I know he will give permission to anyone to study the specimen after publishing. One of the authors (Csiki - is member of the grant that financed this study...he could have access to the specimen) What is the present status of the dispute right now?

  6. I'm amazed Dr Grellet-Tinner has got involved into this weird business. I think Dyke & co should officially contact Babes-Bolay University. I hope it is not an intentional mystification of the evidence.

  7. I am amazed that M. Witton, surely a good friend at the time of G. Dyke criticized the authors of the specimen and as well the 3 reviewers, who decided on the fate of this manuscript that was published. What is not known is that Dyke and Co was one of the reviewers for GW. Obviously, either his objections were contentious or the peer-reviewed system is really flawed.
    Let's take a look at the team against the discovery. All of them are friends and have a financial interest to invest in Transylvania, where an old battle still rage: ex-communist and affiliated friends against non-communist and affiliated friends. In addition, the Hungarian /Romanian group that battle over the transylvanian territory. Add to this a greedy want to take over this region by the AMNH-M. Norell- who had to show results for the funding he had received. To sum up, a group of investors and friends that wanted to crush paleontology in Transylvania. In some sort we are witnessing a revival of the Marsh and Cope saga, a US and UK mentality.