Fearsome creatures

I checked my BBC “latest headline” feed this morning, and found the following at the top: “Scientists unveil ‘most fearsome predator ever.'”

I take issue with this article, starting with the headline. The predator in question is an enormous aquatic reptile from the Jurassic called a pliosaur, and it is not the Most Fearsome Predator Ever. It’s extinct, for one thing, and how fearsome is that? No excuses about the K-T impact, either. Sharks survived it, and that, among other reasons, is why we know to whom the MFPE title really belongs:

(Incidentally, this holds true even if we include extinct animals).

That’s not the real problem with the article, though. My actual complaint is that it exemplifies the media’s childish tendency when writing about animals to emphasize how big, scary or dangerous they are. Discovery Channel’s ‘Shark Week’ is a good example of this: nearly every program is a variation on the “world’s deadliest shark attacks” theme. Meanwhile, sharks pose little, if any, danger to humans. It’s actually the reverse: dozens of shark species are endangered thanks to overfishing and other human activities, and Shark Week isn’t doing their reputation any favours.  Not only that, but there are quite a lot of interesting things about sharks that have nothing to do with how big their teeth are.  Why can’t Shark Week include a few programs on shark evolution, diversity or ecology? Give us some credit. The Discovery Channel doesn’t have to be NASCAR.

Similarly, I find it impossible to believe that the most interesting thing about this pliosaur fossil is how big and fearsome it is, which is virtually all the article discusses. That’s not science, it’s trivial record-keeping. Leave it for Guinness. And by taking this approach, the article gives up the opportunity to address truly interesting questions about pliosaurs. For example, what did they eat?  Why did they evolve to become so big, when most large animals are either herbivores (e.g. brontosaurus, elephants) or filter feeders (blue whales, whale sharks), rather than predators? Surely it wouldn’t have been too difficult to shoehorn some interesting science in there.*

*Something David Attenborough is brilliant at, as in the clip above.

(In other news: scientists unveil world’s most fearsome wombat).


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