Predator X: Too Bad Ass for Peer-Review?

Predator X (Atlantic Productions publicity illustration)

Suffice it to say that earning the title Predator X should require a resume loaded with specific instances of statistically significant bad assery[1]. Big fangs or some kung fu lessons might get you Predator L or, even, E, but we are talking about Predator Freaking X here. By law, Predator X must be one bad mother. . .

Shut your mouth!
I’m talking ’bout Predator X.
Then we can dig it.

Predator X[2] was a pliosaur, a group of prehistoric marine reptiles (within the order plesiosauria) characterized by large body size, long heads, short necks, conical teeth, four flippers, and eating tasty things that had the misfortune to be smaller than them. Basically, pliosaurs were sea monsters, and sea monsters are already pretty bad ass.

Artist impression of the pliosaur Liopleurodon (by Nobu Tamura - CC 3.0)

Originally discovered in 2006, Predator X was the subject of a History channel documentary in 2009. Predator X was the subject of all manner of articles with the notable exception of the academic, peer-reviewed variety[3]. Hmmm, the publicize before peer-review strategy sounds familiar to me.

What makes Predator X deserve all this attention? According to the team from the University of Oslo Natural History Museum Predator X stands out even in a clade of sea monsters:

Its anatomy, physiology and hunting strategy all point to it being the ultimate predator – the most dangerous creature to patrol the Earth’s oceans – quoted in New Scientist (link to original press release no longer available[4])

Wait, did I just say University of Oslo Natural History Museum? What does that remind me of?

Yeah, so, Jørn Hurum, the brains behind Ida, “The Missing Link”, was also the brains behind Predator X. The approach to Predator X clearly foreshadoed the approach to Ida, and the History channel produced both documentaries. Yet, this association seemed to unnoticed in the midst of all the criticism of Ida[5], even though Hurum’s association with Predator X was used as a qualification during the publicizing of Ida. With Predator X the intentional generation of a media storm based on hyperbolic claims without peer-reviewed support for Ida transforms from a single incident into a pattern of publicizing research without the restraint and oversight of fellow experts via peer-review.

A pattern is good. A pattern is interesting. A single event could just represent either botched execution. A pattern of behavior has a support structure of reason and rationalization that can be separated from the execution. And, Hurum does present reasons for his approach:

This was immediately recognized as the find to focus on in the hunt for sponsors. . .When the news of the large pliosaur broke the 5th of October 2006 it made headlines all over the world. Our main purpose of this large media coverage was to attract sponsors for the large dig in 2007, and it worked. – Jørn Hurum at 33rd International Geological Congress (Oslo 2008)

Hurum is, essentially, arguing that publicizing these finds in a sensational fashion is necessary in order to generate the financial support necessary to collect these specimens. There is a bit of “the ends justify the means” about this reasoning. Academic research funding is always limited. So, one can appreciate the motivation behind creative approaches to obtaining necessary resources. When, however, researchers make a practice of soliciting support from sponsors, the media, or the public with claims that have not been reviewed by outside experts, questions are raised about who can use this approach and when it might be appropriate.

How do we prevent unscrupulous individuals from taking advantage of enthusiastic by inexpert sponsorship targets? What if the data do not support the stories you are telling potential sponsors? Is money being taken under false pretenses, whether knowingly or not?

Without the harsh scrutiny of peer-review either in the literature or grant review panels, how can we know the answer? Can we take Hurum and the History Channel‘s word for it? Surely, they would not over-hype this story. . .

. . .like they did with Ida, who was neither “missing” nor a “link” in human evolution and certainly did not live up to the hype.

Does Predator X live up to its billing as “the most ferocious hunter ever”? Here is a list of some of the claims being made about Predator X that would influence its fearsomeness rank, with critical analysis:

  1. It’s a new species – maybe, maybe not. A new species requires a published description of the holotype specimen. As Predator X is now part of a grad student thesis and not the promised paper by the end of 2009, who knows when this will be clarified[6].
  2. Biggest pliosaur EVER! – uh, no. Paleontologist Steve Salisbury waxed “meh” over Predator X thusly,

    “It sounds really interesting, but pliosaurs this size are not unheard of.”

  3. Cruised with two fins, sprinted with four – quite possibly. There is published literature on plesiosaur locomotion. It just isn’t from this group and it wasn’t on Predator X.
  4. Smart hunter – pure speculation. Estimates of brain size and shape suggest that Predator X may have not been brain dead. Being extinct there is no behavioral evidence, nor will there be, to test this.

Based on these types of claims, Predator X‘s discoverers would have us believe that it is the Kraken, the Leviathan, a monster of such mythologically terrifying proportions that, not only Greek kings, but you yourself would not hesitate to sacrifice your own child yourself the wrath of Predator X. Predator X terrorized the ocean like none before or after. Or did it?

Megalodon Scale (Image by Matt Martyniuk - CC 3.0)

Well, we live in a Mega Shark world. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. And, Megalodon is the best. Let’s go ringside[7]:

Ladies and gentleman. Tonight’s bout, scheduled for “To the Death”, will be a “no holds barred” contest governed under the Nevada Gaming Commission’s “Nature Red in Tooth and Claw” regulations. This is a unification match for the Ultimate Predator and The Discovery Channel Shark Week Mega Monster titles. Tonight’s victor will unquestionably be The Most Fearsome Animal to Ever Swim the Oceans.

Swimming in this corner at 15 meters in length and weighing in at 45,000 kilograms, hailing from Svalbard, home of the armored bears, current Ultimate Predator champion, Predator X!

And, now entering the ring, to the theme music from Jaws (BA DUMP BA DUMP), at 20 meters in length and 103,000 kilograms, your Discovery Channel Shark Week Mega Monster champion, Megalodon.

Care to take a guess at the betting odds on this fight[8]?

Predator X is an impressive and important pliosaur specimen. The notion that hyperbole is necessary to get the public interested in these fascinating discoveries is a disservice to both the discovery and the public. The continued discovery of such specimens enriches our world. As a society, it would behoove us to provide the resources needed to expand our knowledge of the diversity of life and to distributing those resources in a thoughtful way. We do not yet provide those resources; but we already have a great system for evaluation called peer-review. Maybe we should use it. All of us.


  1. There are only two levels above Predator X. The first is The Predator, which requires, among other things, an invisibility cloak, infrared vision, a shoulder blaster with laser sights, and spending your free time hunting things with acidic blood. The final is the rugbyologist, of which, “There can be only one!”
  2. As comic aficionado’s (ssp. marvelus) will surely know, Predator X describes a character/creature who is absolutely bad ass, in the hunts down X-men for fun way. Kid is nails.
  3. Lest I be labeled unfair, the general find was described in a conference abstract, but included none of the extreme claims. These abstracts are not subject to peer-review in the same way as journal articles.
  4. Which is a shame, as virtually all “news” articles about Predator X were based almost entirely on this press release in the style of a fifth grade book report (reorganizing quotes and paraphrasing without the distraction of independent thought).
  5. You can read my dismissive review of The Link here. Visit Carl Zimmer’s blog, The Loom, for an excellent description of the kerfuffle.
  6. We know how those grad students work.
  7. There is a YouTube video of Predator X vs Megalodon. I’ll let the curious amongst you find out how it ends.
  8. Actually, were in not a fight to the death, I suspect that Megalodon would have put all its savings on Predator X and taken a dive in the seventh round.

Author: Josh Witten

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