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Study of North Dakota fossil site depicting ‘the day the dinosaurs died’ draws fake data allegations

A researcher has accused her former collaborator of falsifying data to beat her to publishing sensational findings appearing to depict the catastrophe that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

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Robert DePalma, a paleontologist at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History and a graduate student at the University of Kansas, mines for fossils in North Dakota. Robert DePalma / University of Kansas
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FARGO — The discovery of a fossil bed in the badlands near Bowman that appears to depict the “ day the dinosaurs died ” stirred the scientific community when it was announced in 2019.

Since then, what’s called the Tanis site has become famous, the subject of scores of newspaper and magazine articles and a NOVA series narrated by Sir David Attenborough, “Dinosaurs: The Last Day,” featuring Robert DePalma, the paleontologist who made the extraordinary discovery.

Now, a rival researcher — and former collaborator — is accusing DePalma of using fake data to bolster his claim that the dinosaurs died in spring in order to scoop her in publishing his findings in a scientific journal.

Melanie During, a doctoral student at Uppsala University in Sweden, examined the Tanis site for her dissertation. During and her colleagues published a paper about their work examining bone growth patterns of fish fossils that enabled them to determine the tsunami-like wave that killed dinosaurs and other life happened in late spring or summer.

Her paper, which appeared in Nature magazine, was published two months after DePalma published his findings in Scientific Reports in December 2021.

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During listed DePalma as the second author on her study. The competing studies independently analyzed the site and came to very similar conclusions despite using different data sets.

The allegations raised by During, which she posted to PubPeer , a website featuring scientific feedback, were first reported by Science magazine .

In a statement to Science, DePalma denied During’s allegations that he falsified information.

“We absolutely would not, and have not ever, fabricated data and/or samples to fit this or another team’s results,” he wrote in an email to Science.

The study published in Scientific Reports began long before During became interested in the topic, DePalma told Science. It was published after lengthy discussions over publishing a joint paper went nowhere, he said.

“Ultimately, both studies, which appeared in print within weeks of each other, were complementary and mutually reinforcing,” DePalma said in the statement.

Read more about the Tanis dig site
The Tanis site near Bowman, North Dakota, offers evidence of the catastrophic events that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. NOVA programs to air Wednesday, May 11.

DePalma is now a doctoral student at Manchester University in England.

Several independent scientists consulted by Science about the dispute agreed that DePalma’s paper “contains suspicious irregularities, and most were surprised that the paper — which they note contains typos, unresolved proofreader’s notes, and several basic notation errors — was published in the first place,” Science reported.

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But two other independent scientists who reviewed the data cited by the paper shortly after it was published said they were “satisfied with its authenticity and see no reason to distrust it,” according to Science.

Scientists believe the Tanis site in southwest North Dakota contains fossils showing evidence of a killer tsunami-like wave that resulted from the enormous shock caused by the Chicxulub asteroid that struck off the coast of Mexico 66 million years ago, a catastrophe that is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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