Skip to main content

Millionaire hobbyist says paleobiologists made 'serious errors' on dinosaur lifespan

Millionaire hobbyist says paleobiologists made 'serious errors' on dinosaur lifespan


Findings 'consistent with scientific misconduct,' according to head of Intellectual Ventures

Share this story

Dinosaur fossils Smithsonian National History Museum
Dinosaur fossils Smithsonian National History Museum

Dr. Nathan P. Myhrvold has an eclectic range of interests. The ex-Microsoft CTO is a physicist, a proponent of "modernist cuisine," a multi-millionaire, and the head of the controversial "patent troll" Intellectual Ventures. He also knows a lot about dinosaurs. More, he thinks, than dedicated dinosaur researchers. Dr. Myhrvold has alleged that reports published by some of the biggest names in paleontology are riddled with "serious errors and inaccuracies."

Myhrvold says dinosaurs grew at a tenth of the speed Erickson suggested

The claims come in a paper written by Dr. Myhrvold and published in scientific journal PLoS One this week. In the paper, Myhrvold says research led by Dr. Gregory M. Erickson — a professor of anatomy and paleobiology at Florida State University — includes major mistakes. According to the paper, certain graphs and curves in research led by Erickson don't match corresponding data, and his work incorrectly pegged dinosaur growth rates as much faster, and life-spans as much shorter than evidence suggests they were.

Erickson's papers have reportedly been influential in changing the paleontological community's concept of dinosaur growth, positing an apparently reasonable explanation for the question of why some dinosaurs were so much larger than their relatives. Myhrvold's revised estimates contradict Erickson's models. A 2001 paper led by Erickson suggested the plant-eating sauropod Apatosaurus would put on 12,000 pounds in one year as it grew into adulthood. Myhrvold used data taken from some of Erickson's co-authors — after Erickson himself said the computer the original data was stored on had been thrown out — to identify the dinosaur's maximum growth rate at a tenth of that speed.

Erickson says Myhrvold's work still 'strongly supports' his earlier conclusions

In a letter to journals that published Erickson's work, Myhrvold did not directly accuse the paleobiologist of deliberately falsifying or manipulating data, but said "the problems also appear to be consistent with scientific misconduct," and that they "merit correction in the literature." Erickson himself refused an interview request with The New York Times, instead releasing a statement in which he defended the conclusions of his team and argued that despite "moderately different conclusions on a species by species basis," Myhrvold's work still "strongly supports the cardinal conclusions that we reached regarding how dinosaurs grew."

This isn't the first time Myhrvold has waded into the world of paleontology. Two years ago, he co-authored a "dinosaur census" that identified abundant Tyrannosaurus in Montana. In 1997, he wrote a paper that hypothesized dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus could flick their tails at supersonic speed.