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The trouble with translating science: is this really the earliest fish with a face?

Is Entelognathus primordialis, a 419-million-year-old fossil recreated in an artist's rendition in this image, the earliest-known creature with a face? (Credit: Brian Choo)


Scientists in China have discovered an 419-million-year-old fish with a bony jaw that will significantly shift our understanding of the evolutionary history of jawed vertebrates, a lineage that led to humans.

What scientists in China have not discovered -- maybe a little bit, but not really -- is "the earliest known creature with what we would recognize as a face," which is how the fossil find was pitched to reporters. 

The discovery of the fish, Entelognathus primordialis, is a really cool story. It's just a different story than the cool story it was made out to be, and it makes for a neat case study on how hard it is to translate important but nuanced science for a general audience.

For some background: every week, major journals like Science and Nature send an email to reporters containing embargoed information about the studies that will be published in the upcoming issue. "Embargoed" means reporters aren't allowed to publish anything about the study until an appointed time.

The "newsworthy papers" section of this week's embargoed Nature roundup was topped with a headline that is undeniable click-bait. "Fossils: Jaw-dropping discovery of a fish with a face," the press release read. 

What they mean: when researchers dug up Entelognathus in the Yunnan province of China and cleaned it up in the labratory, they discovered it was the earliest-known fish to have a modern type of jaw, with a maxilla (upper jaw) and mandible (lower jaw). All the other ancient fishes in its family, called Placoderms, have simple jaws and cheekbones. But Entelognathus' complex jaw is similar to modern bony fish, and to our human jaws.

Does that mean it's the earliest known creature with a face? Maybe, if you decide that having a jaw like a human is what "having a face" is.

Min Zhu, the lead author of the paper, wrote this in an email: "This sentence could read 'with what we recognise as a face becuase it has maxilla and mandible as our human face.' Maxilla and mandible (or dentary) are key components of our human face." (Zhu wasn't the person who wrote the very clickable Nature headline, for the record -- that would have been a press officer at the journal.) 

But when I phoned Matt Friedman, a paleobiology lecturer at the University of Oxford and a co-author of an accompanying Nature editorial on the fish find, he took a bit of exception with the "face" narrative. He told me about receiving "a series of what I thought were very strange questions from a reporter," about a fish with a face. He told the reporter that she was amiss, and the reporter, baffled, sent over the Nature press release.

"It depends on what you're calling a face. Things like eyes and mouths -- those are present in jawless fishes, and those are features that have much deeper origins in the evolutionary tree of vertebrates," Friedman said.

So it's possible to argue that this is the earliest-known creature with a face, if "face" means "modern jaw." Which it could. 

But the other problem with that nifty little presser is that it sort of misses the thing that's really cool about Entelognathus, which is that its complex jaw shakes up scientists' understanding of the lineage of jawed vertebrates -- a lineage that includes humans, along with almost every other animal with a backbone.

Researchers have long debated what the most recent common ancestor of jawed vertebrates was, a group that includes bony fish and cartilaginous fish, like sharks.

Many scientists have argued that the last common ancestor looked more like a shark, and that anatomy of bony fish evolved later on down the line -- that animals got less squishy over time, evolving more and more complicated bone structures. That theory has given rise to the mistaken notion that sharks are "living fossils," a primordial and ancient animal that has evolved little since its earliest days.

But Entelognathus shakes all that up. Placoderms are an exinct group that is even deeper in jawed-vertebrate evolutionary tree than the split between cartilaginous fishes like sharks and bony fishes. And Entelognathus' jaw is a very weird thing to see in a placoderm.

"That's really surprising, that we see these bony fish characters so deep in the family tree," says Friedman. The implication is "that the last common ancestor of you and me and a shark wasn't very sharklike, it was probably much more like a bony fish, and the condition we see in living sharks is actually very specialized."

That makes human characteristics more of "living fossil"-like than shark characteristics.

"In many ways we're showing a lot of features that are more general and more primitive than sharks. Sharks have gone on and done something interesting, and we've held on to a lot of these older legacies."

None of this is to skewer Nature's highly capable press officers for warping the science -- not in the least. They churn through an amazing amount of copy and everyone, when translating science for a general audience, will look back and find misses in their work.

In fact, Nature's embargoed news releases always contain this statement:

"HYPE: We take great care not to hype the papers mentioned on our press releases, but are sometimes accused of doing so. If you ever consider that a story has been hyped, please do not hesitate to contact us."

Translating science is a tough thing, and everything you just read above, if you read it, was probably less fun to read than "first fish with a face."

Thankfully, the sheer volume of incredible science being produced every day gives us lots of chances.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.




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Superb & congratulations for bothering to make sense and creating a more broadly informative story out of the well-intentioned but, in this instance, misdirected spin in a press release.

Very well written. I'm one of those humanities hacks but this is structured in such a way that even I can understand. Interesting take on the problems of diffusing science to the general public.

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