What’s going on with Oculudentavis?

July 22, 2020

Back in March, Nature published “Hummingbird-sized dinosaur from the Cretaceous period of Myanmar” by Xing et al. (2020), which described and named a tiny putative bird that was preserved in amber from Myanmar (formerly Burma). It’s a pretty spectacular find.

Xing et al. (2020: figure 1). a, Photograph of the amber piece with skull ventrolaterally exposed. b, c, Scan (b) and drawing (c), left lateral view. d, e, Scan (d) and drawing (e), rostral view. f, g, Scan (f) and drawing (g), occipital view. h, i, Scan (h) and drawing (i), dorsal view. de, dentary; fr, frontal; hy, hyoid bone (or bones); jg, jugal; la, lacrimal; mx, maxilla; pa, parietal; pm, premaxilla; po, postorbital; qd, quadrate; sc, scleral ossicle; so, supraoccipital; sq, squamosal; th, teeth. Scale bars, 5 mm; longer scale bar below b applies to bi.

Today, though, that paper is retracted.

That’s a very rare occurrence for a palaeontology paper. And it raises a lot of questions. The retraction notice reads, in full:

We, the authors, are retracting this Article to prevent inaccurate information from remaining in the literature. Although the description of Oculudentavis khaungraae remains accurate, a new unpublished specimen casts doubts upon our hypothesis regarding the phylogenetic position of HPG-15-3.

But we constantly see papers whose phylogenetic hypotheses are overturned by new specimens. We usually deal with this by writing a new paper. Why, in this case, is there a retraction? Something smells wrong here.

And the plot thickens in Retraction Watch’s account: corresponding author Jingmai O’Connor told them:

I don’t agree with the retraction but there is no point in fighting it, so we all signed it.

I cannot say why Nature chose to retract, I cannot hypothesize on their inner machinations. […] It is also not that unusual for paleontologists to misidentify things and for new information to correct previous hypotheses. However, Nature chose not to publish the Matter’s Arising and instead retracts our paper – they must have their reasons.

This doesn’t add up. The retraction notice explictly states that the authors retracted the original paper — yet the corresponding author says that the journal did it, more or less against the authors’ will.

I don’t know what’s going on here. I agree with O’Connor that “It’s unfortunate because this way science can’t simply correct itself (as it is supposed to do)”. If, as Li et al. (2000) argue, Oculudentavis is actually a squamate (lizard), well, fine: they can publish their conclusion, and the community will arrive at a consensus as to which identification is correct. That’s how it works, right? So why the retraction?

And there’s more: what does this mean for zoological nomenclature? Is the name Oculudentavis khaungraae still nomenclaturally valid? Opinions on this seem to vary (see the Dinosaur Mailing List thread beginning with Ben Creisler’s announcement of the retraction.)

I lean to the interpretation that, since the International Code on Zoological Nomenclature does not mention retractions, it implicitly takes the position that a paper once published is published forever. On that basis, the name Oculudentavis remains valid and attached to the holoype specimen — even if that name, with its -avis suffix, proves to have been poorly chosen in pertaining to a non-bird. (After all, there is plenty of precedent for misleading names staying in place: the whale Basilosaurus is not a saurian, and the clade of “false crocodiles” Pseudosuchia includes the true crocodiles.)

This doesn’t seem to be what Springer Nature wants: in a Facebook exchange forwarded to me by a friend who I will leave anonymous unless he or she chooses to out him or herself, Henry Gee comments “The retraction means the paper is erased from the record, and this includes the name”.

I think this is simply incorrect. But I am no expert: I await comments from those more versed in the intricacies of the ICZN.

At any rate, I can’t help but suspect that something is going on here that’s not being clearly stated. Could it be to do with the fact that Myanmar amber is itself controversial, due to the human rights record of the Myanmar regime? Is it even possible that one or more or the authors of the original Oculudentavis colluded in describing it as a bird when they knew it was something else? I don’t know (and to be 100% clear, I am not accusing anyone of anything). But I do know that Nature‘s vague and possibly misleading retraction notice is not helping, and is not in the spirit of transparency that we aim to cultivate in the sciences.

I’m pretty sure we don’t yet know the full story.



17 Responses to “What’s going on with Oculudentavis?”

  1. Diplotomodon Says:

    As I understand things, there are rumors going around on twitter that at least one author was aware that their phylogenetic analysis as published was wildly incorrect. No idea when or where these rumors arose. This might have something to do with the information apparently posted to the private TetZoo facebook group back in March; I’m not sure because I never saw that post.

  2. As I understand the logic (and do not mistake my understanding as endorsement!), but the idea is that Retraction retroactively “unpublishes” the paper. And thus, it becomes an unpublished paper, which has no weight with the ICZN.

    What is needed is a specific ruling or statement by the ICZN about the effect (or lack thereof) of Retractions on taxon names. That would settle this.

  3. As far as I’m concerned a retraction is a violation of ICZN Art. 8.1, which states that publications “must be issued for the purpose of providing a public and permanent scientific record”. This paper is no longer public or permanent, and thus I consider Oculudentavis to now be an unavailable name.

  4. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    I disagree, Tyler. The paper was “issued for the purpose of providing a public and permanent scientific record” regardless of what people did with it later, and it is still just as public and permanent as it ever was as it is still on Nature’s website to download (for $32!). It’s just that there’s now a note added saying “This article was retracted on 22 July 2020.”

  5. Is the paper actually still downloadable in its original form? I suppose the only way to find out would be to pay for it, which no one wants to do.

  6. James F Parham Says:

    “This article in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature (“official periodical of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature”) states that both genus and species names remain validly published until the ICZN is petitioned and suppresses it.” @michael_s_y_lee


  7. Alton Dooley Says:

    I faced a similar issue about 10 years ago, when I published a record of what I thought was a beaked whale tooth that turned out to be a fish (but no new taxonomic name was involved). I did not retract the original paper because 1) the figures were accurate 2) the description and association data were accurate 3) the only thing I disagreed with was my interpretation as a beaked whale tooth. But that is a subjective interpretation, and those can change. In fact, it is hypothetically possible that my original interpretation is the correct one and it really is a beaked whale (although I obviously don’t think so). I published my revised interpretation as part of a faunal review a few years later.

    So, obviously I believe the paper should not have been retracted based on the information we’ve received. Being wrong IMO is not sufficient for a retraction. There should be an actual methodological error (measurements were wrong, for example) or something unethical (specimen was a fake) to justify a retraction.

  8. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    The article was published on paper in March, so yeah, it’s still available in thousands of public libraries around the world in its original form. It’s even the cover story and illustration for that issue.

  9. Yes, Mickey is 100% correct there. For generations the “permanent scientific record” referred to a physical copy, and that still exists.

  10. dale m Says:

    Conspiracy theories in science. Well, it wouldn’t be a first. Still. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a paper being published THEN retracted. Really?!? Who woulda thunk? Unless, of course, it turns out that the original discoverer(s) found out that they had been set up (like that Chinese farmer who tried to put 2 fossils together and pass it off as an earlier version of Archaeopteryx sp. and got Steven Szchercus (s.i.c.) to publish it. Perhaps a face saver for the publisher?

  11. arctometatarsus Says:

    dale m: Retractions happen occasionally in scientific papers, but they are very rare in taxonomic and paleontological sciences. I see them much more often in physics, chemistry, biomedical sciences, etc.

  12. I am aware of one example of a previous retraction of a taxonomic paper: the supposed fossil cheetah _Acinonyx kurteni_ was retracted (https://www.pnas.org/content/109/37/15072.1) because the type specimen was revealed to be a forgery (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271842876_Acinonyx_kurteni_based_on_a_fossil_composite).

    I definitely agree with Mickey and others with regards to this one: tough titties, there’s no way to retract a published taxon. In the case of _A. kurteni_, this probably doesn’t matter so much: the species that name applies to is effectively unidentifiable (and/or a junior synonym of another cat species) and the only real impact is that the name _Acinonyx kurteni_ can’t be used for another species. In this case, the specimen is detailed and the species is identifiable even if it’s not what it was originally supposed to be.

    All in all, this is certainly not a good look. At best, it’s yet another example in the long, long list of how _Nature_ just doesn’t get how taxonomy works as a process and can’t be bothered to care. At worst…

    Some were wondering why this was put out as a “retraction” rather than a “correction”. One notes that printing a correction would require an explicit explanation of how one was wrong. Is there some reason why somebody doesn’t want to do that?

  13. Allen Hazen Says:

    Further to Arctometatarsus’s “Retractions happen…”: they are not uncommon in mathematics, if the author realizes after publication that a proof is erroneous. But I don’t see any obvious way of analogizing that to this. (And, of course, mathematics papers don’t contain “nomenclatural acts”!)

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    (Christopher, thanks for this insight. Your original comment was held for moderation because it contained links; but it is for that reason the more useful version, so I have now moderated that through and deleted your linkless duplicate.)

  15. Taxon exclusion is the problem. Compare Oculudentavis to Cosesaurus, a taxon originally considered a Middle Triassic bird ancestor (Ellenberger and de Villalta 1974), then moved to the Lepidosauria (Peters 2007). Details here: https://pterosaurheresies.wordpress.com/2020/03/12/oculudentavis-not-a-tiny-bird-or-dinosaur-its-a-tiny-cosesaur-lepidosaur/

  16. […] dinosaur preserved in amber is being retracted. Paleontology isn’t my field, but from reading commentary from paleontologists and talking to a paleontologist friend, I too wonder if the main reason for the retraction is […]

  17. […] we wrote about the putative tiny bird Oculudentavis (Xing et al. 2020) last time, things have become rather weirder. I want to discuss two things here: how we got to where we are, […]

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