Ok, this isn’t the most profound news, but I like trilobites and it is my blog. It isn’t quite “Why I Don’t Go in the Waterish,” either, since the trilobites went extinct about 250 million years ago. But picture a body of water teaming with writhing trilobites and I assure you I would not go near said body of water.
Quick trilobite 101: they vaguely resemble horseshoe crabs and/or pill bugs (i.e. wood lice, roly polies, what have you), but they are not crabs. Actually, neither are horseshoe crabs for that matter. In fact, of the three, pill bugs are the only crustaceans of the bunch. They are all arthropods, so they’re still largely kin, but I digress. Trilobites had a run longer than the dinosaurs (250 million years), were mostly scavengers, were comprised of a massive number of species, range from very wee to about a foot long and have crystal eyes (no fooling, calcium carbonate crystal eyes!).
I’m sharing with you recent news out of UC Riverside that trilobites had gill-like structures that hung from their thighs. You can also read the study in Science Advances, and it is better if you do. The fact trilobites had gills isn’t exactly new, but here the scientists show that the gill structures were attached to the upper limb (they have scooty little legs) AND the body wall as seen in C here:
It shows an interesting intermediate between another species in A (Dibasterium durgae, an extinct arthropod that overlapped with trilobites roughly 440 million years ago, and modern arthropods in B.
Again, interesting for trilobite fans, but not earth shattering. My question for you is whether this was worth a press release. I think not.
I’m a veteran science press release writer, having written for the University of Pennsylvania and bunches of other science research institutions, so I have some semblance of credibility on this issue. The point of a press release is to serve as a vehicle to pitch stories in a certain way. For science stories, the press release is supposed to distill relevant information for reporters.
Or, at least, that was how it was supposed to work. Today, science news officers can reach audiences directly, which is great, really. Press releases often directly end up in news aggregators and, hence, to folks interested in This Sort of Thing, which is how I found it. Trilobites are a sort of thing I’m interested in.
Of course, there are other vehicles that reach audiences more effectively, especially when combined with other items. My contention is that this wasn’t a press release worth writing. The release here just isn’t compelling enough for either science journalists or clear enough for the perusal of lay folks. Not that it is poorly written–it is just the wrong format for getting the news across.
This should have been either a blog post, an interview (print or audio) or a feature article about trilobites. The factoid provided by the actual science findings hardly worthy of a Snapple bottle cap. So, while the research found me, the press release kind of annoyed me.
It is not poorly written. I just don’t think it shouldn’t have been written as a press release.
One simple way that you can tell it shouldn’t be a press release is that the writer had to fudge the accuracy to make a compelling lede:
A new study has found the first evidence of sophisticated breathing organs in 450-million-year-old sea creatures. Contrary to previous thought, trilobites were leg breathers, with structures resembling gills hanging off their thighs.
I’d argue that it wasn’t the first evidence of gills–especially since wikipedia already references gills–but the first report of using a modern technique (CT scans) to gain a better understanding of trilobite gills. “Leg breathers” isn’t a thing. They are still gills, albeit partially attached to the legs.
It is also very press release-y throughout.
“These were preserved in pyrite — fool’s gold — but it’s more important than gold to us, because it’s key to understanding these ancient structures,”UCR geology professor and paper co-author Nigel Hughes
I’d put a small amount of disposable cash for boasting’s sake against the idea that Nigel wrote that. Yes, professors are capable of puns, but this has a feel of a bored press release writer trying to sound clever.
Sorry if this sounds overly critical. I’ve written plenty of strained press releases in my time. News officers are under a lot of pressure to put out “content.” Trilobites are cool, after all, and it is published in a Science offshoot. I just think its a missed opportunity, is all.