The rebranding of dinosaurs as caring parents by the palaeontologist whose work helped inspire the film Jurassic Park is not supported by solid evidence, according to a top French scientist.
Eric Buffetaut, chief palaeontologist at the National Centre of Scientific Research in Paris, believes that attempts to revise the traditional view of dinosaurs as "big, stupid brutes" have gone too far.
"Now there are nice pictures of mother dinosaurs as loving parents," he said. "It has become an icon of dinosaur behaviour in every book. But it is exaggerated."
The revised picture owes much to the research of Jack Horner, curator of palaeontology at Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies. His work on dinosaur nests in Montana was first published in the journal Nature in the early 1980s.
A key discovery was of two nests made by a dog-sized bipedal dinosaur called Troodon that were found with young inside. Both had protective mud rims built around them. In one nest, the Troodons had just hatched. In the other, they were twice as big yet their bones were still insufficiently developed to allow them to walk and catch their own food. Further evidence came from remains of Maiasaur nests.
Professor Buffetaut told the Charles Lyell dinosaur palaeobiology meeting in London earlier this month that he respected Professor Horner but found the published evidence too weak to conclude that dinosaurs cared for and fed their young. "It is a very nice story that is very popular, but what is based on fact and what is just interpretation is a problem," he said.
"Maybe Jack Horner is right, but the published evidence is not terribly convincing."
Mike Benton, convener of the meeting and professor of vertebrate palaeontology at Bristol University, said he featured Professor Horner's claims in his textbooks. "People accepted them, assuming that rigorous publications would soon follow. But more substantive papers did not appear," he said.
Professor Horner insisted that the science behind his interpretation was sound: "We have good evidence that dinosaurs brooded their eggs and that they guarded and cared for their young."
He added that it was hard to imagine how the young Troodons he found could have grown without being fed by their parents.
Professor Horner said he would revisit the Montana nest site to retest his hypotheses. "I appreciate that people are saying maybe there isn't enough information. I'll be working on it."