Wonder how long this one will last?
News broke last week that paleontologists have determined that a set of bones found in Big Bend back in the 1980s is actually a hitherto unknown type of duck-billed dinosaur.
From the article:
“Experts say fossil remains discovered in the 1980s at the Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas have been identified as a new genus and species of duckbilled dinosaur.
The Journal of Systematic Paleontology announced the classification of the Aquilarhinus palimentus last week. It was named for its aquiline nose and shovel-shaped jaw.”
Source: “Fossil found in 1980s in Texas declared new genus, species” (Associated Press, July 17, 2019)
This caught my attention for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that whenever I hear of a new species, I can’t help but wonder how scientists can be sure they’ve got it right this time, and how long that new species identification will last.
There’s a reason the dinosaur family tree keeps changing
The 40-year delay implies that paleontologists are much more careful about these things now than they were in the past. In this case, at least part of the delay was due to the fact that the bones were stuck together in a way that kept scientists from properly examining them.
Nevertheless, scientists were able to determine that Aquilarhinus’s lower jaw is a very different shape from most duck-billed dinosaurs. Apparently, the lower jaws of most duck-billed dinosaurs create a U-shape, but Aquilarhinus’s lower jaws create an odd sort of W. That lower jaw was part of the reason paleontologists decided Aquilarhinus was a unique species.
Still, there’s a reason that paleontologists like Jack Horner at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana devote at least part of their time to streamlining the dinosaur family tree.
Horner believes that at least some of the specimens declared in the past to be unique species are in fact juvenile versions of other, already defined dinosaurs. Not everyone agrees, but as even a rudimentary look at the history of paleontology can tell you, the dinosaur family tree is probably a royal mess.
The Bone Wars of the mid-1800s resulted in a lot of dubious species
In the mid-1800s, fossil hunters had a nasty habit of getting into feuds with one another. Richard Owen and Gideon Mantell shared a lifelong antipathy, as did Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. These rivalries played out not only in the scientific journals, but also took tangible form in overt comparisons of the fossil hunters’ respective bone collections. Those comparisons weren’t just about how many bones you had, but how many of those bones came from new and never-before-seen species of dinosaurs. That was wonderful incentive for early paleontologists to declare that they’d discovered an entirely new species based on nothing more than a few teeth or a couple of stray bones. And really, who could blame them? So few dinosaurs were known at that point that odds were their dinosaur really was a new species.
That free-wheeling environment is no doubt the reason Joseph Leidy felt free to declare Trachodon mirabilis to be a unique species based on no more than a few teeth in 1856, and why Edward Drinker Cope rushed to publish his Elasmosaurus platyurus findings in 1868 without taking the time to figure out which end was the tail and which end the neck.
Although Cope’s Elasmosaurus platyurus has managed to hang on to its place in the dinosaur family tree despite Cope’s initial blunder, Leidy’s Trachodon hasn’t been as lucky. Elasmosaurus boasts a relatively complete skeleton all things considered, but the original fossil evidence for Trachodon was limited to seven teeth, one of which had a double-root. While Leidy always claimed to be certain that the double-rooted tooth came from a Trachodon, he eventually admitted that the other teeth could have come from a different animal entirely. Hardly confidence-inspiring.
Years later, on examining the double-rooted tooth that Trachodon was originally based on, Jack Horner decided that it probably belonged to some sort of duck-billed dinosaur, but whether that dinosaur was a crested lambeosaurid like Corythosaurus or a flat-headed hadrosaur from the genus Prosaurolophus, he couldn’t say.
The dinosaur family tree is littered with dubious species like these.
In fact, the older the species identification the more likely it is that the dinosaur has been stricken from the official fossil record. The glorious thing about the widespread human fascination with dinosaurs is that dinosaurs started appearing in pop culture almost from the moment they were first discovered. Old books, sculpture gardens, movies, and TV shows featuring dinosaurs are everywhere. Each little bit of pop culture records which dinosaurs were popular when it was created, and to some degree, what people thought they knew about them at the time.
Since I’m not officially in the business of studying dinosaurs, I get to have fun with the intersection of dinosaurs and pop culture, and play a little game I like to call Dinosaur Species Go Poof?
Dinosaur Species Go Poof?
The rules are simple:
- Watch an old movie or TV show featuring dinosaurs or read an old dinosaur book.
- Identify the dinosaur species in it. (Books often tell you this outright, movies and TV shows may or may not. If not, you’ll need to look it up. I’ve had good luck with IMDb when it comes to figuring out which dinosaurs directors thought they were using in their movies and TV shows.)
- Pick a dinosaur that looks wonky to you, and figure out whether paleontologists still believe that dinosaur once existed.
- If your dinosaur species has been erased from the fossil record outright, you win. Your dinosaur species has gone poof.
- In the more likely event that that your dinosaur species has simply had a name change, an appearance makeover (like that fancy new T. Rex stance), or been declared a juvenile version of some other species, I strongly recommend that you take a few minutes to figure out your dinosaur’s backstory. Who first discovered this dinosaur and why didn’t their work on it hold up?
Every time I’ve played this game I’ve been rewarded with some glorious nugget.
Like the fact that the complicated, fully imagined, and animated Trachodon in the 1925 movie The Lost World was based on a single double-rooted tooth that probably belonged to some other animal entirely.
Or the fact that the rivalry between Cope and Marsh started when the same Joseph Leidy who gifted us with the now-dubious Trachodon pointed out that Cope’s paper showed the Elasmosaur’s head perched on the tip of the very short tail instead of at the end of its very long neck, and Marsh decided to never let Cope forget this very embarrassing public mistake.
Or the fact that Boss Tweed (the guy who ran the Democratic party machine that controlled New York City in the 1860s and 1870s) is the reason Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins wasn’t able to build an American version of his Crystal Palace Dinosaurs in Central Park.
I simply adore this game.
Have you ever played it?
I’d love to hear some of the weird facts about dinosaurs you’ve learned by exploring the intersection of dinosaurs and pop culture.
Want to know more about the rivalries between the early dinosaur hunters?
I have some book recommendations for you.
Deborah Cadbury’s book Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science surveys several of the first dinosaur hunters. She focuses mostly on British hunters, like Mary Anning, William Buckley, Richard Owen, and Gideon Mantell.
Barbara Kerley and Brian Selznick teamed up to create a kid-friendly (although fact-laden) nonfiction book The Dinosaurs of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, that describes how Richard Owen and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins worked together to create some of the first visual images of dinosaurs for the general public.
My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek is a lively and entertaining look at the way our understanding of dinosaurs has evolved over time.
Tracy Chevalier’s historical fiction novel Remarkable Creatures provides a fictionalized account of Mary Anning and the cultural forces arrayed against her.
Michael Crichton’s novel, Dragon Teeth, is set in the American West in 1876 at the height of the battle between Cope and Marsh. I’ll be honest, I didn’t like this book as much as Chevalier’s, but I did enjoy seeing how the nasty tricks and general paranoia of the time affected those around Cope and Marsh.
What about you?
Do you have any dinosaur book recommendations for me?
- Movie Review: The Lost World (1925) (Caterpickles)
- 10 Facts about Elasmosaurus, Ancient Marine Reptile (ThoughtCo)
- Professor Cope vs. Professor Marsh (American Heritage)
- Gideon Mantell: Forgotten man who discovered the dinosaurs (Guardian)
- One dinosaur too many? (Science Line)