Nov
20
2009

Of course, some dinosaurs may not be missing--just hiding.: Many species adopt camouflage to blend in to their environments.
Of course, some dinosaurs may not be missing--just hiding.: Many species adopt camouflage to blend in to their environments.Courtesy Elston

Looooooong time passing....

Seems like some of them were never here to begin with. Over the years, scientists have named about 700 different species of dinosaurs. But a recent study indicates that perhaps as many as a third of these were phantoms—specimens that were given distinct names despite actually belonging to another, well-known species.

For example, Torosaurus is now thought to be just a fully mature version of Triceratops. At the other end of the age scale, Nanotyrannus is considered by some to be just a juvenile form of the famous Tyrannosaurus rex.

Why the changes? Well, identifying species is hard, even under the best of circumstances. With fossils, it’s especially tricky. You often only have one specimen to study, not dozens or hundreds as with living creatures. You can only see the fossil’s bones, not the full creature. And, most important, you only have the dead body—you can’t watch the living creature to see how it changes as it grows. (Dinosaur bones, it seems, are extremely malleable and prone to change shape as the creature matures.)

But don’t be too hard on the poor paleontologists. Other scientists have this same problem. Last year, it was reported that over 30% of all living marine creatures had been misidentified, and for the same reasons. An individual (or small group) was slightly larger than normal, or slightly smaller, or a slightly different color, or came from a different location—enough to lead the scientist to classify it as a new species, when in fact it was already a member of an established species. If taxonomists can make that many mistakes with living creatures, we shouldn’t be surprised that the dinosaur family tree will need a little pruning.

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mdr's picture
mdr says:

This kind of thing has been going on since the early days of vertebrate paleontology. The famous Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus name confusion is a good example. Both creatures were christened by the same paleontologist (O. C. Marsh) but it was later determined that one was merely a juvenile form of the other. Since Apatosaurus had been named first (from a specimen in Colorado), under the rules of the ICZN, it became the official name. (The fact that Marsh's original Brontosaur skeleton was mounted at Yale's Peabody Museum with the skull of a Camarasaurus found in a completely different quarry is a separate issue.)

A similar story appeared last year.

posted on Sat, 11/21/2009 - 8:38am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Yeah, but Brontosaurus, which means "thunder lizard, is sooooo much cooler a name than Apatosaurus, which means "lame-o lizard." OK, it really means "deceptive lizard," because Marsh thought its tail bones looked like the aquatic Mososaur. But, really, how lame is that? So lame that paleontologist Robert Bakker continues to use Brontosaurus out of protest. And just to be stubborn. And annoying, I can relate.

posted on Sat, 11/21/2009 - 8:22pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Yeah, I've found that bringing up the "brontosaurus is apatosaurus is actually brontosaurus" is a good way to a) sound cleverer than someone who's trying to sound clever about dinosaurs, and b) cement your place as the guy no one particularly wants to talk to at the party*. I'd say I've just been going to the wrong parties, but I've been telling myself that for years now.

*Ranting about pterosaurs, ichthyomorphic reptiles, and therapsids being under-appreciated is a good way to get the job done too. It's funny... until they realize you really mean it.

posted on Sun, 11/22/2009 - 12:16am
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Oh, I agree with you on that one, Gene. I still like to call it Brontosaurus myself. The title essay in paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's book Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History defended the name as well. I he wrote it after the U.S. Postal Service drew so much flack for supposedly misnaming the sauropod in one of their dinosaur stamps.

posted on Sat, 11/21/2009 - 11:27pm

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