Courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale UniversityOn this day in 1877, railroad worker William Harlow Reed came over a ridge-top with the remains of a freshly killed antelope slung over his shoulder, and spotted huge fossilized bones exposed on the side of the steep bluff located a half-mile south of Como Station, a desolate railroad stop on the High Plains of Wyoming. It was a discovery that would forever change his life.
Reed and station master, William Carlin, began collecting up as much as they could, dreaming of money and employment other than railroad work. They waited several months before announcing the discovery in a letter to Yale professor Othniel C. Marsh, at the time one of America's prominent paleontologists. When a crate of bones - along with the guarantee of many more - arrived at Yale, Marsh realized they were dinosaur remains and hired both men to excavate and send him as much as they could, and to keep out any interlopers to his claim. Marsh knew if he could keep it secret - at least for a short time - the fossils at Como Bluff could give him a huge advantage in his rivalry with Philadelphia paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope, and their notorious Bone Wars.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe dinosaur-rich strata at Como Bluff (the Morrison Formation) are found in the exposed flanks of an anticline (an upward fold), the center of which has been carved out by erosion [see diagram]. All three periods of the Mesozoic Era (Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous) are represented in the rock layers found there. Besides dinosaurs, fossils of fish, crocodiles, flying and swimming reptiles have also been found there. A significant number of important Late Jurassic mammalian fossils were discovered and collected by William Reed from Quarry 9 on the east end of Como. Reed also discovered and removed the great Brontosaurus excelsus skeleton that stands today in Yale's Peabody Museum.
Courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale UniversityIn the years following its discovery hundreds of tons of dinosaur remains quarried at Como Bluff were shipped to Yale and other institutions pushing America into the forefront of vertebrate paleontology, and heavily influencing how museums would be constructed throughout the world.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe dinosaur halls at the American Museum of Natural History have several mounted specimens found at Como Bluff as does the Smithsonian in our nation's capitol. Well-known genera like Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus and Camptosaurus are just a few of the dinosaurs pulled from the mudstones and sandstones at Como Bluff. In the early 20th century it was thought that Como had exhausted its supply of dinosaur remains and exploration there for the most part tapered off for several decades. But in recent years, paleontologist Robert Bakker has been re-examining the quarries and uncovering additional secrets still buried in the Jurassic bluffs at Como.
Courtesy Mark RyanWilliam Reed worked for Marsh for several more years and the two men remained friends until the Yale professor's death in 1899. Reed continued in the field of paleontology, working independently, and for a time with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He finished out his career as a popular geology professor and museum curator at the University of Wyoming, just sixty miles from Como Bluff, the great dinosaur graveyard that changed not only the course his life but also that of American paleontology.
Como Bluff was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It's also been designated as one of Wyoming's National Natural Landmarks by the National Park Service.
Courtesy Mark RyanOthniel C. Marsh must be spinning in his grave… again. Two more of the dinosaurs the Yale paleontologist named in the late 19th century have been determined to be the same genus. It’s not that big a surprise. More than a hundred years ago Marsh and his arch-nemesis Edward Drinker Cope were in such a hurry to outdo each other during the infamous “Bone Wars” they were naming new genera and species left and right, and as fast as they could get them out of the ground.
In 1889 Marsh’s best field collector, John Bell Hatcher uncovered the first Triceratops remains in Wyoming. Marsh named it Triceratops (which means “three horned-face” because of the horns projecting from its nose and frill. Two years later, Hatcher unearthed a similar horned dinosaur that Marsh christened Torosaurus (“pierced lizard”).
Courtesy Mark RyanBoth creatures had three horns but Triceratops’ bony frill was a continuous fan shape, while the Torosaurus’ frill was longer and had two large oval openings (fenestrae). This difference in configuration led Marsh to believe he had discovered two different types of dinosaurs.
But now a new study by paleontologists from Montana State University says the Triceratops and Torosaurus genera are one and the same, and the former is just a younger, immature version of the latter. Under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) rules of nomenclature the name of the earlier discovery takes precedence. The research appears in the latest issue of the Journal for Vertebrate Paleontology, and was led by paleontologists John Scannella, and Jack Horner.
Misnaming dinosaurs isn’t that uncommon (see previous Buzz post ). Fossils originally thought to be from different genera or species are often - after further study - determined to be from the same beast. Probably the most well known example is that of the Jurassic sauropods Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus. It was again Professor Marsh who had named and described both specimens but decades later they were declared to be one and the same dinosaur. Despite being a nearly complete skeleton compared to the Apatosaurus’s sparse sacrum and vertebrae, the poor Brontosaurus name was shelved by the scientific community because it had been named later.
As bad as the latest findings are for O. C. Marsh’s shrinking menagerie, they’re even worse for dinosaurs themselves.
"A major decline in diversity may have put the dinosaurs in a vulnerable state at the time when the large meteor struck the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period," Scannella said. "It may have been the combination of the two factors -- lower diversity and a major global catastrophe -- that resulted in the extinction of all the non-avian dinosaurs."
What I’d like to know is just how large did a young Triceratops get before his frill shape began to mature into an adult form? The literature all seems to list the Torosaurus as smaller in stature than Triceratops. Of course animals no matter what species come in all sorts of sizes, and this includes we humans (e.g. seventh graders can often tower over their middle-aged teachers). The Triceratops skeleton here at the Science Museum of Minnesota is considered the largest mounted specimen in the world. If that’s the case, and it is only an immature specimen, then he was one big boy.
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