Oct
13
2008

A dinosaur by any other name

Name that dinosaur: Classic confrontation between Triceratops horridus and Tyrannosuaurs rex
Name that dinosaur: Classic confrontation between Triceratops horridus and Tyrannosuaurs rexCourtesy Mark Ryan
Nowadays, when a new dinosaur is discovered (something that happens about every two weeks) it goes through a careful process of study and description before given an official name. Professor Michael Benton from Bristol University, UK, has made a study of how accurate dinosaur naming is, and if new discoveries are actually that or just duplicates of a previously named creature. His conclusion is that - lately anyway - paleontologists have been doing a pretty good job sorting the new from the old.

"My research suggests we're getting better at naming things; we're being more critical; we're using better material," said professor Benton. But that hasn’t always been the case.

Marsh and Cope: Othniel Charles Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker Cope (right). The pioneer paleontologists were once friends who became bitter rivals. During the famous 19th century Bone Wars they competed to collect and name as many dinosaurs as they could.
Marsh and Cope: Othniel Charles Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker Cope (right). The pioneer paleontologists were once friends who became bitter rivals. During the famous 19th century Bone Wars they competed to collect and name as many dinosaurs as they could.Courtesy Wikipedia
Back in the 1870’s when two titans of early American paleontology were battling each other for supremacy in their field, new dinosaurs were being described and named on the skimpiest of fossil evidence. During those contentious times, former friends Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope named and described hundreds of dinosaurs, each trying to outdo the other in their quest to be paleontology's Top Dog. Great and wonderful discoveries arose from their fierce competition, but in the frenzy many mistakes were made that would require sorting out. Sometimes newly bestowed names were already in use for a completely different animal not necessarily even a dinosaur (preoccupied name), but usually one would name a dinosaur the other or someone else (including themselves) had already named previously (junior synonym) with similar but less complete remains. Once a name enters the scientific literature it becomes somewhat difficult to remove it.

Brontosaurus excelsus: Original illustration accompanying O.C. Marsh's monograph published in the American Journal of Science in 1883. The dinosaur became known scientifically as Apatosaurus after further study revealed the specimens the two names were based on were of the same species.
Brontosaurus excelsus: Original illustration accompanying O.C. Marsh's monograph published in the American Journal of Science in 1883. The dinosaur became known scientifically as Apatosaurus after further study revealed the specimens the two names were based on were of the same species.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The most famous case of name confusion involved the Brontosaurus. Bones of the lumbering sauropod were discovered in Wyoming in 1879, and Marsh christened it Brontosaurus excelsus. But in 1903, four years after Marsh’s death, paleontologist Elmer Riggs determined that an earlier discovered sauropod called Apatosaurus ajax was a juvenile version of the same creature, Marsh had named that one, too, just two years before from very partial remains found in Colorado. Since the rules of scientific naming established by the ICZN give priority to the first published name, a compromise was made (Apatosaurus excelsus) and the name Brontosaurus was abandoned from official use, although it has remained in the vernacular.

"Big Al" the Allosaurus in Wyoming: Paleontologist O.C. Marsh named the carnivorous dinosaur Allosaurus fragillis in 1877 from fossil bones discovered in Colorado. The name refers to the strange lightness of the creature's vertebrae (Allosaurus = different lizard; fragillis = fragile).
"Big Al" the Allosaurus in Wyoming: Paleontologist O.C. Marsh named the carnivorous dinosaur Allosaurus fragillis in 1877 from fossil bones discovered in Colorado. The name refers to the strange lightness of the creature's vertebrae (Allosaurus = different lizard; fragillis = fragile).Courtesy Mark Ryan
Another well-known dinosaur, Allosaurus, had originally been named Antrodemus, based on a single partial tail vertebra given to Ferdinand Hayden when he was surveying the western United States. Hayden passed the fossil onto paleontologist Joseph Leidy who named it Antrodemus valens. Even though the name preceded Allosaurus by about seven years, the original fossil was determined just too fragmentary, and its source rock formation uncertain, so the name Allosaurus prevailed sending Antrodemus toward nomen obitum (forgotten name) classification. (Of course new evidence could reverse this). But that wasn’t the end of it. After the genus had been sorted out, many of the separate allosaur species named by Marsh and others were later deemed as either synonymous or having doubtful and invalid names.

Antrodemus then became what is known as a senior synonym, a name preceding the more established Allosaurus but, in this rare case, no longer in use. (Other questionable genera such as Creosaurus, Epanterias, and Labrosaurus are considered by many paleontologists as junior synonyms for Allosaurus or even numen dubium because they haven’t been studied enough to establish distinct genera). All had been collected and named during the Marsh and Cope Bone Wars. Of course Marsh and Cope weren't alone in all this. Many other duplicate and unsubstantiated type specimens have been established by other paleontologists through the years.

Professor Benton’s study, which has been published in the journal Biology Letters, delved into the background of the more than 1000 dinosaur ever named, and re-examined the material used to establish the type specimens. These are the fossils upon which the original research, descriptions and figures (illustrations) were based that led to the naming of the dinosaur. In some cases better and more complete remains were used, and professor Benton he was able to whittle the list down to about 500 distinct species of dinosaurs,

"There's no point somebody such as myself doing big statistical analyses of numbers of dinosaur species through time - or indeed any other fossil group - if you can't be confident that they really are genuinely different," Benton said.

LINKS

University of Bristol press release
Bristol Dinosaur Project (for kids)
Scientific Frontline story
List of dinosaur names

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Thor's picture
Thor says:

I just had to check out the list of all the dinosaur names and it's as massive as a sauropod. My personal favorites: Elvisaurus (so named for it's flip on the top of its head); Mei (the shortest dino name ever for a little duckbill found in China); Roccosaurus (the dinosaur who would come collecting money from debtor dinosaurs) and Vulcanodon (a dino with a hollowed out tooth that looks like a volcano).

posted on Mon, 10/13/2008 - 3:31pm
bistromathgirl's picture
bistromathgirl says:

This sounds a lot like the story Gene did this summer about fish species being reevaluated. There were something like 50,000 repeats!

posted on Tue, 10/14/2008 - 3:50pm
mitul01's picture
mitul01 says:

Really like your view. Some real matter's are discuss in here. Thanks for sharing with us. The information which you have provided in here in utterly important.

__________________________

Nick From Amaderblog

posted on Tue, 07/07/2009 - 7:33am

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