As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo & Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”
He was right that words may change, but the appearance or physical features of the object in question will not. However, when names and partially discovered remains are all you have, like with dinosaurs, names become all the more important.
And some dinosaur names are real doozies: Tyrannosaurus rex, Pachycephalosaurus, Parasaurolophus, the list goes on and on. And children memorize those names like they are sugary treats – I should know, as I was obsessed with dinosaurs when I was young.
I knew so much about the “terrible lizards” from millions of years ago, that I would correct tour guides at the museum if they made the egregious errors of incorrectly stating how long ago particular dinosaurs lived or mispronounced their names.
Yes, I was that kid.
My favourite dinosaurs varied, but the top three were always: Stegosaurus (a herbivore with spikes along its body and tail), the flying Pterodactyl and the sail-finned Dimetrodon. Of course, fan-favourite T. rex sometimes nabbed a spot in the Top Three if I was feeling particularly vicious. But, much to my dismay, as much as I knew as a child, I apparently didn’t know enough.
Of my favourties, it turns out that two out of three are wrong – Both aren’t dinosaurs, one is closely related to mammals and the other has been improperly named for well-over a century.
As it turns out, Dimetrodon belongs to the class Synapsida (which includes mammals) and not class Reptilia. While it should not be classified as a dinosaur, I distinctly remember it being in books about them, so I blame that mistake on a lack of knowledge. However I can take comfort that Dimetrodon is a long, long, long lost relative.
But, as distracting as that realization was, all-together more troubling was that the name Pterodactyl is very wrong.
According to Brian Switek, science writer and author of My Beloved Brontosaurus, the proper name for this group of flying archosaurs is Pterosaur. “Pterodactyl was derived from a pterosaur called Pterodactylus – the first pterosaur ever found. Within that bigger group, there is a subgroup called the pterodacyloids to which Pterodactylus belongs.”
Basically, when Pterodactylus was first discovered, it became shorthand to describe all animals of that type as Pterodactyls, which is akin to calling all cats “tigers.”
Describing a puzzle without all the pieces
Imagine a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, where some of the pieces are faded, missing corners and taken from other sets without the aid of the picture on the box. And say you had to assemble such a puzzle and describe it to others. It would be difficult, but not impossible.
But say you only had a handful of pieces.
How could you possibly describe the bigger picture with only a few blue pieces of different shades, one yellow piece and a corner showing brown flecks?
Could it be an agricultural setting, such as a wheat field, children fishing on a lake or one of the thousands of other scenarios possible from such a narrow view?
That is what paleontologists do with fossils.
Back in the late 1800′s, a famous rivalry erupted between two paleontologists, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Both were expert dinosaur hunters who tried to name as many dinosaurs as possible.
“Dinosaurs were only recognized as a distinct group of animals in 1842, and Victorian-era paleontologists were the first ones to really dig deeply into these lost worlds,” said Switek. “They had no idea what to expect. No one knew anything of ceratopsians, stegosaurs, and various other groups. They had yet to be discovered. As a result, paleontologists like Cope and Marsh named a new dinosaur every time they found a fossil that looked different.”
But this created more than a few inconsistencies, such as the famous case of Brontosaurus vs. Apatosaurus.
The Tate Geological Museum describes the events like this: In 1877, Marsh described a dinosaur based on its vertebrae column, named Apatosaurus. This was followed up two-years later with a description of its pelvis, shoulder blade and vertebrae.
Also that year, Marsh’s field crew at Como Bluff, Wyoming found a different assortment of remains, and it was different enough that he classified it as a Brontosaurus in order to beat Cope. And he did, as Brontosaurus became a worldwide sensation, appearing in countless books, newspapers and magazines.
But, in 1903, Elmer Riggs (another paleontologist) re-examined Apatosaurus and discovered that it was from the exact same animal as Brontosaurus. And because, in science, first published name wins the prize – Apatosaurus became the official name, with Brontosaurus becoming a synonym.
But the public was so in love with the name Brontosaurus that the dinosaur continues to be called that over 100 years later.
Another interesting fact: Marsh did not have a head for his original specimen when it was initially found. He found some bones a few miles away, concluded they were the same species and created a head from that, but that we know now was actually from a Camarasaurus. He presumed, according to Switek, that the body and more distant skull belonged to the same species. The ‘actual’ head (of the true Apatosaurus) was found in 1909 by paleontologist Earl Douglass.
“But he thought that it was a Diplodocus skull, and it was labeled that way for decades in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh,” Switek said. “It wasn’t until the 1970s that sauropod expert Jack McIntosh realized what Douglass had found and the proper head was put on Apatosaurus.”
Finally, the correct head was placed on the original Brontosaurus specimen in October 1981. In the report of the event, the New York Times makes no reference to the fact that the animal is an Apatosaurus, nor does the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
The name heard ’round the world
Even though dinosaur names have been changing since the profession began, the public at large was genuinely unaware of such changes. New discoveries popped up in the newspaper, but the public mostly forgot about them as quickly as it took to turn the page.
That was, until the beloved Triceratops name was thought to be in danger.
Triceratops was discovered in 1889 and named by Marsh, followed two years later by another three-horned dinosaur called Torosaurus, which closely resembled Triceratops, though it had a larger frill and two round holes perforating its frill. And they remained until 2009.
Noted paleontologist Jack Horner along with John Scannella of Montana State University posited that both dinosaurs were one and the same, Torosaurus being the adult with Triceratops being the juvenile.
Horner’s evidence was this: By cutting into bones and analyzing their internal histology, he noticed that their structures resembled that of juveniles (described as “spongy”), while Torosaurus‘ histology showed a solid mass of bone, ascribed to mature adults.
Horner believed that, as Triceratops age, their frills enlarge and grow weak at some points, resulting in the holes. The ‘transitional’ dinosaur known as Nedoceratops, which seemingly possessed the very morphology that Horner and Scannella described, confirmed this.
The media took to this like a shark to chummed water and began reporting that the Triceratops name was going extinct. Headlines from newspapers broke the news and the public outcry was incredible – even t-shirts were made showing support for the Triceratops name.
Too bad it was bogus.
As mentioned with the Brontosaurus vs. Apatosaurus debate, he who names first, wins. And since the Triceratops was named before both Torosaurus and Nedoceratops, it takes the crown.
However, the debate was far from over.
Andrew Farke from the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology disputes these claims, saying that since there is only one skull of Nedoceratops, it simply does not provide enough evidence to be classified as the intermediate stage. He also notes that the skull was partially reconstructed, so it may not have two perforations, but perhaps only one. And based on bone texture, Nedoceratops appears to be a mature animal.
As well, Nicholas R. Longrich and Daniel J. Field of Yale’s Department of Geology and Geophysics have posited this theory: That the penetrations present on Nedoceratops’ frill are the result of injury or disease, and that based on the sheer amount of age variety present in Triceratops and Torosaurus, they are completely different species.
The examples listed above are not the only ones – Pachycephalosaurus, Stygimoloch and Dracorex are all members of one species (Pachycephalosaurus), says Horner. Same with Edmontosaurus (named first) & Anatotitan, as well as Tyrannosaurus (first-named) and Nanotyrannus.
Every argument is valid and highlights the flaws in the other’s logic, which is exactly what science is meant to do. After all, science is all about identifying facts, stating a hypothesis based on evidence and then making new hypotheses as new facts and evidence come to light. It is a cyclical process that is always changing, never stagnant.
It evolves, just like those terrible lizards that went extinct 65 million years ago.
“This is how science works,” says Switek. “Regardless of what happens to Torosaurus, the debate is a testament to the fact that dinosaur paleontology is a biological discipline that is extracting ever-more clues from old bones.”
“I think that’s amazing,” he adds.
And I agree.
But next time you read about dinosaur names, remember that it could change. Until then, just enjoy the journey and stand in awe that these magnificent creatures existed right where we all are standing right now.
Farke, AA (2011). “Anatomy and Taxonomic Status of the Chasmosaurine Ceratopsid Nedoceratops hatcheri from the Upper Cretaceous Lance Formation of Wyoming, U.S.A.” PLOS ONE 6(1).
TEDx Talks (2011). “TEDx Vancouver – Jack Horner – The Shape-Shifting Skulls of Dinosaurs.” Apr. 13, 2011. YouTube.com
Longrich NR, Field DJ (2012). “Torosaurus Is Not Triceratops: Ontogeny in Chasmosaurine Ceratopsids as a Case Study in Dinosaur Taxonomy.” PLOS ONE 7(2).
Scannella JB, Horner JR (2011). “‘Nedoceratops’: An Example of a Transitional Morphology.” PLOS ONE 6(12).
Switek, Brian. “The Torosaurus Identity Crisis Continues” Smithsonian.com.
Tate Geological Museum. “Why did they change the name of Brontosaurus to Apatosaurus?” Casper College. Accessed Sept. 15, 2012.