August 10, 2009
Naming a new dinosaur can be a tricky thing. Although nearly-complete skeletons often make headlines, more often than not new species are based upon fragmentary material. In these cases further discoveries are often needed to determine whether the species really is new, and every now and then it turns out that the fossils really belonged to a previously-known species. This can be frustrating, but it is the way science works, and it is nowhere near as bad as when a 19th century naturalist created a new dinosaur based upon a plant fossil.
In 1887 the naturalist Abbe G. Smets found two fossils in France that he thought represented a new kind of dinosaur. According to Smets, the dark-colored fossils were parts of the jaw of a Hadrosaurus-like dinosaur, and he named his find Aachenosaurus. Obviously there was not a lot to go on, but Smets felt so confident that he even issued a full-scale restoration of what he thought they dinosaur might have looked like.
The paleontologist Louis Dollo and the botanist Maurice Hovelacque disagreed. When they investigated Smets’ fossils they discovered that the fossils did not belong to a dinosaur at all. Instead the fragments were just bits of fossil wood!
Smets protested and viciously attacked Dollo in print, but other naturalists saw this as desperation on Smets’ part. The findings of Dollo and Hovelacque were much better supported no matter how angry this made Smets. This was the opinion of G.A. Boulenger and Richard Lydekker, who published a note entitled “A Wooden Dinosaur” in the March 20, 1889, issue of the Geological Magazine. As Boulenger and Lydekker wrote, Smets appeared to;
… have followed the Old Bailey maxim, that when you have no case, the only thing left is to abuse the plaintiff and all connected to him.
Indeed, Boulenger and Lydekker were especially aggravated to find that Smets had attempted to use their research to discredit Dollo. This was perhaps the main reason that the two wrote their notice in the first place. Dollo was a well-respected paleontologist and no amount of name-calling by Smets was going to change that. Smets was only making a fool of himself by trying to turn other naturalists upon each other, and his wooden dinosaur had rotted away.
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