March 23, 2011
I feel a little sorry that I said Allosaurus had one of the dullest names in paleontology yesterday. It’s not the dinosaur’s fault that Othniel Charles Marsh gave it the unimaginative title of “different reptile.” Had Marsh seen the complete skeleton when he coined the name, perhaps he would have come up with a more fearsome moniker. Seeing the American Museum of Natural History mount of Allosaurus crouched over the tooth-scored bones of a sauropod certainly captured my imagination.
Put on display in 1908, the AMNH’s iconic Allosaurus had actually been collected decades before. In 1879, just two years after the dinosaur was named, a man by the name of F.F. Hubbell discovered the skeleton at the Jurassic locality of Como Bluff, Wyoming. Hubbell was a collector for Edward Drinker Cope—Marsh’s personal and academic rival—and the specimen he found was far more complete than the bits of broken bone Marsh had described.
Strangely, however, it seems that Cope did not appreciate the exquisite Allosaurus. He may not have even known what he really had. Some of the bones Hubbell had previously collected were mere scraps, and Cope may have assumed that the boxes from Como Bluff held only specimens of trifling importance.
The dinosaur remained crated up for decades was sold to the AMNH after Cope’s death as part of the paleontologist’s massive collection of fossils. Thought to contain a nearly worthless collection of fragments, the crates from Hubbell were the last to be opened by the museum’s paleontologists, around 1903. They were astounded by what they found.
Although collected by the crude methods of early days, [the Allosaurus] consisted of the greater part of the skeleton of a single individual, with the bones in wonderfully fine preservation, considering that they had been buried for say eight million years. They were dense black, hard and uncrushed, even better preserved and somewhat more complete than the two fine skeletons of Allosaurus from Bone-Cabin Quarry, the greatest treasures that this famous quarry had supplied.
Comparison to the other known Allosaurus specimens and the bones of smaller theropod dinosaurs were needed to fill in some of the gaps, but soon Matthew and his colleagues were able to assemble a complete skeleton of the predator. Fortuitously, an AMNH expedition in 1897 had collected a the partial remains of a “Brontosaurus” that had clearly been damaged by a theropod dinosaur, and the discovery of broken Allosaurus teeth around the bones confirmed the connection between the two. The decision was made to put the two specimens together, with the Allosaurus taking on a threatening posture to drive away any smaller scavengers that might come by. A snapshot of a past age, Matthew described the exhibit’s intent this way:
As now exhibited in the Dinosaur Hall, this group gives to the imaginative observer a most vivid picture of a characteristic scene of that bygone age, millions of years ago, when reptiles were the lords of creation, when “Nature, red in tooth and claw” had lost none of her primitive savagery, and the era of brute force and ferocity showed little sign of the gradual amelioration, which was to come to pass in future ages through the predominance of superior intelligence.
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