August 29, 2012
Dinosaur names are important. Each moniker is a title that encompasses the various bones and specimens that paleontologists use to bring dinosaurs to life. When I write Tyrannosaurus rex, for instance, the name instantly conjures up an image of a hulking, deep-skulled bone-crusher that roamed western North America during the last two million years of the Cretaceous. A dinosaur’s name conveys a lot of information.
Some names are more mundane than others. Allosaurus is one of my favorite dinosaurs, but her name translates to “different lizard.” Not very inspiring. Alternatively, some dinosaur names can be hard to pronounce. I always pause before I say Amphicoelias to make sure I don’t butcher the sauropod’s name. And, then again, some dinosaur names are unintentionally funny. Pantydraco, anyone?
Just as there are people who are put off by dinosaur feathers, though, some folks are irritated by what they deem “dinosaurs with dumb names.” One of my neighbors over at WIRED, humorist Lore Sjöberg, wrote a brief whine featuring a list of dinosaurs that he thinks should be renamed for dignity’s sake.
Now, there are some dinosaur names that I’m not totally enamored with. While I understand the dinosaur’s symbolic status, Bicentenaria argentina doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and the same goes for the unevocative Panamericansaurus (yes, named after Pan American Energy). Then there are the names that appeal to the more puerile portion of my sense of humor. Read the name Texasetes too fast and you may get the dinosaur confused with a part of the male anatomy (not to mention the actual debate over whether the name of Megalosaurus should really be “Scrotum“), and you should always be careful with the pronunciation of Fukuiraptor unless you’re actually trying to insult the allosaur.
But what baffles me is that Sjöberg didn’t pick any of these names. Instead, his list includes the likes of Spinosaurus and Giraffatitan. I get his beef with dinosaurs named after places (Albertosaurus, Edmontosaurus, etc.), and I agree that Gasosaurus was comically unimaginative, but Iguanodon? The second dinosaur ever named, and one of the most iconic prehistoric creatures named for the clue in its teeth that led Gideon Mantell to rightly hypothesize that the dinosaur was an immense herbivore? I have to wonder whether Sjöberg would consider “Iguanasaurus– the original proposed name for the dinosaur–to be a step back or an improvement.
I just don’t get Sjöberg’s contention that Giraffatitan is “terrible” because–*gasp*–the sauropod wasn’t actually a big giraffe. Strict literalism only in naming dinosaurs, please. And, really, what would Sjöberg suggest as a replacement for Spinosaurus? When Ernst Stromer found the theropod, the most distinctive thing about the dinosaur was its enormous vertebral spines. What would you call it? Suchomimus–a cousin of Spinosaurus–is a little more poetic, but I like Stromer’s choice just fine.
There’s no reason to focus on the negative, though. There are plenty of awesome dinosaur names. Yes, yes, Tyrannosaurus rex will always be the best, but I still get a kick out of saying the names of the enigmatic sauropod Xenoposeidon, the dromaeosaur Pyroraptor, the stegosaur Miragaia, the ceratopsian Spinops, and the oviraptorid Khaan (“KHAAAAAAN!“). Not every dinosaur name is easily pronounced (say Willinakaqe ten times fast) or truly encapsulates the nature of the animal, but at least paleontologists aren’t naming species after online casinos. Not yet, anyway.
April 3, 2012
In 1941, Czech paleo-artist Zdeněk Burian created one of the most iconic dinosaur images ever. I saw it four decades later, in one of my childhood science books, and the illustration amazed me as soon as I saw it. I still love it. Not because it’s correct, but because the painting so beautifully captures an obviously incorrect idea.
The painting, in careful detail, shows a trio of Brachiosaurus neck-deep in a prehistoric lake. Two poke their grinning heads above the surface, while a third plucks a gob of soft aquatic plants from the silty lake bottom. It was reproduced in a TIME/LIFE young readers nature library book on evolution, and I fondly remember opening the book to that page and taking in the Jurassic scene.
I am surprised this strange sauropod imagery was cherished by so many for so long. Brachiosaurus was a little more streamlined than an office building, and if the dinosaur led a watery life, it looked capable only of sticking its pylon-like legs into the muck and waving its head around to strain algae. And then there was the Goldilocks problem—an aquatic Brachiosaurus would require rivers and lakes of just the right size and depth to survive. To make matters worse, Brachiosaurus would have needed to haul themselves out and go looking for mates in other hot tubs if the species was to continue. Despite recent suggestions that these huge dinosaurs were capable of amorous aqua-acrobatics, I’m not convinced the exceptionally air-filled, buoyant sauropods could have pulled off the required underwater maneuvers. Brachiosaurus, and its counterpart Giraffatitan from the Jurassic of Tanzania, were creatures of the terrestrial realm, just like all other sauropods.
In fact, with the exception of feathery dinosaurs that took to the air, all dinosaurs were land-dwellers. This fact has been amply documented by studies of dinosaur anatomy and trackways and by attempts to reconstruct the habitats where dinosaurs actually lived. After all, paleontology relies on a combination of anatomy and geology, and by pulling at those two threads paleontologists have been able to investigate how dinosaurs interacted with the various habitats they called home—be they fern-covered floodplains, dense forests, or sandy deserts. To pick just one example, paleontologists Chris Noto and Ari Grossman recently reviewed the pattern of global ecology during the Jurassic dinosaur heyday and found that aridity—which affected vegetation in prehistoric forests—influenced the abundance and variety of herbivorous dinosaurs present in different parts of the world. As paleontologists keep digging and poring over what has already been found, the ecology of the dinosaurs is coming into clearer and clearer focus.
All of which is to say that I was dumbfounded when the BBC’s Today program ran a sensationalist story about a so-called dinosaur debate that isn’t really a debate at all. You can listen to the brief story yourself here, presented by journalist Tom Feilden. (I have clashed with him about dinosaur journalism before.) The upshot is that dinosaurs should be shown wading through prehistoric lakes, not walking along the edges of prehistoric forests.
Feilden talks to Brian J. Ford—identified as a cell biologist and with no apparent expertise in paleontology—about why dinosaurs seem to be all wrong. Ford is given relatively little time to explain himself, but insists that dinosaurs were simply too big to have walked on land. “The tail of a dinosaur could weigh ten, twenty tons,” Ford says, which isn’t a precise statement or one that seems to be derived from evidence. Let’s assume that “a dinosaur”—which dinosaur is unclear—had a 20 ton tail. To put this in perspective, in his revision of Brachiosaurus, sauropod expert Mike Taylor estimated the huge Giraffatitan to be about 23 tons in life. Ford is suggesting that some dinosaurs had tails about as heavy as an absolutely huge sauropod, but not surprisingly, where he is drawing this information from isn’t mentioned. Things don’t get better from there.
To Ford, dinosaurs must have lived in perpetually flooded habitats. His whole argument boils down to “Dinosaurs look big!” A popular-audience article in Laboratory News gives Ford some additional space to spell out his ideas, though this does the reader little good. Dinosaurs were big and had heavy tails, Ford tells his audience, ergo, they make no sense on land. That’s it—that’s the whole basis for his speculation. Ford does not appear to have reviewed any of the literature on dinosaur biomechanics or body mass. He just flatly says that dinosaurs, as often depicted, aren’t right. Or as Ford succinctly frames his idea in the final paragraph, “Dinosaurs look more convincing in water.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Ford isn’t just talking about sauropods. He applies his idea to all large, multi-ton dinosaurs, and goes so far as to suggest one of the strangest ideas I have ever heard for the relatively small forelimbs of tyrannosaurs. Again, Ford uses an aquatic environment as an answer. “The fact that the limbs [of Tyrannosaurus] became foreshortened is entirely reasonable,” he wrote, since “animals like to inspect their food as they eat, and holding it closer to the face is normal behaviour.” Imagine a submerged Tyrannosaurus, trying to peer down at a fish in its arms. If you have ever looked at a tyrannosaur skeleton at all, you can see how downright silly this is. Tyrannosaurus would have to strain its neck pretty hard to get even a glance at whatever it might try to hold in its two-fingered hands. This is the sure sign of a rather crummy idea—the idea is not only unscientific, but it attempts to answer almost every question about dinosaur evolution, biology and extinction.
And there’s an important fact Ford totally missed in his position piece. While he criticizes interpretations of the dinosaur track record, Ford doesn’t mention that there are actually rare traces of dinosaur swim tracks. The majority of dinosaur tracks indicate that the animals primarily lived on land, but some dinosaurs, primarily medium-sized carnivores, sometimes went into the water. If dinosaurs really did live in water, we’d expect to see many more swim tracks in the fossil record, but these trace fossils are a rarity. We know the kind of tracks dinosaurs left on land, and we know what kind of tracks at least some made in water. Based on the track evidence, Ford’s idea immediately sinks.
Ford’s ideas are zany. That’s not a crime. There are plenty of weird ideas about prehistoric life around the web—the idea that tyrannosaurs hugged trees to hide from prospective prey is probably my favorite nonsense idea. But Feilden did not do his due diligence as a journalist. He reported this story as if there actually was a shred of merit to it, when all that was behind the story was a cell biologist who entirely ignored paleontology. Ford’s comments seem to stem from watching Walking With Dinosaurs—there’s no indication that he has carefully researched the subject he pontificates upon. (In searching for depictions of dinosaurs to criticize, Ford takes an image created for a creationist website as the best science can offer. Oops.) As paleontologists Mike Taylor and Dave Hone have already pointed out on their blogs, there’s not even really a discussion worth having here. Ford presents no actual evidence for his claims, and Feilden uncritically ran with the unsupported assertions.
To his credit, Feilden spoke to dinosaur expert Paul Barrett at the Natural History Museum for a second opinion, but that’s small consolation in a story that didn’t deserve the attention it received in the first place. If there is a story here, it’s about how a cell biologist arrogantly ignored the evidence collected over decades in a different field in an attempt to foist his own just-so stories on dinosaurs to ease his own discomfort at seeing landlubber Diplodocus. Even worse, Feilden makes a connection between the dissenting Ford and Galileo—Galileo, for crying out loud—to hint that Ford’s idiosyncratic views, unfettered by the problem of actually looking at the evidence, may turn out to be right. No. Just no. The accumulated tonnage of evidence places dinosaurs as primarily terrestrial beings, and simply ignoring all of that for the sake of controversial isn’t amazing news. It’s bad science communicated by bad journalism.
March 15, 2012
Brachiosaurus used to hold the title of biggest dinosaur ever. I remember when, as a young dinosaur fanatic, books and documentaries told me that this long-necked dinosaur was the ultimate prehistoric titan. Then Supersaurus, Argentinosaurus and other super-sized dinosaurs came along and ruined all the fun. Even worse, paleontologists recently realized that we actually know very little about what Brachiosaurus really looked like.
In 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs described Brachiosaurus altithorax from fossils discovered in the 150-million-year-old Late Jurassic strata of western Colorado. The dinosaur, which Riggs believed to be the largest known, was represented by a huge humerus and assorted elements of the shoulder girdle, hips, hindlimbs, vertebrae, ribs and a few other miscellaneous parts. Despite the relative smattering of material, though, the proportions of the bones led Riggs to conclude that he had found a previously unknown dinosaur that was significantly larger than Apatosaurus, Diplodocus and other giants which lived at the same time.
Fossils discovered by German expeditions to Tanzania seemed to fill out the form of Brachiosaurus. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Late Jurassic deposits of Africa were believed to be roughly equivalent to those of western North America, and so dinosaurs discovered in Tanzania’s Tendaguru Formation were often assigned to genera known from the Morrison Formation of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. As a result, paleontologist Werner Janesch described partial skeletons and skulls of a large sauropod dinosaur from Tanzania under the name Brachiosaurus brancai. The fact that the material from Africa was more complete allowed paleontologists to get a better idea of just how big the dinosaur was—Brachiosaurus brancai reached over 80 feet long and may have weighed more than 25 tons.
But there’s a major problem with this approach. Paleontologists recently determined that the brachiosaurs from Africa and North America don’t actually belong to the same genus after all. Artist Gregory S. Paul noted differences between the two brachiosaurs in 1988, and in 2009 sauropod expert Mike Taylor confirmed that the two dinosaurs were different enough to warrant placement in separate genera. Furthermore, a skull fragment tentatively assigned to Brachiosaurus hints that the traditional picture of the dinosaur may have been skewed by reliance on fossils from Tanzania. While the North American form has retained its name, Brachiosaurus altithorax, the dinosaur from Tanzania is now called Giraffatitan brancai. Thanks to a name change, we know significantly less about Brachiosaurus than we thought we did.
Then again, a reevaluation of another Jurassic dinosaur skeleton may provide a rough idea of what Brachiosaurus looked like as a baby. In 2007, Daniela Schwarz-Wings and colleagues described a juvenile sauropod skeleton found in Wyoming’s Howe Stephens Quarry. This Late Jurassic specimen was designated SMA 0009, and was initially thought to be a young diplodocid dinosaur. But in a new paper published in Palaeontology, Schwarz-Wings, José Carballido and colleagues have amended their diagnosis. Additional preparation of the partial skeleton revealed that the dinosaur was not a close relative of Diplodocus and Apatosaurus at all, but was more closely related to Brachiosaurus.
Schwarz-Wings and co-authors refrained from assigning SMA 0009 to a particular dinosaur species. The fact that the animal is a juvenile confounds precise identification attempts—dinosaurs changed significantly as they grew up, and the traits seen in adult dinosaurs may not have been present in juveniles. Likewise, the revised idea that SMA 0009 is a brachiosaur makes comparisons difficult since paleontologists have yet to assemble a complete picture of an adult Brachiosaurus. Still, since the young dinosaur is grouped closely with Brachiosaurus, and Brachiosaurus was the only dinosaur of its kind present in the Morrison Formation, there is a good possibility that SMA 0009 is a young Brachiosaurus. Until someone finds more complete remains of this rare and enigmatic dinosaur, however, Brachiosaurus will remain a dinosaurian enigma.
CARBALLIDO, J., MARPMANN, J., SCHWARZ-WINGS, D., & PABST, B. (2012). New information on a juvenile sauropod specimen from the Morrison Formation and the reassessment of its systematic position Palaeontology DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2012.01139.x
RIGGS, E.S. (1903). “Brachiosaurus altithorax, the largest known dinosaur.” American Journal of Science (series 4) 15(88): 299-306.
TAYLOR, M.P. (2009). “A Re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropod) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensh 1914).” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 29(3): 787-806