September 19, 2012
When British anatomist Richard Owen coined the term “Dinosauria” in 1842, there were nowhere near as many dinosaurs known as there are today. And even among that paltry lot, most specimens were isolated scraps that required a great deal of interpretation and debate to get right. The most famous of these enigmatic creatures were Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus–a trio of prehistoric monsters that cemented the Dinosauria as a distinct group. But they weren’t the only dinosaurs that paleontologists had found.
Almost 20 years before he established the Dinosauria, Owen named what he thought was an ancient crocodile on the basis of a tooth. He called the animal Suchosaurus, and only recently did paleontologists realize that the dental fossil actually belonged to a spinosaur, one of the heavy-clawed, long-snouted fish-eaters such as Baryonyx. Likewise, other naturalists and explorers discovered remnants of dinosaurs in North America and Europe prior to 1842, but no one knew what most of these fragments and fossil tidbits actually represented. Among these discoveries was the sauropodomorph Thecodontosaurus–a dinosaur forever connected with Bristol, England.
Paleontologist Mike Benton of the University of Bristol has traced the early history of Thecodontosaurus in a new paper published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association. The story of the dinosaur’s discovery began in 1834, when reports of remains from “saurian animals” started to filter out of Bristol’s limestone quarries. Quarry workers took some of the bones to the local Bristol Institution for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Arts so that the local curator, Samuel Stutchbury, could see them. Yet Stutchbury was away at the time, so the bones were also shown to his paleontologist colleague Henry Riley, and when he returned Stutchbury was excited enough by the finds to ask quarrymen to bring him more specimens. He wasn’t the only one, though. David Williams–a country parson and geologist–had a similar idea, so Stutchbury teamed up with paleontologist Henry Riley in an academic race to describe the unknown creature.
All three naturalists issued reports and were aware of each other’s work. They collected isolated bones and skeletal fragments, studied them and communicated their preliminary thoughts to their colleagues at meeting and in print. In an 1835 paper, Williams even went so far as to suppose that the enigmatic, unnamed animal “may have formed a link between the crocodiles and the lizards proper”–not an evolutionary statement, but a proposal that the reptile slotted neatly into a static, neatly-graded hierarchy of Nature.
Riley, Stutchbury and Williams had become aware of the fossils around the same time in 1834. Yet Stuchbury and Williams, especially, were distrustful of each other. Stutchbury felt that Williams was poaching his fossils, and Williams thought Stutchbury was being selfish in trying to hoard all the fossils in the Bristol Institution. All the while, both parties worked on their own monographs about the animal.
Ultimately, Riley and Stuchbury came out on top. Williams lacked enough material to match the collection Riley and Stutchbury were working from, and he didn’t push to turn his 1835 report into a true description. He bowed out–and rightly felt snubbed by the other experts who had higher social standing–leaving the prehistoric animal to Riley and Stutchbury. No one knows why it took so long, but Riley and Stutchbury gave a talk about their findings in 1836, completed their paper in 1838 and finally published it in 1840. All the same, the abstract for their 1836 talk named the animal Thecodontosaurus and provided a short description–enough to establish the creature’s name in the annals of science.
But Thecodontosaurus was not immediately recognized as a dinosaur. The concept of a “dinosaur” was still six years away, and, even then, Richard Owen did not include Thecodontosaurus among his newly-established Dinosauria. Instead, Thecodontosaurus was thought to be a bizarre, enigmatic reptile that combined traits seen in both lizards and crocodiles, just as Williams had said. It wasn’t until 1870 that Thomas Henry Huxley recognized that Thecodontosaurus was a dinosaur–now known to be one of the archaic, Triassic cousins of the later sauropod dinosaurs. Thecodontosaurus only held the faintest glimmerings of what was to come, though. This sauropodomorph had a relatively short neck and still ran about on two legs.
The tale of Thecodontosaurus was not only a story of science. It’s also a lesson about the way class and politics influenced discussion and debate about prehistoric life. Social standing and institutional resources gave some experts an edge over their equally enthusiastic peers. Paleontologists still grapple with these issues. Who can describe certain fossils, who has permission to work on a particular patch of rock and the contributions avocational paleontologists can make to the field are all areas of tension that were felt just as acutely in the early 19th century. Dinosaur politics remain entrenched.
For more information, visit Benton’s exhaustively-detailed “Naming the Bristol Dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus” website.
Benton, M. (2012). Naming the Bristol dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus: politics and science in the 1830s Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 766-778 DOI: 10.1016/j.pgeola.2012.07.012
May 18, 2011
The way a mid-life crisis manifests itself differs from person to person. Some people might suddenly decide to take up sky diving, others are driven to purchase a shiny car they can’t afford. A rare few, as in Richard Polsky’s case, may feel an overwhelming urge to find a Tyrannosaurus rex. With his career as an art dealer in stasis, Polsky writes in the introduction to his travelogue memoir Boneheads, it was time “to experience life all over again,” and a search for the most famous predator of all time seemed like just the thing.
Finding a Tyrannosaurus is no easy task. Even though more than 43 specimens have been found to date and the dinosaur is one of the most completely known of all dinosaurs, you can’t simply walk out into the field and expect to find a complete tyrant skull smiling back at you. Polsky seems to understand this, and so he fashioned himself as a fossil gadfly—buzzing around fossil dealers and commercial fossil hunters in the hope that one of them will lead him to his quarry. His quest was not to discover a Tyrannosaurus for a museum or to understand something about the animal’s biology—Boneheads is almost devoid of any scientific content—but instead merely to find a tyrant to call his own.
Polsky’s journey to secure a Tyrannosaurus winds through hotel rooms, rural bars, greasy spoons and ranches. After getting a little help with initial introductions from his friend Henry Galiano—founder of the New York City natural history store Maxilla & Mandible—Polsky eventually meets up with some of the fossil hunters associated with recent Tyrannosaurus finds in the hope that one of them will take him out into the field. Peter Larson, one of the fossil hunters who excavated the famous Tyrannosaurus known as “Sue,” declines, as do several other fossil hunters, but Polsky does have a measured degree of success. Along the way Polsky meets Maurice Williams—the owner of the ranch where Sue was found—and somehow the wannabe fossil hunter convinces Williams to let him search the ranch for other Tyrannosaurus fossils. The search doesn’t yield much, but soon Polsky latches onto the self-proclaimed “Fossil King” Bob Detrich and his crew. Given to hyperbole and stretching the evidence further than it will go, Dietrich is a man after Polsky’s own heart in that he is seemingly convinced that there is a Tyrannosaurus in almost every fossil deposit, even when more experienced dinosaur hunters say it just isn’t so.
Polsky’s attempts to locate a Tyrannosaurus are about more than the simple thrill of hunting down a prehistoric monster. The Tyrannosaurus acts as a kind of totem of a road left untraveled. Long before he became an author and an art dealer, Polsky confides, he wanted to be a paleontologist. He met with a few paleontologists, went on a fossil-hunting trip at Dinosaur National Monument, and even volunteered prepping fossils at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Polsky saw himself as a brilliant budding paleontologist, but college was a cold bath. “I never realized that majoring in geology was actually majoring in science,” Polsky writes, and after two weeks of studying geology he realized that the field was not for him. Still, the compulsion to collect fossils came back to him later in life, and Polsky believed that finding a Tyrannosaurus would act as an unmistakable confirmation that he was truly meant to be a paleontologist.
Paleontology doesn’t work that way. Simply finding a fossil—even a Tyrannosaurus—does not automatically make you a paleontologist. Anyone can become a paleontologist with effort and dedicated study—a Ph.D. in the field is not a prerequisite—but the passion to learn about the life of the past in a scientific and responsible way must be there. Polsky clearly lacks that. He spends no time educating himself on the science behind the dinosaur he is hunting, and he spends only a few short hours in the field. Boneheads is clearly the memoir of an art dealer after another rare object, not of someone who cares a whit about what fossils actually mean.
Nevertheless, Polsky’s book is a worthwhile read for dinosaur fans because it records the mania that surrounds Tyrannosaurus rex. Discovering one of these famous dinosaurs can be more of a nightmare than a blessing—especially with the complicated nature of land ownership in the West—and Polsky’s story features expert fossil hunters that are well known to those in the field but will be unfamiliar to casual dinosaur fans. The commercial fossil world is a strange place—one of petrified wonders, forgeries, and odd personalities—and Boneheads offers a brief glimpse of this unique world in which every fossil has its price.