November 28, 2012
How did feathered dinosaurs take to the air? Paleontologists have been investigating and debating this essential aspect of avian evolution for over a century. Indeed, there have been almost as many ideas as they have been experts, envisioning scenarios of dinosaurs gliding through trees, theropods trapping insects with their feathery wings and even aquatic Iguanodon flapping primitive flippers as flight precursors (I didn’t say that all the ideas were good ones). The biomechanical abilities of bird ancestors and their natural history has always been at the center of the debate, and a new Current Biology paper adds more fuel to the long-running discussion.
At present, hypotheses for the origin of avian flight typically fall into one of two categories. Either bird ancestors accrued the adaptations necessary for flight on the ground and, through evolutionary happenstance, were eventually able to take off, or small tree-dwelling dinosaurs used their feathery coats to glide between trees and, eventually, flapped their way into a flying lifestyle. There are variations on both themes, but feathers and the characteristic avian flight stroke are at the core of any such scenario. In the case of the new paper, Yale University paleontologist Nicholas Longrich and colleagues draw from the plumage of early bird Archaeopteryx and the troodontid Anchiornis to examine how feathers changed as dinosaurs started to fly.
In modern flying birds, Longrich and coauthors point out, the wing arrangement typically consists of “long, asymmetrical flight feathers overlain by short covert feathers.” This pattern creates a stable airfoil but also lets the flight feathers separate a little during the upstroke of a wing beat, therefore reducing drag. When the paleontologists examined the fossilized wings of Archaeopteryx and Anchiornis, they found different feather arrangements that would have constrained the flight abilities of the Jurassic dinosaurs.
Both prehistoric creatures had long covert feathers layered on top of the flight feathers. Anchiornis, in particular, appeared to have an archaic wing form characterized by layers of short, symmetrical flight feathers and similarly shaped coverts. Archaeopteryx showed more specialization between the flight feathers and the coverts but still did not have a wing just like that of a modern bird. As a result, Longrich and collaborators hypothesize, both arrangements would have stabilized the wing at the cost of increased drag at low speeds, making it especially difficult for Anchiornis and Archaeopteryx to take off. As an alternative, the researchers suggest that these dinosaurs might have been parachuters who jumped into the air from trees, which might hint that “powered flight was preceded by arboreal parachuting and gliding.”
The trick is determining whether Anchiornis and Archaeopteryx actually represent the form of bird ancestors, or whether the dinosaurs, like Microraptor, were independent experiments in flight evolution. At the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in Raleigh, North Carolina last month, flight expert Michael Habib quipped that all that was needed to make dromaeosaurs aerially competent was the addition of feathers. If Habib is right, and I think he is, then there could have been multiple evolutionary experiments in flying, gliding, wing-assisted-incline-running and other such activities. There’s no reason to think that flight evolved only once in a neat, clean march of ever-increasing aerodynamic perfection. Evolution is messy, and who knows how many ultimately failed variations there were among flight-capable dinosaurs?
The three-step Anchiornis-Archaeopteryx-modern bird scenario of wing evolution fits our expectations of what a stepwise evolutionary pattern would look like, but, as the authors of the new paper point out, shifting evolutionary trees currently confound our ability to know what represents the ancestral bird condition and what characterized a more distant branch of the feathered dinosaur family tree. We need more feathery fossils to further investigate and test this hypothesis, as well as additional biomechanical and paleoecological information to determine whether such dinosaurs really took off from trees. We must take great care in distinguishing between what an organism could do and what it actually did, and with so much up in the air, the debate on the origin of flight will undoubtedly continue for decades to come.
Longrich, N., Vinther, J., Meng, Q., Li, Q., Russell, A. 2012. Primitive wing feather arrangement in Archaeopteryx lithographica and Anchiornis huxleyi. Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.09.052
April 10, 2012
“Brontosaurus” will always be special to me. The shuffling, swamp-dwelling dinosaur never really existed, yet, for my younger self, the Jurassic behemoth was an icon of everything dinosaurs were supposed to be. The skeleton mounted at the American Museum of Natural History is what really hooked me on the sauropod. When I first visited the skeleton in the late 1980s—before the museum’s dinosaur halls were renovated in the late 1990s—I was astonished. I had seen illustrations of Brontosaurus before, but seeing the animal’s actual bones was a transcendent experience for me. I already liked dinosaurs, but after standing in the shadow of those column-like limbs and intricate vertebral column, I loved dinosaurs.
Today we know that the specimens once assigned to Brontosaurus excelsus really belonged within the genus Apatosaurus. That issue was settled decades before I was even born, although museums and paleontologists themselves were slow to adopt the change. (It wasn’t until the proper head of Apatosaurus was rediscovered—the specimen was excavated at Dinosaur National Monument in 1909 but confused for a Diplodocus skull for decades—that the move to publicly shun Brontosaurus started in earnest.) Indeed, in 1903 paleontologist Elmer Riggs recognized that Brontosaurus excelsus was extraordinarily similar to the skeleton of another sauropod, named Apatosaurus ajax. Both had been named by Yale paleontologist O.C. Marsh at the height of the Bone Wars era, when many dinosaur specimens, no matter how subtle their differences, were given a new genus or species designation. In this particular case, the fact that the Apatosaurus ajax specimen came from a relatively young animal and the Brontosaurus excelsus specimen was an older animal led Marsh astray. Both forms, Riggs concluded, belonged to the same genus, and Apatosaurus had priority since it was named first.
The American Museum of Natural History mount went up in 1905. The dinosaur was promoted as Brontosaurus, not Apatosaurus. Even though Riggs’ case would eventually win out, AMNH paleontologists Henry Fairfield Osborn and William Diller Matthew didn’t agree with the name change. Exactly why Brontosaurus was allowed to live on—much to Riggs’ frustration—is unclear. But all these little quirks of nomenclature and procedure had a major influence on the popularity of Brontosaurus over Apatosaurus. The AMNH mount was the first reconstruction of this dinosaur ever attempted, and in 1905, it was one of a kind. (The original material Marsh used to describe Brontosaurus was held at Yale, but Marsh never made an effort to publicly display the partial skeleton his crew found at Como Bluff, Wyoming. The specimen, carrying a Brontosaurus name plate and the wrong head, was not reconstructed at Yale until 1931.) The AMNH Brontosaurus mount was the introduction of sauropods to the fascinated public.
William Diller Matthew recounted the process of mounting his museum’s Brontosaurus in an American Museum Journal article and a news item for the Independent. The skeleton was a Frankenstein. The principal part of the mount was an incomplete skeleton found near the Nine Mile Crossing of the Little Medicine Bow River in Wyoming. This one site yielded most of the vertebral column, all the ribs, elements of the shoulders and hips, and a few portions of the limbs from the single sauropod. But quite a few parts were missing, so AMNH paleontologists turned to other specimens. The AMNH Brontosaurus also included various elements from specimens found at Como Bluff and Bone Cabin Quarry, Wyoming, as well as plaster casts made from the Yale Brontosaurus material and other bones already in the AMNH collections.
And, of course, there was a question of the head. No one had ever discovered a Brontosaurus skull articulated or even associated with the rest of the skeleton. (And Earl Douglass’ discovery at Dinosaur National Monument was still four years away.) A skull had to be specially designed for the AMNH mount, and the New York museum followed Yale’s lead.
While all the bones from Marsh’s original Brontosaurus specimen came from Quarry 10 at Como Bluff, there was no skull among the lot. Rather than let the dinosaur go decapitated, however, Marsh identified two skull portions from a more diverse bonebed nearby, known as Quarry 13, as belonging to Brontosaurus. The sections of upper and lower jaws were set with spoon-shaped teeth, and these are the skull portions which make up the head of the famous 1883 reconstruction of the dinosaur Marsh commissioned.
The Como Bluff jaws outlined what the front of the dinosaur’s jaws might have looked like and, assuming that Marsh was correct, indicated that the skull of Brontosaurus was very different from that of Diplodocus. Fortuitously, the same AMNH expeditions to Bone Cabin Quarry which turned up Brontosaurus parts also brought back a complete Camarasaurus skull. Prior to this discovery, no one knew exactly what the head of Camarasaurus looked like. The fact that it seemed to share the spoon-shaped teeth assigned to Brontosaurus meant that the skull was a good model for reconstructing the rest of the missing “thunder lizard” skull. As far as I’m aware, the paleontologists did not consider that the supposed Brontosaurus skull parts, found in a different quarry than Marsh’s original specimen, really belonged to Camarasaurus.
Of course, accumulating all the right bones is just the first step in preparing a mount. Today, huge dinosaur skeletons are the stars of many museums. In 1905, though, such an effort had never been attempted before, and the AMNH paleontologists were not entirely sure how the brontosaur bones should be articulated. Matthew, along with colleague Walter Granger, dissected lizards and crocodiles to investigate how their muscles attached to their limb bones, and used these distant modern analogs to give their Brontosaurus a slightly bow-legged posture.
Mounted an a raised platform, the AMNH Brontosaurus looked like an impressive terrestrial titan. Yet during his study of the bones, Matthew concluded that Brontosaurus was a great amphibious dinosaur. Drawing from the authority of anatomist Richard Owen and paleontologist E.D. Cope, Matthew pointed out that the anatomy of Brontosaurus was so well-suited to life in water that you could tell the approximate depth at which the animal submerged. While the dense, heavy limbs of the dinosaurs acted like the heavy boots of deep-sea divers, Matthew pointed out, the sauropod’s light vertebral column would have been more buoyant. The dinosaur’s back therefore represented a sort of high water line which indicated the depth at which Brontosaurus wallowed in swamps, arcing its long neck to slurp up soft water plants.
Brontosaurus, in Matthew’s estimation, spent life slogging through a warm Jurassic bath. That seemed just as well—the dinosaur’s brain was comically small for its size. This sauropod was not an intelligent, behaviorally complex creature, Matthew argued, but a dim-witted leviathan devoted to a lazy lifestyle. “Hence we can best regard the Brontosaurus as a great, slow-moving animal automaton,” Matthew wrote, “a vast storehouse of organized matter directed chiefly or solely by instinct and to a very limited degree, if at all, by conscious intelligence.”
I am glad that dinosaurs have changed dramatically since Matthew characterized them as idiotic, clumsy piles of flesh. Apatosaurus and the whole rest of the dinosaurian ensemble are far more fascinating now than they were when bound to short and savage lives in steaming jungles and marshes. The true identity of “Brontosaurus” was eventually made clear, sauropods were ushered out of the swamps, butt-brains have been refuted, and paleontologists are able to extract more information about dinosaur lives from old bones than ever thought possible before.
And yet, I still feel some affection for Brontosaurus. This isn’t because I would prefer to see dumb, blunt-headed dinosaurs sloshing through algae-filled ponds, but because the old thunder lizard represented the epitome of true dinosaur-ness when I was a child. The mountain of muscle and bone was a wonderful icon which, in memory, reminds me just how much dinosaurs have changed during the twenty four years since I first saw the sauropod’s bones. I am thrilled that paleontologists sunk Brontosaurus, and the story of the icon’s demise reflects how paleontology has matured from a contest to see who could collect the biggest skeletons to a discipline that is carefully teasing out the secrets of prehistoric lives.
Matthew, W.D. 1905. The mounted skeleton of Brontosaurus. American Museum Journal.V (2), 63-70
Osborn, H.F. 1906. The skeleton of Brontosaurus and the skull of Morosaurus. Nature. 1890 (73), 282-284
Parsons, K. 2001. Drawing Out Leviathan: Dinosaurs and the Science Wars. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp.1-21
March 1, 2012
More than 120 years ago, the Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh described two of the most spectacular horned dinosaurs of all time. The first, named Triceratops in 1889, had three impressive horns jutting out of its face and a solid, curved frill. Two years later, Marsh named Torosaurus, another great, three-horned dinosaur, but with a longer frill perforated by two round holes. Although the two overlapped in space and time, they seemed distinct enough that paleontologists considered them to be separate dinosaur genera. That is, until Museum of the Rockies paleontologists John Scannella and Jack Horner suggested that these two dinosaurs were really one in the same.
Scannella and Horner presented their “Toroceratops” hypothesis at the 2009 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Bristol, England, and the following summer their paper came out. Based on skull anatomy, bone microstructure and other lines of evidence, the paleontologists proposed that Marsh’s Torosaurus was really the skeletally mature form of Triceratops. As Triceratops grew, the dinosaur’s frill would have changed size and shape, and those trademark Torosaurus holes would have opened up. An enigmatic fossil named Nedoceratops seemed to show this intermediate anatomy and was cited by Scannella and Horner as a dinosaur caught in the act of changing. Poor reporting on the research sent the public into a tizzy—Triceratops fans wept, wailed and gnashed their teeth at the suggestion that paleontologists were taking away one of their favorite dinosaurs, but only those with an affinity for Torosaurus had anything to fear. Since Triceratops was named first, the name had priority and Torosaurus would therefore be sunk. (No one seemed to care a whit that poor, neglected Nedoceratops would suffer the same fate.)
But should we sink Torosaurus? In the two years since Scannella and Horner’s paper came out, paleontologists have gone back and forth about whether such a radical, late-life transformation in Triceratops was even possible. Early last year, ceratopsian expert Andrew Farke of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology criticized the Triceratops transformation hypothesis and pointed out that Nedoceratops did not actually fit neatly into the sequence of changes Scannella and Horner had proposed. Naturally, the Museum of the Rockies paleontologists disagreed, and in a response published in December of 2011, Scannella and Horner reaffirmed the relevance of Nedoceratops to the extreme changes Triceratops might have undergone as it grew up.
Now another set of challengers has appeared. In a paper published last night in PLoS One, Yale University paleontologists Nicholas Longrich and Daniel Field concluded that Triceratops and Torosaurus truly were distinct dinosaurs, after all.
Most of what we know about Triceratops and Torosaurus has been extracted from skulls. Post-cranial skeletons are rare and, in the case of Torosaurus, incompletely known, and so the current argument is centered on how the skulls of these horned dinosaurs changed. In the new study, Longrich and Field coded twenty four different characteristics—relating to bone surface texture, fusion between skull bones, and other features—in a swath of Triceratops and Torosaurus skulls. The paleontologists then used this data to sort the different specimens into growth stages based on their cranial development. If Torosaurus truly represented the mature form of Triceratops, then all the Torosaurus should have come out as adults.
Of the six Torosaurus examined, five fell into a range between young and old adults. But there was one particularly large individual that seemed to be significantly younger. When Andrew Farke issued his critique of the “Toroceratops” hypothesis last year, he noted that a skull designated YPM 1831 was a possible candidate for a young Torosaurus. The paper by Longrich and Field supported this idea—YPM 1831 grouped with the subadult dinosaurs. “It’s a little surprising considering how damn big the skull is—probably about nine feet long—but it’s not fully mature,” Longrich said. “It’s like a teenager,” he noted, “a physically big animal but not all that mature yet.” The development of ornaments on the skull, the fact that some bones are not fused, and a bone texture associated with rapidly growing bone are possible signs that this dinosaur was not yet an adult.
If YPM 1831 really was a subadult Torosaurus, then it is probable that Triceratops and Torosaurus were distinct dinosaurs. Indeed, if Torosaurus truly was the fully mature form of Triceratops, then we should not find any juvenile or subadult Torosaurus specimens. “[B]oth Torosaurus and Triceratops,” Longrich and Field concluded, “span a range of ontogenetic stages,” and the features which distinguished each dinosaur appear to have developed before full maturity.
But Scannella disagrees. “Nothing in this paper falsifies the synonymy of ‘Torosaurus‘ and Triceratops,” he says. In particular, Scannella notes that the new study relies on comparative anatomical techniques, but does not employ studies of dinosaur bone microstructure which shows how individual skull bones were changing. Scannella explained:
Comparative morphology is useful in examining dinosaur ontogeny, however it shouldn’t be considered in a vacuum. There are other factors which provide a wealth of information on dinosaur growth. For example, by examining histology, the microstructure of the bones, we can actually see how the thick, solid frill of Triceratops expanded, became thinner, and developed the characteristic holes of the ‘Torosaurus‘ morph. You can look at a Triceratops squamosal under a microscope and see how it was transforming. We are also finding that the stratigraphic position of specimens is critical to understanding morphological trends.
Other subtle skull modifications are also in contention, such as how fusion between bones in the skull relates to maturity. Among other features, Longrich and Field looked at the fusion of skull bones to help determine which age bracket particular specimens fell within. “We think that what the fusions are telling you is that growth has slowed,” Longrich explained, “because you can no longer deposit new bone between those bones. This seems to be a fairly reliable indicator of maturity in relatively fast-growing animals like lizards, mammals, and birds.” In the case of Triceratops and Torosaurus, skull fusion seemed to occur in a particular sequence. “First the skull roof is fused, next the hornlets on the frill and cheeks fuse, then the beak and the nose fuse on. It’s a very regular pattern which suggests we can use this as a reliable way of getting at roughly where the animals fit in the developmental series,” Longrich said.
Yet Scannella and Horner have previously argued that the timing and degree of skull bone fusion aren’t as clear. Recently discovered specimens are contributing to the picture of how variable skull fusion might be. “The Museum of the Rockies has collected over a hundred new Triceratops from the Hell Creek Formation of Montana in the last decade,” Scannella said, and these specimens indicate that the details of skull fusion varies between individuals. “We have some huge, fairly mature Triceratops in which much of the skeleton is unfused; and there are also smaller, less mature specimens with many skeletal elements fused,” Scannella explained.
How the skulls of dinosaurs like Triceratops fused is not yet entirely clear, but, according to Andrew Farke, the degree of fusion between skull bones might be reliable for getting a general idea of how old an animal was. “There is little argument that the individual bones of the braincase tend to be unfused in young animals, and fused in old animals,” Farke pointed out, and further explained that “The same goes for the hornlets (epinasals and epijugals) on the face of ceratopsian dinosaurs,” he said, since “young animals tend to have unfused hornlets and old animals have fused hornlets.” Such features are what made the YPM 1831 Torosaurus stand out as a possible subadult to Farke’s eye.
Exactly which dinosaur YPM 1831 represents remains uncertain. The skull is the best candidate so far for a teenage Torosaurus, but this ambiguous specimen alone cannot end the debate. In fact, we have so much left to learn about Triceratops and Torosaurus—particularly about how their post-cranial skeletons changed as they aged—that a great deal of exploration and description remains to be done before this debate can be resolved. And this isn’t the only dinosaur name game in progress. The tiny tyrant “Raptorex” may have been a juvenile Tarbosaurus, the huge Anatotitan likely represents a mature Edmontosaurus, Titanoceratops was probably a big Pentaceratops, and the thick-skulled Dracorex and Stygimoloch might represent early growth stages of Pachycephalosaurus. Some of these changes sting—both Torosaurus and Anatotitan were childhood favorites of mine, and I’d hate to see them go—but, ultimately, these debates will help us better understand how dinosaurs grew up.
Longrich, N., & Field, D. (2012). Torosaurus Is Not Triceratops: Ontogeny in Chasmosaurine Ceratopsids as a Case Study in Dinosaur Taxonomy PLoS ONE, 7 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0032623
September 8, 2011
I have already said plenty about Discovery’s new prehistoric tribute, Dinosaur Revolution, but my paleo-blogging colleague David Orr recently brought up one aspect of the new program that has been nagging at me since I finished watching the screeners for the miniseries. Like many other programs, the show claims to overthrow the old, outdated image of Apatosaurus and company, but how far behind is the public’s understanding of dinosaurs? As David puts it:
If asked to picture the world of the Mesozoic, does the average person on the street see the vision of Zallinger or Spielberg? We’re now almost twenty years into the Jurassic Park era, and the idea of the “raptor” has ascended to a level of popularity arguably equal to Tyrannosaurus rex. … Are we beating a dead horse when we boldly claim to be killing obsolete ideas about dinosaur life?
In a way, it almost feels as if we sometimes resurrect the drab, lumpy and grossly outdated images of dinosaurs only to have them quickly dispatched by the swift, hot-blooded dinosaurs of the modern era. (Lest I be called a hypocrite, I have been guilty of this, too.) As David points out, Jurassic Park popularized an updated vision of dinosaurs almost twenty years ago, and to pick another benchmark, the acrobatic and active dinosaurs in Robert Bakker’s 1986 book The Dinosaur Heresies no longer look as scientifically sacrilegious as they did when the book initially came out. Not all of Bakker’s ideas are accepted today, but the overall vision he helped promote has become entrenched. Images of slow and stupid dinosaurs were tossed out a long time ago—the last time I can remember seeing a vintage dinosaur on screen was when Peter Jackson effectively brought the “Brontosaurus” back to life for his 2005 remake of King Kong, and even that dinosaur was pretty agile and light on its feet compared to the swamp-dwelling sauropods of old.
But the trouble with dinosaurs is that they are not entirely objects of scientific scrutiny that are constantly being updated according to new research. Dinosaurs are everywhere, and there are so many reconstructions and restorations that we sometimes create conflicting images. Let’s say that a young dinosaur fan watches Dinosaur Revolution and starts incessantly bugging her parents to take her to the museum. When she arrives, she may encounter dinosaurs in their outdated, early 20th century garb. The majority of the dinosaurs in Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History are still static tail-draggers, and a number of the famous mounts in the American Museum of Natural History are sorely out of date because they could not be safely re-posed (just to pick two examples). Even in some of the greatest dinosaur showcases in the world, modern dinosaurs stand right alongside more archaic visions of dinosauriana.
Depictions of dinosaurs in movies, documentaries, books and even museum displays are going to lag behind that latest science. That may say more about the rapid progress of paleontology in recent years more than anything else. Add that to the fact that the dinosaurs we adore during our childhood tend to stick with us. Though I pride myself on trying to keep up with the latest science now, for a time I just could not accept that many dinosaurs were covered in feathers. They looked silly and I had no idea what the state of the evidence was. Given the choice between the mean, scaly Deinonychus I knew and the more bird-like version paleontologists were talking about, I preferred the version I grew up with. (At least until I understood the actual science of the reconstructions that made me initially uneasy.) Even if dinosaurs are not changing as dramatically as they did during the heyday of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, ongoing research continues to alter our perspective on our favorite monsters—the dinosaurs we know from childhood may look unfamiliar to us when we re-encounter them later, be it in a museum or movie theater.
Nevertheless, perhaps we are putting the wrong emphasis on the actual “dinosaur revolution” now underway. The idea that dinosaurs were active, complex creatures and not just big lizards has been established for more than 30 years now. That isn’t new. What is novel about this period in science is that we are gaining a more refined picture of dinosaur lives thanks to numerous fossil discoveries and a variety of new techniques for studying those remnants of the Mesozoic world. The real dinosaur revolution isn’t so much about an image change—it is our ability to begin to answer, or at least approach, long-running questions about how dinosaurs actually lived. Perhaps, rather than beating a dead Camarasaurus, we should focus on how science is refining our picture of dinosaur lives.
August 15, 2011
Dinosaurs are everywhere. They’ve got more lasting star power than any Hollywood celebrity you care to name, and artists are constantly crafting images of what they might have looked like when alive. (Some efforts are better than others, and paleo bloggers Marc Vincent and Trish have had a lot of fun ripping apart sorry looking ‘saurs.) Back when Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Apatosaurus were new to science, though, some paleontologists were not so enthusiastic about seeing illustrators resurrect prehistoric creatures.
In 1940, Yale paleontologist Charles Schuchert co-authored a biography of the celebrated bone-hunter O.C. Marsh with research assistant Clara Mae LeVene. The focus is obviously on Marsh, but Schuchert peppered the manuscript with a few of his own experiences and observations from a career researching fossils. This included a rather disappointing debate about how fossils should be appreciated.
Even though paintings, reconstructions and restorations of dinosaurs and other prehistoric organisms are museum centerpieces today, this started to become the case only after this episode from 1891. Before that, many paleontologists preferred to leave the bones alone. (There were some notable exceptions—such as the work of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins—but restored and reconstructed dinosaurs were nowhere near as common as today.) Even Marsh, who oversaw the illustration of intricately detailed dinosaur skeletons, didn’t want to actually mount a full dinosaur skeleton. Such efforts had more to do with art and architecture than with science, as Schuchert himself was told.
After viewing the a beautifully sculpted head of a prehistoric mammal called a brontothere created by artist Adam Hermann for the American Museum of Natural History, Schuchert decided that the United States National Museum—now the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History—needed similar restorations. How better to instill an appreciation of prehistory than to put flesh on old bones? Writing in the third person, Schuchert explained:
On his return to Washington, he laid the matter before his chief, Director G. Brown Goode, describing in glowing terms the marvel he had seen and all that it had taught him. Director Goode listened patiently, and then smilingly replied: “Mr. Schuchert, I admire your enthusiasm, but what you have seen is not Fine Paleontology, but Fine Art.” He suggested that the same story be told to Dr. Theodore Gill of the Museum, to see what his reaction would be. Gill agreed, crushingly, that such restorations were indeed Nothing But Fine Art; furthermore, he held that fossil skeletons were not for the understanding of the general public, but that the bones should be left inarticulated in museum drawers or on shelves for the edification of paleontologists alone!
Needless to say, I am thrilled that things have changed since the early days of Schuchert’s career! Fossils form part of everyone’s story, and it would be a downright shame if they were simply locked up in boxes in dusty cabinets. After all, much of the point of paleontology is to try to figure out how long-extinct creatures lived, and how can we do that if we never allow our imaginations to take hold of the fossils we find? We need “Fine Art” to bring aspects of “Fine Paleontology” to life.