Thursday 26 April 2012

The Dinosaurs That Never Were

I've been talking about pulp adventure a lot. Let's change tack.


You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing - that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
 - Richard Feynman

Even though I was growing up during the Dinosaur Renaissance, a lot of that scientific knowledge had yet to filter into popular consciousness, particularly in the West Coast of Scotland, where only the nine richest earls owned a television until the Tellyvolution of 1987 and telephones strictly regulated by the parish tea group.  As such, many books printed in the 1970s and even early 1980s were full of information that had been outdated for decades: sauropods still dwelling in swamps, all dinosaurs still dragging their tails, and even genera which had been done away with. Thus, my childhood was full of paradigm shifting discoveries as everything I thought I knew about dinosaurs changed, sometimes profoundly.

Many of you may be familiar with the old Brontosaurus-Apatosaurus affair.  If not, I'll break it down quickly: In 1877, Othniel Charles Marsh described a new sauropod from fragmentary remains.  He called it Apatosaurus ajax, "Ajax's deceptive lizard."  Two years later, he described another find, a larger specimen similar to ajax, which Marsh believed to be a new species.  He called it Brontosaurus excelsus, "highest thunder lizard."  In 1903, Elmer Riggs re-examined ajax and excelsus, and considered both to be of the same genus, though still different species: since Apatosaurus was described first, that name took precedence. Much like how the poetic Eohippus ("dawn horse") was lost in favour of the useless Hyracotherium ("hyrax beast"), the powerful, resonant Brontosaurus had to be discarded, with the bland Apatosaurus taking its place. This all happened in 1903, yet it took until 1974 for Brontosaurus to be officially removed from palaeontological records.  And yet the way people talk, you'd think this was some sort of new development made in the last decade or so, like the reclassification of Pluto.

One of the great frustrations in my life is knowing that many dinosaur names that I remember fondly technically no longer exist - or, rather, never truly did. What an existential crisis it must be for these creatures, to have one name or another assigned by the arrogant and presumptuous bald-monkeys currently claiming to rule the earth. They have every right to be scandalized.  I suppose this must be how it feels for Brontosaurus fans, and those people who mistakenly thought Triceratops was in danger due to a mixture of poor journalism, failure to implement basic reading comprehension, and this peculiar malady of the current generation which automatically assumes their childhood is under constant assault.

But at the same time, I feel a bit annoyed by the vague sense of entitlement gleaned from these criticisms.  "It was Brontosaurus when I was young, therefore, it should still be Brontosaurus.  To say otherwise is to murder my childhood.  You're under arrest... for nostalgicide."  Alright, that's hyperbole, but I'm surprised at the number of people who take similar extremes to other new discoveries.  Like feathered raptors: you wouldn't believe the number of times I've seen people actively deny the latest discoveries, simply because it would mess with their conception of the fictional theme-park monsters of Jurassic Park.  All I can think is, where were you people when they discovered Psittacosaurus had quills, Spinosaurus had a crocodile head, Oviraptor didn't deserve its libellous name and, most stunning of all, that technically speaking birds are dinosaurs?  Heck, it took me a while to adjust to the idea Diplodocus had iguana spines, but I didn't just reject the discovery just because the beasties in Walking with Dinosaurs looked "weird" to me.

It can be a scary thing.  We might yet lose some of our treasured dinosaur names if the ICZN decide to shake things up.  For all we know, Triceratops could be absorbed into Agathaumas; Diplodocus could be discarded for Amphicoelias; Coelophysis could be renamed Rioarribasaurus; even the mighty Tyrannosaurus could be rechristened Manospondylus. And yet, something tells me it wouldn't really matter.  After all, we've known Brontosaurus was a junior synonym of Apatosaurus since 1903, yet that didn't stop Sinclair from adopting the fictitious beast as their mascot in 1964, or the U.S. Post Office using the name for a set of dinosaur stamps in 1989.

Or Sludge taking it as his alternate mode in 1985.

As Stephen Jay Gould said in his seminal essay, "Bully for Brontosaurus," it doesn't really matter.  Brontosaurus didn't stop existing because the name isn't ICZN compliant, it's just that that Apatosaurus takes precedence as the animal's name.  The animal's still there!  You can even still call it Brontosaurus if you like, as long as you're not referring to it in scientific journals, which - and this is a wild stab in the dark - I'm guessing the majority of people won't be doing.  It's like pedantically insisting that someone call a particular North American cat Puma concolor instead of a mountain lion, or conversely, believing that mountain lions somehow ceased to exist in 1895.  It can be a Puma concolor and a mountain lion, and a cougar, and a catamount, and Yukon Death Tabby.  (Though I suspect it would rather you call it Tiddles, since that's its name.)

All the same, I do feel a slight sense of loss when I discover the name of one of the creatures I discovered in the pages of Dinosaurs! or the myriad encyclopedias and picture-books is no longer scientifically valid, for one reason or another. Here, I shall present a tribute to those dinosaur names who are no longer among us: Nomina dubia, Nomina oblita, preoccupied names, junior synonyms, chimeras, and all the other victims of the fickle mistress that is taxonomy.

"Fused Ankle"
(now Megapnosaurus, "Big Dead Lizard")
I discovered Syntarsus, like more than a few dinosaurs on this list, in the pages of Dinosaurs!, in which the above illustration appeared. This was a weekly magazine released in the early 1990s, where Jurassic Park had not yet blown the minds of audiences everywhere, so it was a mixed bag of outdated illustrations and up-to-date science. Syntarsus was named by M. Raath in 1969.  It was a curious beast to me due to the strange crest, which was an early supposition of the presence of feathers on dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, the name Syntarsus had already been applied to a species of beetle, meaning that it had to be renamed. Though the meaning of Syntarsus is a bit weird, I think it slips off the tongue quite nicely, more than the clumsy Megapnosaurus: in addition, "big dead lizard" is so vague as to be meaningless within the context of other dinosaurs.  They are all "big," and they are all dead.  Plus Megapnosaurus is pretty small as dinosaurs go, making the Mega- part of the name somewhat jarring. More saddening is that the crest is probably not quite as distinct as in earlier depictions, with current reconstructions resembling its Coelurosaurian fellows Liliensternus and Dilophosaurus more than the curious beastie of my youth.

Nanotyrannus, Stygivenator, Dinotyrannus
"Small Tyrant," "Styx Hunter," "Terrible Tyrant"
(now Tyrannosaurus and Aublysodon) 
Picture by Sergey Krasovskiy

Nanotyrannus was popularised as an adorable tiny cousin of Tyrannosaurus, the inherent appeal of a dwarf dinosaur not lost on this lad: it was also the star of an episode of the maddening Jurassic Fight Club, which is about as close as we're going to get to Deadliest Dinosaur without the David Wenham soundalike. Stygivenator was a similarly small Tyrannosaur which made up what it lacked in size with one of the most badass dinosaur names this side of Vulcanodon or Dracorex. Dinotyrannus comes close to Stygivenator in the charismatic soft-science-journalist-baiting names, and was a relative latecomer to Dinosaurs!, so I don't recall much of it save that it was a Tyrannosaur of some sort.

These three Tyrannosaurs and their various species have been reclassified as juvenile Tyrannosauruses or Aublysodons, though the jury's still out on Nanotyrannus, who may yet be considered a distinct species.  Because naming standards mean that junior synonyms can never be used for another animal (which is why we don't have an "official" Brontosaurus despite the awesome name), I'm somewhat heartbroken that Stygivenator and Dinotyrannus, two magnificent names, can't be used for anything other than juvenile specimens of T.rex or Aublysodon.

"Tiny Horned Face"
(now Microceratus, "Small Horned")
Come on, it's Microceratops! Even if you don't have a working knowledge of Latin and Greek cognates, you can just tell intuitively that anything with "micro" means small, and "ceratops" has to be somehow related to Triceratops. Microceratops was a great name for a tiny little ceratopsian, as whimsically illustrated next to this lagomorph (shout out!): it's easy to understand, easy to conceptualise, easy to remember.

So of course it turned out that some entomologist somewhere decided to use that name for a wasp.  Because when I think of wasps, I think of tiny horns.  So we lost Microceratops, and gained the not-bad-but-not-as-good-as-the-last-one Microceratus. While I think people can get a bit carried away with naming schemes for dinosaur families (-mimus for ornithomimosaurs, -raptor for Dromaeosaurids, -venator for larger theropods, -titan for sauropods, -long for just about any dinosaur found in China, and so forth), I must admit -ceratops for Ceratopsians just feels right, since you automatically know what kind of dinosaur it is before you even see it.

"Majunga Dome"
(now Majungasaurus)

Bless you, Dino Toy Blog.

Most of the dinosaurs that are on this list remain more or less the same after a name change: they might lose a bit of their lustre with a less cool name, but they're the same animal. However, there are some dinosaurs that are so different upon examination that they really do cease to exist, at least in a recognizable form. So we come to poor Majungatholus, a speculated pachycephalosaur which was revealed to have a darker side: not only was it not a pachycephalosaur, it wasn't even an ornithischian.  It was a saurischian.  Not only a saurischian, but a carnivore. Not only a carnivore, but a cannibal carnivore...

It became clear that a frontal horn which was originally believed to belong to a pachycephalosaur was actually one of the more distinctive elements of a very curious Abelisaurid, the earlier-named Majungasaurus. It's certainly understandable: when Nothronychus was found, its body parts were so wildly different from each other it was initially believed to be the remains of four separate dinosaurs. Nonetheless, perhaps we have it all wrong. Perhaps Majungatholus evolves into Majungasaurus like a Pokemon. Or one is male, the other female.  Or perhaps Majungasaurus, being a carnivorous creature, is in fact the dinosaurian equivalent of a werewolf or vampire. Or maybe Majungasaurus is what you get when you feed a Majungatholus after midnight.  After all, you can never really know, can you?

"Duck Lizard"
(Now Edmontosaurus)

Another mainstay of Dinosaurs!, Anatosaurus is one of the "boring" ones: not a carnivore, which is inherently interesting to young boys; none of the impressive size and shape of sauropods; none of the striking horns and spikes of marginocephalians and thyreophorans; and most unfortunate of all, don't have the characteristically flamboyant crests of their fellow ornithopods. You get the distinct impression that Anatosaurus was invited to the Hadrosaur Ball, but forgot to bring a hat. At least Maiasaura had the kids to look after, what was Nat's excuse?

"Oh my God, you guys, Anatosaurus is such a doofus!"

As such, it's probably natural that Anatosaurus was eventually conflated into what was originally just his suspiciously similar relative, Edmontosaurus. And yet, part of me has a soft spot for what some consider one of the least interesting dinosaurs: after all, they may be dull, but they were among the most successful of all dinosaur genera, and if you take them out of the shadow of the giant carnivores and horned beasties, you still have a giant reptile completely unlike anything walking the earth today. A book I read as a lad, Willis Hall's Henry Hollins & the Dinosaur, featured an Anatosaurus, and it showed that even the dinosaur least likely to top a child's list of favourites can be a source of wonder. Which is undeniably cool.

"Hopping Foot"
(Now demoted to dinosauriform)

Time to wax patriotic.  While Scotland has many wonders and valuable contributions to the field of palaeontology, for much of my childhood Scottish dinosaurs were largely unknown.  Most of Britain's dinosaur glories were down south, with your Gideon Mantells and William Bucklands and Sir Richard Owen discovering the Iguanodons and Megalosauruses and Cetiosauruses and contributing significantly to the development of modern palaeontology.  Scotland?  Well, we have trilobites - millions of trilobites - Devonian lagostattes, graptolites, fossil groves, sharks, and what could be one of the very first reptiles. Which is awesome, don't get me wrong, but I'm of the opinion every country should have at least one dinosaur.

For a long time, Saltopus was Scotland's dinosaur. Sure, there was a footprint of a Camptosaurus found in 1982, some really cool footprints, and eventually Cetiosaurus bones, but Saltopus was discovered in Scotland. There's a sense of national pride: silly, no doubt, but still. Unfortunately, it's currently considered to be a dinosauriform, and so more an ancestor than a true dinosaur. It's still a very cool, intriguing little creature, but until we discover a hitherto unknown genus on Skye or thereabouts, it would seem Scotland doesn't have a dinosaur to call its own.

Still, we do boast the world's liveliest plesiosaur.

There are more to be sure, and I may do a post on them in future, but this is but a taste of how the field of palaeontology is always moving onward. A genera may be lost, but countless more take their place, as more weird and wondrous creatures are discovered. Just when you think you've seen everything, the earth throws you the deadliest overbite in prehistory, a ceratopsian with yet another outrageous haircut, the original Dinoshark, the world's largest Christmas Dinner, or the Littlest Childcatcher. If there's one thing I've learned in my years of following dinosaurs, it's that you never know what to expect.


  1. More! More! More! This is great. It's factual, (but full of farce,) funny (yet of form,) and a fancy bit of work too. I must remember to complain in future. You did spend too much time on other things, when this treasure was dug up so quickly. T.B. Hart.

    1. Thanks, TB! By all means, complain in the future. I'm flattered you imply I wrote this last night in direct response to the complaints, but the truth is I'd been working on this for a while, but never really found a decent "time" to post it. And there are more like this waiting for the finishing touch!

  2. Hero of the Federation26 April 2012 at 20:00

    Specialization is for insects.

  3. Great post, Al. Being a life-long fans of all things prehistoric, I echo the call for more.

  4. Thanks for some totally awesome cool stuff! Can't believe I haven't seen "Walking With Dinosaurs" but fortunately I can stream it at work tonight.

    1. WWD is a mixed bag to be sure, even when it was released, but it's absolutely amazing to behold. I especially loved "New Blood" and "Giants of the Skies", and would've loved "Time of the Titans" were it not for the rampant sauropodletcide. I think Planet Dinosaur's a better documentary and the animation/models are better in Dinosaur Revolution, but WWD was the first, and showed what could be accomplished.

    2. Saw what you mean and I want to check out Revolution now. Still, some beautiful moments and images.

    3. Revolution's interesting since it was originally designed as a CGI cartoon rather than a documentary, so the creatures are anthropomorphised in a Looney Tunes-esque narrative, though not strongly enough to be distracting. Highly recommended all the same.

  5. Hah Hah. Yay, I got mentioned in a totally unrelated topic!

    Oddly I was never much of a Dinosaur fan as a child. I mean, apart from the Dinobots of course. I was always more into human civilizations, Egypt specifically for a long period of my child hood, likely owing to having seen Stargate long before I saw Jurrasic Park.

    On the one hand I can agree with your Feynman quote, but on the other I take a very Black Adder-ish stance when it comes to biology.. "I am one of these people who are quite happy to wear cotton, but have no idea how it works". I especially like seeing Riker and Sludge re-enact Dinoriders. Hopefully since IDW and Paramount both have Transformers and Star Trek, we will see a direct crossover lol.

    1. You dinosaurless heathen, get thee from my site!

      In all seriousness, I have a Black Adder-ish stance to a lot of things. Cars, for instance: damned if I know how they work beyond the basics of the internal combustion engine, but I'm content to know that they do work.

      I think eight-year-old Aly leapt for joy upon seeing that picture of Number One and Sludge. If IDW do a Trekformers crossover, then they have to attempt some sort of integration where the Bots and Cons take on Trek alt modes. Ships are notoriously finicky, but the many shuttlecraft and smaller vehicles would work great. I can see Prime as a Runabout, for instance.

    2. I can see where that would be interesting.

      What's truly wild is, and this is something I hadn't really thought about.. IDW not only has Transformers and Star Trek, but also Doctor Who.

      Shame Death's Head is Marvel's.. otherwise we could have gotten a sequel to Crossroads of Time!

      If I'm not mistaken, there is a sort of crossover Star Trek/Transformers already.. it's called infestation, and also has the Ghost Busters and GIJOE involved.. It's about zombies of course.. and now I think Chthuloid monstrosities. To be honest, I quit trying to understand IDW's Transformers series some time ago.

    3. I'm shockingly not much of a Whovian (if it isnae Hartnell, Troughton or Pertwee stepping out of the big blue box, I'm not interested) but it's fun thinking of a Dalek Transformer. They seem to be working on the Who/Trek crossover for now, so it'll be interesting to see.

      IDWTF lost me about the time "All Hail Megatron" came out and sent everything haywire. Ah well.

    4. We got a bare smattering of Pertwee episodes on PBS here, but when I think Doctor Who I tend to think of Baker and Davidson due to those being primarily the two doctors I grew up with.. I have this theory that whichever doctor who is the first doctor who a person is exposed to is their favorite.. it's the only thing I can think of to explain why everyone is so nutzo over #10.

    5. Ever the contrarian, the first doctor I can recall being exposed to was Sylvester McCoy (though most of my fondness was for that particular incarnation of the theme more than anything else), though I suspect that's probably true for most people.

      Couldn't stand #10, though I like Tennant in other things. I think #9 is definitely my least favourite though, mostly because he was Mancunian. Nothing against Manchester or its folk by any means, but a Mancunian doctor seemed perversely wrong to me.

    6. "I have this theory that whichever doctor who is the first doctor who a person is exposed to is their favorite."

      If that were the case, my favorite Doctor would be Peter Cushing, yah?

      Anyhow, we've wandered off track and are in danger of stepping on the butterflies. So allow me to merge these two discussions...

      BONUS: Tyrannosaurus Tex...

      (ROAR, Pard)

  6. Imagine how freaked out everyone will be when they discover T-Rex had feathers too.

    1. Hah, Cracked are already freaking out:

      Though frankly, I still think someone could turn this around. How? Base a T-rex's plumage on a bald eagle. Then if you reject, well, you're not a True American.

    2. Ah, there you are Al. True Scotsman, but "Real American"

  7. Al, you almost owed me a new laptop with that "Yukon Death Tabby" bit, AND the Riker/Sludge picture. Heh, Number One looks like he's in a parade, waving to the crowd.

    (even in the 24th Century, they know that DINOSAURS RULE!)

  8. After reading the post, I have nothing more to say. So I decide to let Stravinsky give us an opinion:

    1. Stravinsky + dinosaurs = winning combination!