Sunday, June 15, 2014

The generic history of dinosaur paleontology: 1870 to 1899

Following on from the previous post, we end up in the 1870s, departing the formative era of dinosaur paleontology and entering what you could call the "heroic era", of a few larger-than-life individuals performing outsized deeds. It was a time when great finds were being made and great advances being reported, but hardly anyone was playing in the sandbox. Three researchers turn up again and again in the literature from about 1870 to 1900. In alphabetical order, they are Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh, and Harry Seeley. If you have spent much time reading about dinosaurs, you have probably encountered the first two gentlemen, most likely in the context of the "Bone Wars" that sprang from their stubborn rivalry. Seeley, a British paleontologist, described a number of new genera and species, almost all of which languish in obscurity. His most lasting contribution is instead the division of dinosaurs into saurischians ("lizard-hipped") and ornithischians ("bird-hipped"). Add Seeley's British contemporaries John Hulke and Richard Lydekker, and you've got practically the entire roster of paleontologists working extensively on dinosaurs in this thirty year period.

The 1870s started inauspiciously. 1870 saw the descriptions of Antrodemus (probably the same thing as Allosaurus, but generally ignored), Laornis (a bird), Ornithopsis (a taxonomic quagmire masquerading as a sauropod), Pneumatoarthrus (turned out to be a turtle), and Struthiosaurus (a nodosaurid that took the scenic route to becoming a taxonomic quagmire). The next five years are more of the same, a stewpot of names based on questionable material. Probably the only genus that would be familiar to even fairly dedicated fans is Monoclonius, which has survived as long as it has because it turned out to be the first name coined for a ceratopsian with a long nasal horn, and because the American Museum of Natural History preferred to use it. Many of the genera gathered superfluous species to boot, none of the active paleontologists being hesitant to naming new species. It may surprise some of you, but there was once a time when paleontologists opted to shoehorn material into existing genera, rather than create new genera. This resulted in something like three dozen species of Megalosaurus and other inexplicable situations. My favorite is how Cope got his hands on the first really outstanding hadrosaur material and described it as "Diclonius mirabilis", welding together a genus he'd named from teeth and Joseph Leidy's Trachodon mirabilis. He couldn't even be bothered to come up with a new species for this specimen, which included most of a skull and skeleton, but saw fit to name four species of Diclonius from teeth. Fifty years from now, we'll all look back on the present era of generic proliferation and laugh as well. You can't win.

Anyway, for all of the problems of the first part of the decade, 1877 proved to be a banner year, producing Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, and Stegosaurus. It also is the year that Titanosaurus is described from India, becoming the first dinosaur named from Asia. Titanosaurus was used later again that same year by Marsh, but the rules of priority dictate first come, first served, so Marsh renamed his sauropod Atlantosaurus. (The material probably represents Apatosaurus.) All three naming actions occurred in the same year. Overall, 64 names were submitted during the 1870s, 53 of which are recognizable as dinosaurs. For comparison, 88 names had been submitted through all of time before this, 57 of which are dinosaurian. Quality is somewhat lacking, though, as only about a dozen of those 53 have achieved much currency.

The 1880s produced less genera, but proportionally quality control may have been a bit weaker. Forty names are attributed to this decade, 31 of which are still known to be dinosaurian. Out of that group, only six have proved of lasting interest: Ceratosaurus (1884), Anchisaurus (1885, a bit of a cheat because it had been named twice already, but both Megadactylus and Amphisaurus proved to be preoccupied), Camptosaurus (1885, also named previously as Camptonotus), Coelophysis (1889, but didn't become well known for several decades), Nodosaurus (1889), and Triceratops (1889). Some others are occasionally discussed, but are quite obscure. Craspedodon? Cumnoria? Pleurocoelus? Only seven of the 40 were named by someone other than Cope, Lydekker, Marsh, or Seeley. There are no particularly notable expansions in terms of geography or geologic time, and the only major area of new diversity to be plumbed is non-tetanuran theropods (Ceratosaurus and Coelophysis). Of trivial interest is Aachenosaurus, named by Smets in 1881 for a piece of petrified wood he misinterpreted as a jaw bone. Descriptions of the Bernissart iguanodonts also date to this decade.

The naming of new genera fell back to pre-1870s levels in the 1890s, with only 23 new genera (Marsh was doing his best to make up for this with new species of Triceratops). Nineteen are recognized as dinosaurian, and about five or six still receive press: Barosaurus, Claosaurus, Ornithomimus (all 1890), Ammosaurus, Torosaurus (both 1891), and Dryosaurus (1894). The decline of money and health for Cope and Marsh (neither lived out the decade) shows. Lydekker names the first genera from South America (Argyrosaurus and Microcoelus, 1893, Argentina), Marsh coins one of his most obnoxiously redundant genera (Sterrholophus in 1891 for one of his innumerable species of Triceratops), and Alfred, Lord Tennyson of all people gets a partial posthumous credit for an unused name for Polacanthus (Euacanthus, 1897). Also, there is this thing that Cope names Manospondylus in 1892 for a couple of big vertebrae.

More random thoughts:
  • The era started off with a burst of activity that tailed off. Several factors probably helped this: several of the figures died partway through the 1890s; the Cope–Marsh rivalry drained the principles' personal finances and became an embarrassment, leading to other funding drying up (the feud killed the U.S. Geological Survey's Department of Paleontology and drove Joseph Leidy from the field); and money in general was tight because of the Long Depression.
  • People tend to sympathize with Cope, who was the better scientist and gets points as the underdog. They both drive me up a wall.
  • Interestingly, Cope only once used the suffix "-saurus" for a dinosaur (Camarasaurus).
  • Horned dinosaurs make their appearance in this era, along with diplodocids, and small theropods break out with Coelurus (1879), Coelophysis (1889), and Ornithomimus (1890). Dome-heads make their first appearance with Tylosteus (1872), although this fact will not be appreciated for several decades.
  • Distribution is beginning to creep out of Europe, southern Africa, and North America, with India and Argentina joining the fun. As mentioned last week, Florentino Ameghino gets to be the first person based outside of Europe and the United States to name a dinosaur, with Clasmodosaurus and Loncosaurus in 1899.
  • A core group of famous dinosaurs has appeared, but more important are advances in understanding dinosaurian anatomy and group relationships. For better or worse, substantial parts of the framework of dinosaur classification date to this era.
  • The letter V has been added to the list of letters that are approved for dinosaur names with Vectisaurus (1879).
  • You'd think that a lot got accomplished during this era, but a lot of effort was spent on competition and poor material instead of thinking things through and producing proper descriptions. The sheer amount of dross from the period is sobering, and it looks even worse if you include new species as well as genera. With rare exceptions, fossils described as new species of existing genera during this time turned out to be either different enough to "warrant" new genera (if you're willing to concede the necessity), or not distinctive enough to warrant naming. A little reflection would have cut down on the headaches bequeathed to posterity. It's not as if this was the 1840s, and knowledge of dinosaurian anatomy was limited to disassociated pieces-parts.
  • For emphasis: Cope names 25 genera during this period, of which the average dinosaur fan has heard of Camarasaurus, Coelophysis, Monoclonius, and perhaps Amphicoelias, Epanterias, and Manospondylus, depending on how much they're into trivia and size record claimants. Researchers might be familiar with a couple more. Marsh names 29, which have aged better; about half are still valid. The three British researchers combine for 39, of which only Lydekker's Titanosaurus has any kind of wide usage and only Seeley's Cumnoria (from a species named by Hulke) is based on much more than parts. Almost no one has heard of it because it was considered a species of Camptosaurus, C. prestwichii, practically the day after it was named.


  1. I write up monthly summaries of dinosaur news (simple one-liners, nothing in-depth) on my DeviantArt account and can generally get a paragraph's worth of material even during slower months, though the fact that I include bird news as well likely helps. (As an example, the entry I wrote for this February.)

    1. Realized after posting that my comment was meant for your previous (and first) post in this series.

    2. Thanks for the link! It was just one of those things where I was looking to do something, but in the end it wasn't coming out the way I wanted it to.