Sunday, June 22, 2014

The generic history of dinosaur paleontology: 1900 to 1929

We now turn the page from the 19th century (previous entries here and here). The characters are still colorful (in fact, about the only time the characters aren't colorful is when there aren't any characters), and the stage is expanding, both in terms of geography and in the players. The American Museum of Natural History is in its paleontological ascendancy. Improving logistics are permitting expeditions to go farther afield. With the passing of the previous generation, the bloodlust appears to be under control, but never fear, there are still plenty of driven personalities and nutty ideas. Most of these ideas are beyond the scope of this entry, but if you go through biographies you'll find plenty of strange spiritual theories of evolution and obnoxious racial schemes.

In terms of nomenclatural acts, the big names of the period 1900 to 1929 are as follows:
  • Barnum Brown, ace fossil collector for the American Museum of Natural History, noted for his exploits in Alberta and the western United States. He finds the first good material of Tyrannosaurus and describes many well-known Canadian genera;
  • Friedrich von Huene, from southern Germany, becomes one of the most prolific dinosaur paleontologists of all time, with a career lasting into the 1960s. (Paleontologists don't make a lot of money, but by gosh many of them lived forever and a day. To see the opposite, go check the memorial section of an American Association of Petroleum Geologists from the 1950s or '60s.). He is also unusual in his specific dedication to dinosaurs. Today, it is not uncommon for a paleontologist to specialize in one group of dinosaurs, or one particular aspect of paleobiology, but 19th century paleontologists were much more generalized. Von Huene begins with European dinosaurs, but in the 1920s and 1930s will produce enormous monographs on South American and Indian dinosaurs, although he names with a bit less caution than perhaps would be advisable;
  • Lawrence Lambe, with the Geological Survey of Canada, describes many of the new dinosaurs coming out of Alberta supplied courtesy the Sternberg family. He the first in a group of Canadian paleontologists publishing on one of the most prolific areas for dinosaur fossils. He passes away in 1919, with the description of Canadian dinosaurs passing to Charles Mortram Sternberg and William Parks;
  • Baron Franz Nopcsa, from what is now central Romania but what was then part of the Austria-Hungary Empire, is a pioneering paleobiologist who lived a drastic life. Aside from paleobiology, he is also noted as a leading scholar on Albania, and he attempts to become king of Albania for a while. In terms of dinosaurs, he describes several Transylvanian dinosaurs and armored dinosaurs;
  • Henry Fairfield Osborn, of the American Museum of History, who named Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, and Protoceratops, among others. Under his aegis, the museum sends a party led by Roy Chapman Andrews to Mongolia. Osborn is expecting that they will find evidence of the early evolution of humans, due to his preconceived racial notions. Instead, they come back with various Cretaceous dinosaurs that are new to science.
Several other names of note from this period include Robert Broom working out of South Africa, primarily interested in the mammalian side of things but occasionally describing dinosaurs; Charles Gilmore, working for the National Museum of Natural History; Sidney H. Haughton, also based out of South Africa; Werner Janensch, who labored for decades on descriptions of the fossils from Tendaguru, Tanzania, collected shortly before World War I; Richard Swann Lull of Yale; Elmer S. Riggs of the Field Museum; and Ernst Stromer, who collected and described fossils from North Africa, including those of Spinosaurus.

Things get off to a slow start, with only an informal name applied to Iguanodon in 1900 and the ceratosaurid Genyodectes from Argentina in 1901, the fifth genus and first theropod genus named from South America (now enough for a basketball team, if your opponent doesn't mind facing a starting lineup with three sauropods). 1902 really brings up the curtain, with the first names from the rich fossil beds of Alberta: Didanodon, Stegoceras, and Stereocephalus, along with a number of species assigned to preexisting genera. Stegoceras, of course, is one of the best known boneheads. Stereocephalus is a first try (preoccupied by a beetle) for the ankylosaurid Euoplocephalus, perhaps the champion of dinosaurs at the intersection of "difficult to spell" and "well known". Didanodon is a booby trap that is probably the same thing as Lambeosaurus. Incidentally, for things that are probably the same as Lambeosaurus, the line forms on the right. 1903 is also a fine vintage, with Brachiosaurus, Haplocanthosaurus, and Ornitholestes more or less completing the basic toy box for the Morrison Formation. 1905, though, is probably the most famous, yielding Albertosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. Overall, the first decade of the 20th century produced 34 names, 28 of which can be recognized as dinosaurs (plus a couple that are questionable), and perhaps 13 of which are still considered valid, with another 6 that were later renamed or have some point of interest.

The first half of the 1910s is the end of a short golden age in the study of dinosaurs. Aside from some early rumblings, this is when we start seeing the fruits of the Canadian dinosaur machine. 1914 is probably the most impressive year to date in quality/quantity combination, and there's no real competition until at least the 1970s. Look at this list:


That's three of the best known horned dinosaurs, two of the best known duckbills, one of the best known tyrannosaurs, and an undeservedly obscure sauropod. In addition, Stephanosaurus is the second "attempt" to properly name Lambeosaurus, Protorosaurus was supposed to be Chasmosaurus but the name was preoccupied and had to be replaced, and Brachyceratops is based on fine material; it's not its fault that it's a juvenile horned dinosaur. The first descriptions of the Tendaguru dinosaurs are appearing, and we get the first basal ornithischian (Geranosaurus, 1911); granted, it's not that impressive, but it's a start. The first dinosaur named by a woman arrives in 1911: Podokesaurus, published by Mignon Talbot. The indisputably most important dinosaur of all, Thescelosaurus, is named in 1913. 29 names are published from 1910 to 1914, all but one of which are recognizable as dinosaurs and 15 of which are still in wide use.

And then, of course, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, almost exactly 100 years ago. To say that scientists, especially European scientists (and scientists in lands under various European empires) would have something else on their mind for the next five years would be an understatement. Some work does get through, because there are always publications in press, or almost completed, or researchers who are too old to be in a war effort, but things aren't like they had been. 18 names are published from 1915 to 1919, all but one of which are recognizable as dinosaurian, but only seven or so are still in wide use: Kentrosaurus and Spinosaurus in 1915, Prosaurolophus and Struthiomimus in 1916, Edmontosaurus in 1917, and Dysalotosaurus and Panoplosaurus in 1919.

The first half of the 1920s would be fairly quiet as well, were it not for the Central Asiatic Expedition. Outside of Mongolia, the iconic tube-crested Parasaurolophus is named in 1922, and a name finally sticks for the hatchet-crested duckbill: Lambeosaurus. 31 genera are named from 1920 to 1924, all of which are still considered dinosaurian, and about 18 of which are still valid. As if Osborn hasn't had enough good fortune with Tyrannosaurus and the "trachodon mummy", Andrews' expedition dumps in his lap fossils of Oviraptor, Psittacosaurus, Saurornithoides, and Velociraptor (Walter Granger and William Gregory describe Protoceratops, the other major prize). Osborn interprets eggs under the Oviraptor as its meal, instead of its own, which in hindsight seems a bit strange. I suppose he assumed that dinosaurs did not brood and the Oviraptor would not be sitting on its own eggs.

Things slow down further 1925 to 1929. In terms of expanding geography, the first dinosaur is named from China. It's a bit of a cheat for our purposes, because it's at the species level, but it's Trachodon amurense, named by Anatoly Riabinin in 1925 based on fossils recovered from the Amur River region in 1914. In 1930 he will give it a new genus, Mandschurosaurus. Today, this is an extremely productive area, with several described hadrosaurs, one of which is probably the same as this poorly known beast. The first genera come in 1929, with Helopus (later Euhelopus) and Tanius, both named by Swedish paleontologist Carl Wiman. In addition, a whole continent is added with Rhoetosaurus (1926) from Australia. Von Huene describes several genera from Argentina and accidentally gets saddled with a few strange manuscript names ("Carnosaurus", "Coelurosaurus", and "Tyreophorus"). 21 generic names are published in these five years, 20 of which are dinosaurian and about 10 of which are in some use. Things are going along, albeit not at the same clip as just before World War I (note that the European powers are in varying degrees of shambles, so paleontology is not a particularly high priority for financial support). Then the economy fails.

More random thoughts:
  • Although, as noted, the characters in paleontology are always colorful, a general wackiness drains out of the mainstream pool after this period. (There are always plenty of cranks on the outside looking in.) Part of this is because there is almost nobody in the pool from the 1930s to the 1960s. (belated spoiler alert.) Some of these workers can come off like b-movies or old time radio shows in the science fiction or horror genres.
  • Minus World Wars I and II, the efforts of German paleontologists would be much better known. Most of us probably think of the friendly competition of Brown and the Sternbergs, or Roy Chapman Andrews playing Indiana Jones in Mongolia, when we think of this period, but this is also the time frame of Tendaguru, Stromer in the Sahara, and (toward the end) von Huene working on South American, Indian, and Australian dinosaurs.
  • Dinosaur paleontology has spread across Africa, Asia, and South America, although the descriptions are still being made by European and North American paleontologists. That changes in the 1930s.
  • Paleontologists by this period are getting much better at describing non-dinosaurians as dinosaurs.
  • After the florid names of Cope and others in the 19th century, we've settled down to a pretty white bread routine of "-saurus", with "-ceratops" for horned dinosaurs.

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