Sunday, July 6, 2014

The generic history of dinosaur paleontology: 1930 to 1969

"[O]ne day I was half-stepping, and the lights went out." – B. Dylan
"This is gonna get worse before it gets better." – Chief Wiggum

World War I and the resulting economic turmoil had already kneecapped European dinosaur paleontology in the years leading up to 1930. The market collapse of 1929 and the Great Depression further drove people and resources out of the field. World War II scrambled things again, this time adding wholesale destruction of important collections in bombings of England, France, and Germany. Yet, these all together are not necessarily enough to cripple a science. Changes in attitude that reduced dinosaurs to a sideshow prolonged the deleterious effects of war, lack of new workers, and lack of funding. In the end, dinosaurs had to be rethought for the science to come back, and these movie monsters of the '50s made a triumphal return from seeming death, like any good movie monster.

Bob Bakker in The Dinosaur Heresies traces the first change in attitude to Gerhard Heilmann's work on bird origins, published in English in 1926 as The Origin of Birds. In this work, Heilmann considered the lack of clavicles in dinosaurs (mistaken, as it turned out) as a disqualification for a relationship with birds. The presence of distinct groups of dinosaurs, as shown by Harry Seeley's Saurischia/Ornithischia split, also indicated that what were called dinosaurs were not even particularly closely related. Thus, dinosaurs left no legacy, and they weren't even technically a thing. They were just big dead failures. I suspect some other factors were also at work, as I pull on my sociological/historical hat (it's quite a hat). Remember that the early 20th century is the heyday of eugenics and of people doing their damnedest to scientifically prove the superiority of particular races and nations over others. A group (or groups) that went extinct after the self-indulgences of great size, unusual crests, spiky bodies, and so forth, deserved it according to the thinking of the time. You may have heard of this as "racial senescence". Diverting scarce resources to the study of dead grotesque things that had extinction coming would not have been popular.

When the boys got back from the war in 1945, they went off into things like insurance or advertising, or if sufficiently hard-boiled, they became private detectives (apparently one of the great occupations of the late 1940s–early 1950s, if movies, radio, and television are to be believed). If they went into geology, there was the siren song of the petroleum industry. If somehow they still insisted on working on vertebrates, there were heaps of mammal bones in the queue. Although the racial beliefs of the previous decades had been discredited by war and the faltering and dissolution of colonial empires, dinosaurs were still no less extinct and disunited in the eyes of researchers, and so the dinosaurs' poor reputation and academic inertia prolonged the doldrums until the 1960s (cue standard '60s montage). During the '60s were the first stirrings of the Dinosaur Renaissance, the first fruits of which would come to wider notice at the end of the decade. How exactly the change occurred would be an interesting story; some of it is covered in The Dinosaur Heresies, but you'd think the historical aspect would warrant a book of its own.

The cast of characters for 1930–1969 is a bit shy on dominant figures. The researchers active in the 1930s (Charles Gilmore, Friedrich von Huene) had retired or passed away by the time we reach the 1960s. Names of note who either had their start or the bulk of their work in this period include Ned Colbert, who is noted for keeping the science of dinosaurs before the public eye in his books, and is often cited as inspirational; Wann Langston, who worked extensively on many groups of North American fossil reptiles; Albert-Félix de Lapparent, a French paleontologist and priest who described dinosaurs from Europe and northern Africa; Charles M. Sternberg, son of famous collector Charles Hazelius Sternberg and author on Canadian dinosaurs (he actually began publishing in the previous period, but as one of the very few researchers publishing on North American forms, I saved him for this segment); and Yang Zhongjian, also known as C. C. Young in older literature, who was essentially the father of paleontology in China. Toward the end of this period, some very famous names make their appearance: José Bonaparte, the leading figure in the growth of Argentine paleontology, and John Ostrom, who you may know for his work with Deinonychus, Archaeopteryx, and the origin of birds. The well-known Bob Bakker also is first active at the tail end of this period, although of course his best-known work is in the following decades.

The 1930s start off with one last burst of activity. 1930 to 1934 sees 40 new genera, 37 of which are still recognized as dinosaurian. Most of them are fairly to seriously obscure, with only a dozen to a half dozen or so that are still widely used (your mileage may vary on how wide "widely" is), the most famous by far being Stromer's Carcharodontosaurus (1931), and the best known being Gilmore's Pinacosaurus (1933). 24 of the names come from von Huene, who sets a kind of record by naming dinosaurs from every continent except Antarctica between 1929 and 1933. After his enormous monograph of 1932 on saurischian dinosaurs, he caps the period with a description of the dinosaurs of India with Charles Alfred Matley in 1933. Stromer's Carcharodontosaurus and von Huene's Indian theropods later prove to members of heretofore-unexpected southern lineages, although that won't be appreciated until the 1980s and 1990s. (Carcharodontosaurus is also one of the rarest of rare birds, a dinosaur based on teeth that turns out to be useful.) With its affairs in order, dinosaur paleontology could now hibernate in North America and western Europe.

1935 to 1939 produces a grand total of six genera: Nipponosaurus and Segisaurus (1936), Jaxartosaurus, Parksosaurus (from a Geological Society of America abstract; you couldn't do that nowadays), and Tienshanosaurus (1937), and Omeisaurus (1939). Nipponosaurus is the first dinosaur named from Japanese territory, although the location on Sakhalin Island would go to the Soviets in 1945. Jaxartosaurus is the second dinosaur named from central Asia (having been beaten by something called Embasaurus in 1931), which is about all anyone can say about it. Tienshanosaurus and Omeisaurus are Yang's first two genera; Tienshanosaurus labors in obscurity, but Omeisaurus has inexplicably proven a magnet for species.

1940 to 1945 is improved, thanks mostly to Yang. A dozen genera are added to the roll, although only nine are definitely dinosaurian. Among the washouts are von Huene's Succinodon (1941), described as a sauropod jaw but actually a piece of bored wood, and Spondylosoma (1942), a sort of "Heisenberg fossil" that switches from dinosaur to non-dinosaur depending on the observer. Six of the names went on to some measure of esteem, although one of these (Anatosaurus, 1942) is now considered a synonym of Edmontosaurus, and another (Szechuanosaurus, 1942) only got where it was by "Megalosaurus syndrome": a genus named early on acquires more usage than its fossil remains merit because of the name's age. Aside from these relative duds, we also get Caenangnathus (1940), Lufengosaurus (1941), Yunnanosaurus (1942), and Pachycephalosaurus (1943, although the species dates to 1931 as Troodon wyomingensis. Remind me one day to digress on Troodon, one of the most misunderstood dinosaurs). There is also something called Sanpasaurus (1944), a lingering mystery of sauropod and ornithopod material.

1945 to 1949 is perhaps the least distinguished five year period for new dinosaurs in the 20th century. Although it beats 1935 to 1939 nine to six, one of those nine is a renaming of a preoccupied genus also named in that stretch (Neosaurus and Parrosaurus, both 1945), and four are no longer considered dinosaurian, leaving us with dubious sauropod Amygdalodon (1947), is-it-or-is-it-not-a-dinosaur Lukousaurus (1948), and Sinosaurus (1948), which looked to be dubious until it was shown to be the same thing as Dilophosaurus sinensis.

American paleontology stirs slightly during 1950 to 1954, producing a whole four genera (although each is a keeper): Acrocanthosaurus and Pachyrhinosaurus (1950), Montanoceratops (1951, again named from a preexisting species), and Brachylophosaurus (1952). The big news for this period is out of Asia. Swedish paleontologist Anders Birger Bohlin (1953) describes six genera from Chinese fossils, although none have fared very well. The best-known among them, Microceratops, proved to be preoccupied and was later renamed Microceratus. Better fossils are described by Soviet paleontologist Evgeny Maleev from expeditions to Mongolia. In these five years he names Talarurus, Syrmosaurus (1952; invalid, but a bit of currency in old dinosaur books), and Therizinosaurus (1954); in 1955 he will describe Tarbosaurus. Yang adds everyone's favorite super-longnecked sauropod Mamenchisaurus in 1954; with Rebbachisaurus from Morocco, 1954 proves to be a good year for previously unsuspected sauropod diversity. Fifteen genera come out of these years, all of which are dinosaurian.

Tarbosaurus consents to an interview, 2002.
1955 to 1959 does not have as much to recommend it. Twelve genera date to this period, two of which are non-dinosaurian and three of which are renamings of preoccupied genera (Euhelopus from 1956 is the most familiar of these). Tarbosaurus has already been mentioned. Majungasaurus (1955, but a preexisting species) out of Madagascar and Tsintaosaurus (1958). The stegosaurid Lexovisaurus (1958) gets docked on two ends: it's from a preexisting species, and the best stuff was later transferred to another genus, Loricatosaurus.

1960 to 1964 has two characters. On the one hand, there is more taxonomic housekeeping, where preoccupied genera are renamed (lots of names from Oskar Kuhn, none of which you have ever heard of) and species pulled out of genera that do not accommodate them (Eustreptospondylus and Metriacanthosaurus out of Megalosaurus, 1964). On the other, some new and interesting avenues are opening up. Heterodontosaurus is described in 1962. Herrerasaurus and its synonym Ischisaurus appear in 1963. Fabrosaurus, which will overstay its welcome, appears in 1964 (from the reverence accorded it in popular and semitechnical dinosaur books of a certain era, you'd think it was from the 19th century). Nineteen genera are named in these years, fifteen of which are recognizable as dinosaurs, and about seven or eight of which have achieved some circulation. Aside from those mentioned above, there are the hadrosaur Lophorhothon (1960), armored dinosaur Silvisaurus (1960), and professional enigmatic theropod Chilantaisaurus (1964).

1965 to 1969 are the years just before the floodgates open. The first four years are quiet, with a single name each: obscure early armored dinosaur Tatisaurus (1965); Probactrosaurus (1966), notable as intermediate in form between Iguanodon and duckbills; Pisanosaurus (1967), one of the very first ornithischians; and Aralosaurus (1968), a central Asian hadrosaur. 1969 gets us five names. Bonaparte contributed his first three; Riojasuchus proved to be non-dinosaurian, and Strenusaurus proved to be a synonym of the third, the "prosauropod" Riojasaurus (now one of the best-known examples). Syntarsus, a small theropod from Zimbabwe, has been of note in theropod work. The name proved to be preoccupied and it was rechristened Megapnosaurus in something of a fiasco that caused dinosaur workers to stop beating around the bush and call it Coelophysis rhodesiensis, even if that meant that Coelophysis had more than one species. The most notable genus of the five, though, is a small theropod from the Bighorn Basin of Montana and Wyoming. It had been unearthed previously by Barnum Brown and co., way back in the 1930s, but various constraints prevented him from publishing on it or the other members of the Cloverly Formation dinosaur fauna. More than thirty years later the task fell to John Ostrom, who gave it the name Deinonychus.

More random thoughts:
  • Asia is where the action is for this stretch. Between Huene and Matley's monograph on Indian dinosaurs, Yang's work on Chinese dinosaurs, and the Soviet paleontologists, most finds of note come out of Asia. Africa, Australia, and South America produce important finds as well. This is the time when dinosaur paleontology is establishing homegrown researchers outside of its traditional haunts.
  • How slow is it for western Europe and North America? Over these forty years, 119 genera are added. 22 come from North America, of which 9 survive to the present without any caveats, and another five have some relevance (these range from Anatosaurus, basically the end-Cretaceous Edmontosaurus, to Stenonychosaurus). Western Europe produces 21, of which the great majority are taxonomic housekeeping, von Huene describing unpromising fossils, non-dinosaurian, or a combination. You end up left with Eustreptospondylus, Iliosuchus, Lexovisaurus, Lusitanosaurus, Magnosaurus, Magyarosaurus, and Metriacanthosaurus, with a few more depending on the thickness of your dinosaur book.
  • If you go by genera, a "kick-down-the-door" moment seems to happen in 1970, which shows that the research pool had deepened to a critical point through the late 1960s. The new group of researchers would be made up of the sons of the generation that weathered the Depression and World War II (the daughters begin to show up in numbers with the next generation). Glibly, dinosaur paleontology skipped a generation.
  • 1947 opens up a so-far unbroken streak of years with at least one new dinosaur.
  • If it wasn't for Yang, there would have been four genera from 1935 to 1939 and eleven for the entire 1940s.
  • Still waiting on Q and X, but it is safe to start dinosaurs with most letters of the alphabet now. I'm still wondering about the inordinate fondness for A, C, P, and S.
  • Suffixes branch out again. Von Huene has developed a fondness for "-suchus". Oskar Kuhn, sorting out nomenclature in the late 1950s and early 1960s, creates a number of "-iscus" names for preoccupied genera that had escaped attention through obscurity.
  • Several Gondwanan lineages make early appearance in this period, including carcharodontosaurids, abelisaurids, and rebbachisaurids. They will be wedged into the existing classifications as best they can until the 1980s and 1990s. Note that sauropod classification of this time was about as unhelpful as theropod classification. Theropods, famously, were sorted as carnosaurs (large) and coelurosaurs (small). Sauropods were sorted between broad teeth and pencil teeth. If the teeth were not known, as is generally the case for sauropods, the researcher did his best. Things have improved since then.

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