Monday, 9 September 2013

A Few Dinosaur Myths

This week, I'm going to tackle a few dinosaur-related myths that I find particularly irksome, or I think are important for people to understand are not true. So read-on to learn about some commonly discussed dinosaurian misconceptions!

1. All things "Brontosaurus"
This is less of a big thing now than it was throughout my childhood, as it seems that kids books are finally catching up with the science, but it is still around. Here's the deal: Brontosaurus does not exist. I know, you may need to take a seat, as many of you may have had a favourite dinosaur as a kid called Bronty. There's little that bugs me more than picking up a kids book or toy, looking at it, and discovering it's full of Brontosaurus labels. So whatever happened to Brontosaurus? Well if you've been following Mesozoic Mondays for a while, you'll remember that there are often problems with naming new species, and this is one of those instances. 

In 1877, well known American palaeontologist Othniel Charles Marsh named a new species, Apatosaurus ajax, from an incomplete, juvenile skeleton. A few years later, Marsh named a new, much larger (and more complete) skeleton, "Brontosaurus excelsus", mistakingly believing that it represented a new species. This name was cemented in the public's mind (the thunder lizard!), as it was the largest dinosaur ever discovered at that time. Unfortunately, as early as 1903, it had been suggested that these two species were actually the same, and as Apatosaurus was named first, it has priority, meaning every Brontosaurus you've actually read should be Apatosaurus. While scientists have been using Apatosaurus for more than 100 years, it's taken much longer to make it to the public, so spread the word! Tell your kids! No more Brontosaurus please!
Apatosaurus from Jurassic Forest

2. All dinosaurs were big
I'm not exactly sure where this idea comes from, but there seems to be a belief that all dinosaurs were these massive animals bigger than any animals alive today. While many of them were big, there were also just as many small dinosaurs, similar in size to modern animals. In general, an ecosystem wouldn't work if every animal was huge. You need little animals too to make the world go 'round!  In fact, part of why dinosaurs were so successful was that they were able to occupy many different niches with their wide range of sizes. Early dinosaurs like Eoraptor were small, weighing in at only 10 kg, while many derived, later dinosaurs were also small. And there were small dinosaurs in many groups too. There was Stegoceras, a 10 kg dome-headed (pachycephalosaurid) dinosaur from the Cretaceous of North America, or Anchiornis, a tiny pigeon-sized theropod from the Jurassic of China, and even Psittacosaurus, an early relative of the horned dinosaurs (ceratopsians) was only 20 kg. Not all dinos were the gigantic fearful animals from the movies!
Image showing the size of Anchiornis. Image by Serenthia
3. Triceratops is no more
This is something that came about the summer Jurassic Forest opened, and I remember very well how many people were asking us about this on the trails. Now this is more of a recent misconception, and probably is not really a myth as it's only been around for a few years, but it is a common misconception brought on by the media that really drives me crazy. This idea stems from some recent work by Jack Horner's lab, regarding the horned dinosaurs Triceratops and Torosaurus. The basic gist of it is that he believes that what we currently consider to be Triceratops is actually a sub-adult (therefore not fully grown) individual, and that the slightly larger Torosaurus actually represents the adult of this species. Most news stories picked this up by suggesting that Triceratops is no more... which is not correct. First of all, if this hypothesis is correct, they would still both be called Triceratops, only what we currently view as an adult Triceratops would not be the adult, but a subadult. They still look pretty similar, and it would still be Triceratops, but bigger! And the second, and very important thing to note, is that this may not be true. Not all researchers agree with this idea, and believe that Triceratops and Torosaurus are still distinct species. 

So, next time someone says "Triceratops doesn't exist", you know what to say!
Skulls of Triceratops and Torosaurus from Longrich and Field (2012)
So I hope you enjoyed (and more importantly, learned something!) this little introduction to dinosaur-related myths. Next week, we might continue on this topic with a few more common misconceptions! Stay tuned!

Longrich NR, Field DJ (2012) Torosaurus Is Not Triceratops: Ontogeny in Chasmosaurine Ceratopsids as a Case Study in Dinosaur Taxonomy. PLoS ONE 7(2): e32623. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0032623

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