Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Year of the Ceratopsian Ankylosaurs

Life restoration of an advanced stegosaur- I mean an ankylosaur (Ankylosaurus magniventris) by Emily Willoughby,  CC-BY-SA.
When digging into the history of North American fossil interpretation for the eventual next edition of my Beasts of Antiquity series, one thing that I found a bit weird was the constant reference to ankylosaurids and nodosaurids as types of stegosaurs. To a modern reader, this seems off. After all, the group of armored dinosaurs, Thyreophora ("shield bearers"), is divided into two major groups: Ankylosauria and Stegosauria, each with a few well supported subgroups. It makes sense that these close relatives might once have been classified together, and stegosaurs were discovered first, lending them priority of name. But what changed? Neither ankylosaurs nor stegosaurs are particularly large groups (especially the stegosaurs), and it seems odd that 20th century taxonomists would want to raise a group as small as the modern idea of Stegosauria to the level of "suborder".  Why were ankylosaurs eventually spun off, leaving the more primitive stegosaurs behind? I decided to do a little digging to find out.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The American Museum Brontosaur - A History In Pictures

The wooden model used to explore poses for the original
brontosaur mount is now on display beside the
revised mount at the AMNH. Photo by the author.
Here's one more post to commemorate the revival of the name Brontosaurus for the beast formerly known as Apatosaurus excelsus. As I mentioned in my last post, the mounted skeleton of the so-called "Nine-Mile Quarry Brontosaur" at the American Museum of Natural History, while it may or may not actually be a Brontosaurus, is probably the most iconic version of this animal, overshadowing even the archetypal brontosaur skeleton at the Yale Peabody Museum.

This is in no small measure thanks to the efforts of problematic Hitler enthusiast and highly successful paleontology promoter Henry Fairfield Osborn. Osborn became the first curator of the Vertebrate Paleontology department at the AMNH in 1891 and quickly rose to prominence, becoming the president of the museum in 1908. Osborn worked quickly to create a world-class collection of dinosaurs for the museum, both launching his own expeditions to collect fossils for display and making significant trades and acquisitions, such as the collections of E.D. Cope.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Brontosaurus Club

Brontosaurus excelsus - the triumphant return.
By M. Martyniuk, all rights reserved.
By now, anybody who's interested in paleontology, and their mother, and their great uncle, have probably heard the news: Brontosaurus is back!

Of course, the more technically minded paleo fans will know that Brontosaurus never actually went anywhere. Ever since its first specimen was studied in 1879 by Bone Warrior O.C. Marsh, paleontologists have agreed that the species Brontosaurus excelsus* was unique among sauropods. The question soon became, however, exactly how unique. In 1903, Elmer Riggs decided that it was similar enough to another sauropod species, Apatosaurus ajax, that they should both be placed in the same category of sauropods, and since Apatosaurus was an older category ("genus") name than Brontosaurus, he reclassified the species as Apatosaurus excelsus. However, it was clear even to Riggs that Apatosaurus excelsus and Apatosaurus ajax were different species, and the decision to "lump" them together into one category was always subjective and non-scientific - these kinds of things are a matter of taste only.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Evolving View of Stegosaurus

Mounted skeleton of Stegosaurus ungulatus at the Carnegie Museum. The tail, plate, and spike arrangement have been updated in this mount to reflect current thinking following the study by Carpenter (1998). Photo by Perry Quan, CC-By-SA 2.0.
Seeing as how I've been working on restorations of two different stegosaur species this month, I thought I'd write up a quick review of the most famous aspect of these iconic dinosaurs: Their big, triangular plates. For a complete overview of the history and interpretation of Stegosaurus, be sure to see Ken Carpenter's 1998 paper.

Interpretation of the life appearance of stegosaurs has changed several times since they were discovered by O.C. Marsh in 1877. The first stegosaur fossil (belonging to the species S. armatus) were found near the town of Morrison, Colorado, but the specimen was disarticulated and only a few of the plates were preserved. Initially, Marsh thought that these plates played flat along the animal's back, forming a sort of turtle-like shell, or like the tiles on a roof (hence the name Stegosaurus, which means "roofed lizard"). Marsh also initially believed that stegosaurs were aquatic, due to this turtle-like appearance, but also that they would have walked on two legs on land.