To the glee of many, Brontosaurus came stomping back last week. A new analysis recovered the great “thunder lizard” from taxonomic exile, and there’s a definitely maybe a chance that it’ll stick around.
But every party needs a pooper. Some palaeontologists and fossil fans aren’t especially happy with all the attention Brontosaurus has received. It’s just a name, after all, and the sauropod’s mythological girth overshadowed more important parts of the study that argued for the dinosaur’s resurrection. (For example, splitting out a new sauropod from bones previously thought to be Diplodocus and the significance of the method used to achieve these results.)
Among the most vocal of all the critics is Australian Broadcasting Corporation commentator Dr. Paul Willis. The “boffinery” surrounding the Brontosaurus name game, Willis writes, irritates the hell out of him because:
It plays to the stereotype of the useless palaeontologist, stamp collecting extinct creatures and arguing over what was and what was not a different species. While this is an important discussion to have within dinosaur palaeontology, popularizing the debate serves to trivialize the science.
Willis goes on to say that the real importance of the fossil record comes from what the past can teach us about the present, and perhaps even the future. On that point, I wholeheartedly agree. But delving into why Brontosaurus blips in and out of existence is not at all trivial. Aside from giving scientists and writers an opportunity to talk about taxonomy – an oft-neglected but essential science – figuring out what a fossil creature should be called is a critical step towards drawing out the grander patterns Willis has enthused about.
Reading Willis’ complaint reminded me of a nasty book review published over a century ago. In the pages of London’s Geological Magazine, a reviewer hidden behind the title “H” derided naturalist Joseph Leidy‘s 1865 monograph Cretaceous Reptiles of the United States for being little more than an illustrated catalog of fossil reptiles. “[I]t is the least able contribution to palaeontology that we remember,” the arrogant reviewer concluded, and added another kick for good measure: “Its best praise is that it contains no quackery; its worst condemnation is that it contains no science.”
But as historian Keith Thomson later pointed out, Leidy really was doing quality science. He was one of a handful of pioneering palaeontologists in North America. At the time Leidy was working there was only the barest hint of the great fossil riches to be found in the West, and the prehistoric creatures exhumed from the Eastern North America hadn’t been adequately identified. Geologists in Europe, meanwhile, had already laid such groundwork and had moved on to theorizing about the interrelationships and succession of life. If Leidy had spent his report speculating about the ebb and flow of prehistoric life, the same reviewer probably would have criticized him for not sorting out North America’s fossil diversity first.
Willis is talking about the media and H about another research, but, all the same, their complaints were cast from the same mold. Organizing your dinosaurs is “stamp collecting” that is of interest only to specialists, and even then it holds no satisfying implications or conclusions. But I’m with Leidy. How can we possibly understand patterns and transitions in the history of life if we don’t continually strive to bring taxonomy and phylogeny in as close accord with nature as possible? How can we identify relationships between ancestors and descendants, or calculate the damage of a mass extinction, if we don’t have some sort of framework by which we distinguish one species from another?
Let’s narrow this down to Brontosaurus itself. The bones of this dinosaur are found in the upper reaches of western North America’s Morrison Formation – rocks between 156 and 146 million years old that are brimming with plant-scarfing giants. In addition to Brontosaurus, a slew of other sauropods including multiple species of Camarasaurus, Apatosaurus, and Diplodocus have been found, as well as the rarer Brachiosaurus, Barosaurus, Supersaurus, and more, some of which haven’t even been named yet.
Sometimes a mix of these species are found together and other times they are isolated, but, all the same, the great floodplains of the Jurassic West hosted tons upon tons of these giant herbivorous dinosaurs. How were these distributed through time and space? Were these dinosaurs really browsing shoulder-to-shoulder, or did they somehow divvy up the habitat to avoid competition? We need to understand the sauropods in their proper place and time to start approaching these questions, and that requires identifying and delineating between species. Likewise, once we know who’s living where and when, paleontologists can better reconstruct the pattern of this sauropod explosion and perhaps tease out clues as to what led to the repeated evolution of such giants. Efforts to understand modern biodiversity offers an obvious parallel – if you want to comprehend ecology and how it’s changing, you need to know who’s who within the habitat you’re scrutinizing. Paleontology can’t proceed without taxonomy.
Would a Brontosaurus by any other name be as awesome? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that we should disregard the logic and debate behind the title. If we hope to understand Brontosaurus at all – how it evolved, the way it lived, why it went extinct – we first need to consider what to call it.