So Many Dinosaur Species… Or Were There?As I was walking through the Dawn of the Dinosaurs exhibit in Taipei’s Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall the other day (which I highly recommend, although the exhibit is about to leave the country this week and go somewhere else in the world), I noticed that there were walls and walls of dinosaur species lists. The exhibit was overflowing with information about “brand new” dinosaur species. It got me to thinking — growing up, there were maybe a dozen really important dinosaur species you just had to know. Then in my teens, entering international science fairs about dinosaur evolution, where I had to be up on my “dinosaur terminology,” I recall I probably knew maybe a hundred (I know, this is not terribly normal, really, but for a fan of dinosaurs, not too abnormal I assure you). Now it seems to me there are thousands — many quite obscure and closely related to other known species, and identified only from a few fragments of bone. And the list keeps growing all the time.
Perusing the halls of one of Taiwan’s most important architectural icons, I couldn’t help but think how cool it was that it was full of iridescent skulls from “never before displayed” dinosaur, reptile and mammal fossil species. Well, it turns out that some, if not many of them, may not have ever existed.
During the early part of the last century, after the “gold rush” of the prior centure, there was another geological scramble to hit popular society, and that was the “dinosaur rush”. P.T. Barnum, in the late 1800′s instilled a sense of showmanship into American culture that has not been matched since. During that same time period, O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope, the famed “giant dino” hunters, and many other amateur paleontologisits, found dozens of new species every year in fossil sites throughout North America. They would name species left and right in a mad rush to claim newspaper headlines that such and such museum would be showing a new species of dinosaur. there were countless dinosaurs discovered, by the largest museums and zoological centers in the world, seeking to attract new visitors.
According to Dr. Jack Horner, of the University of Montana, prominently featured in my new book ” The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil,” there are a number of species of dinosaurs that never truly existed (and not just Triceratops, but also a type of Tyrannosaur known as Nanotyrannus, among many others). That is, according to the rules of scientific naming rights, they should not exist as new species. This is very similar to the way that engineering recognizes patents, which are issued on a first come, first served basis. If you file your patent first, you get the right to a technology and can own a localized monopoly that can last for decades, which could make you billions of dollars. In the world of academia, if you find a bone which you think represents a new species and publish first, you get the right to be able to name your species and keep that name forever. Individual paleontologists, academic instititions and museums all love this system, because it gives them permanent bragging rights on their respective resumes and brochures. It turns out that many species in paleontological history may have been named withourt proper due scientific diligence.
Horner claims that one prominent example of this “dinosaur rush” effect was Triceratops. Prior to the naming of Triceratops, one of the world’s most well known and beloved dinosaurs, there was another 3-horned, larger dinosaur called Torosaurus, which was previously identified and named as a competely different species. Well, it turns out that according to bone density and other studies of a large number of specimens at fossil sites containing both Torosaurs and Triceratops specimens, it appears that Triceratops were merely just juvenile Torosaurs. The following is a Ted Talks speech by Horner on “shape shifting dinosaurs”:
Well, as Horner put it at the beginning of his TED talk, 3-to-12 year old children (a good part of Tumblehome Learning’s target audience) may be shocked to hear this fact but sadly, according to the rules of science, the Triceratops did not exist! However, it’s doubtful that childrens’ book publishers and toy companies will do anything about this new fact anytime soon, as the word Triceratops is now so well embedded into our common culture.
It’s unknown just how many dinosaurs at this point may have been incorrectly named or renamed, and there are indeed a number of people who believe that Horner’s hypothesis is not correct. However, it does point to the fact that science is constantly evolving, and scientific facts which have been widely accepted for over a century, can still be wrong. Despite the possibility that there are fewer dinosaur species out there than previously thought, new species are still found every year. So, get a copy of ‘Fraudulent Fossil’ or our FF companion kit, and start digging today!