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The biggest, baddest dinos still rule

A scientist can discover 10,000 fossils, but that’s not what gets us talking


 
The biggest, baddest dinos still rule

Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

Mike Taylor, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol, recently announced a newly discovered dinosaur, Brontomerus mcintoshi, whose whopping thighs suggest it may actually have kicked smaller rivals out of the way. In a nod to its muscled legs, his team cheekily named it Brontomerus, which literally translates to “thunder thighs.” (The name is also an homage to dinosaur expert John McIntosh.) The story was accompanied by an illustration of Brontomerus punting a smaller dinosaur through the air, its blood spurting gorily. “Not all of our colleagues were as delighted as we were,” Taylor says. “There was a feeling in some quarters that it could give a frivolous notion of what paleontology is all about.”

The study of dinosaurs is just a small part of Taylor’s field, but it gets the lion’s share of attention. Take, for example, the current American Museum of Natural History exhibit on the “world’s largest dinosaurs,” which generated tremendous buzz before it even opened on April 16, or a new study suggesting some carnivorous dinosaurs—like velociraptors—could see in the dark and hunted by night, which was reported around the world. Meanwhile, “a scientist might harvest 10,000 fossilized molluscs, and discover things that have a great deal of significance, but they don’t grasp the public imagination like a dinosaur,” Taylor says. This can lead to competition among paleontologists, and sometimes even sour grapes. “There’s a Hollywood aspect of science,” says University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno. “It’s about impressing your colleagues, and with good reason,” including funding. “But there’s some jealousy,” he says, “that goes with that turf.”

A prolific paleontologist who’s discovered dinosaurs on five continents, Sereno’s a master of making his work exciting and, he says, “accessible.” One of his splashiest finds came in 2009: he and his team dug up five species of 100-million-year-old crocodiles in the Sahara, and named them BoarCroc, RatCroc, DuckCroc, DogCroc, and PancakeCroc, whose giant head was flat as a pancake. The press release included a photo of Sereno enveloped by the spiky jaws of SuperCroc, a 40-foot, eight-ton monster he’d found on an earlier dig. “I wanted names that were evocative,” Sereno says. Researchers recently announced they’d found a new cousin of Tyrannosaurusrex, named Zhuchengtyrannus magnus, or “tyrant from Zhucheng,” for the place in China where it was found; the largest known dinosaur is Argentinosaurus, named for its place of discovery, too, which Taylor calls “a monumental failure of the imagination.”

A fascination with dinosaurs is something that Stephen Brusatte, who’s completing his Ph.D. at Columbia University, understands: much of his work looks at tyrannosaurs, which he agrees have become pop culture icons. “They really stand for something,” he says. “Power, success, extinction, fear. They’re the baddest predator of all time.” For those who don’t work on T. rex and his kind, it can be hard to get a similar piece of the limelight. Robert Reisz, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Toronto Mississauga, has published many papers, including one that told “an important story” about how modern frogs and salamanders evolved, but the paper that got the most publicity was a 2005 study of 190-million-year-old dinosaur embryos, he says. (A follow-up was published last year.)

Consider Alberta, where most Canadian fieldwork is done. Only a small percentage of the dinosaurs dug up “will have big pokey teeth. The rest are plant-eaters,” says Michael Caldwell, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Alberta. “But the big meat-eaters get the most attention.” Caldwell doesn’t work on dinosaurs—he focuses on snake evolution, and especially the mosasaur, a predatory marine lizard (now long extinct) that could measure up to 55 feet. “It’s actually a bigger animal than T. rex, yet very few people know of it,” Caldwell says. Museums have popularized the notion of Earth’s history through dinosaur bones, he says, but much of the underwater world is still mysterious.

Ultimately, a little competitive scuffling only benefits the field. Much of what we know about dinosaurs stems from the so-called “Bone Wars” of the 19th century, when two paleontologists, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, tried to outdo each others’ discoveries, eventually resorting to bribery, bullying, even the destruction of fossils. Of course, most paleontologists today would never go so far, but rivalries continue. In his own area of research, Caldwell notes, there are two opposing camps that debate which lizard is, in fact, the closest relative to the snake. “These are beautiful battles that bring about great work,” he says, with a quote from physicist Max Planck: “Science progresses funeral by funeral.”


 

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