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The Dinosaur Post

May 4, 2012

I’ve never really been into dinosaurs. As a kid I knew the basics—Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops and Brontosaurus—but I preferred furry animals. In fact, when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I supposedly informed my parents that I wanted to work with furry animals.

While I’d much rather snuggle with a puppy than a fish, I’m not quite as biased towards furry animals anymore. I do, however, have a strong preference for living animals. And so…I’m just not that into dinosaurs.

BUT, I recently learned a few things that have completely shattered my previous perceptions of dinosaurs and, in what will most likely be my only post on dinosaurs, I must share this mind-blowing* news.

First, this guy, whose existence was publicized by Xing Xu, et al. (2012):

from Xu, X et al. 2012

This is the beautiful feathered tyrant, more formally known as Yutyrannus huali.

According to Xu et al., Y. huali was “an extensively feathered gigantic dinosaur.” The feathers weren’t really feathers though. The scientists believe they were more like the fluffy fuzz that covers a baby bird. This—the image of a big bad fluffy dinosaur—amuses me.

The size and fluffiness of Y. huali are especially noteworthy because big things don’t tend to be fluffy. Fur (or fluff) acts as insulation. A small animal (like a pika) has a high surface-to-volume ratio and therefore needs a lot of fur to keep it warm. A large animal (like an elephant) has a low surface-to-volume ratio and can therefore afford to be minimally fuzzy without freezing its bippy.** By that logic a large dinosaur (like Tyrannosaurus Rex) shouldn’t need any fluff to keep it warm. BUT, now that paleontologists have discovered the beautiful feathered tyrant, which was 30-feet long and, of course, fluffy, they wonder… could T. Rex have been at least a little bit fluffy?

****

Now for the news that will make children of the ‘80s gasp, cringe or at least say, “huh.”

There’s no such thing as a Brontosaurus—mostly.

In 1879, a paleontologist named Othniel Charles Marsh published his discovery of a new species of dinosaur: the Brontosaurus (aka Thunder Lizard). It turned out that Brontosaurus wasn’t a new species after all. It was merely the adult version of Apatosaurus (aka Deceptive Lizard), a species he had discovered two years earlier. (It also turned out that the skull that topped the Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus skeleton belonged to a completely different dinosaur—Camarasaurus (aka Chambered Lizard).  (More on things they got wrong later.) Unfortunately the folks in charge of naming dinosaurs at the time overlooked the awesomeness of the name “Thunder Lizard” and followed protocol, ditching Brontosaurus in favor of Apatosaurus.

Obviously the name Brontosaurus stuck around for most of the twentieth century. But in 1989, the U.S. Post Office issued a set of dinosaur stamps that included an Apatosaurus labeled “Brontosaurus.” Dinosaur people got pissed and soon the Thunder Lizard was banished from the toy aisle, only to be replaced by its identical twin with the disappointing name.

The Childrens Museum of Indianapolis - Sinclair Dinoland plastic Brontosaurus
This banishment and the wrong-skull incident weren’t the only injustices suffered by the Brontosaurus. In 1905, when the folks at the American Museum of Natural History first mounted the Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus skeleton, they were cocky and judgmental in their knowledge of the creature. They thought the animal was stupid and weak because its small head couldn’t possibly chew enough food to fuel its huge body. There was no way, they believed, this huge weakling could lift its large tail or efficiently walk on land. Therefore, it must have lived in the water.

They were so very very wrong! Scientists have since determined that the Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus actively avoided wet areas; that it could lift its heavy tail and probably swung it for defense; that its small head had no effect on its ability to eat because it chewed its food in a gizzard rather than the mouth; and that it probably stood on its hind legs to reach food and engage in mating battles.

Apatosaurus LeCire
****

One more thing… Pterodactyls weren’t dinosaurs. They were flying reptiles. Dinosaurs, by definition, were reptiles that lived on land. Therefore, pterodactyl ≠ dinosaur. (Frankly, I think this logic is lame.)

*slight sarcasm

**There are some exceptions to this rule, like the large and furry Bison bison (aka bison).

Xu, X., Wang, K., Zhang, K., Ma, Q., Xing, L., Sullivan, C., Hu, D., Cheng, S., & Wang, S. (2012). A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China Nature, 484 (7392), 92-95 DOI: 10.1038/nature10906

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. John W. permalink
    August 16, 2012 7:15 am

    Thanks for the post Kelsey. Stephen Jay Gould, baseball fan and the former Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Geology at Harvard University, wrote an essay on this topic called “Bully for Brontosaurus” for Natural History magazine (you did keep your back issues, didn’t you?). The essay was reprinted in a published collection that conveniently bears the same name. For those children of the 80s (and, like me, of the 70s) who have overcome their initial shock over “the great debate,” I highly recommend the article.

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