Scientists Give Old Dinosaur a New Name
The Wild West of the 1800s was a place of hidden treasure. In the 1840s, folks swarmed the land trying to make their fortune in gold. Then, within the late 1870s, paleontologists started trying to find a completely different sort of worthwhile: dinosaur fossils.
Eventually, many of these fossils made their strategy to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History as half of the museum’s paleobiology collection. Some of the specimens have been correctly recognized. Others are nonetheless enigmas.
Now, a paper within the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology has reclassified one such fossil found in 1883 as a dicraeosaurid — a household of long-necked dinosaurs hardly ever present in North America. But there’s something else that’s particular about this fossilized head and vertebrae. The researchers have named the specimen Smitanosaurus agilis after the person who excavated it and the museum that has held it for over a century.
“One of the things that was important to us is the recognition of forgotten figures in paleontological history. In this case, it was a guy named J. August Smith who did a lot of the excavation and then we wanted to honor the institution that held it as well,” mentioned Dr. John Whitlock, a paleontologist at Mount Aloysius College, analysis affiliate at Carnegie Museum of Natural History and first writer on the paper.
Unearthed however unknown
Discovering a dinosaur fossil is one factor. Identifying it’s one thing solely completely different. This entails each taxonomy and classification, that are two interconnected however distinct processes.
“Taxonomy is asking ‘can I figure out what you are?’ and classification is ‘how are you all related?’,” mentioned Dr. Matthew Carrano, curator of Dinosauria and analysis geologist on the museum. “This specimen was always defined as its own species because it was different from everything else we have. But we could not classify it or connect it with another known group. That’s now been solved.”
Whitlock and his colleague Dr. Jeffrey Wilson Mantilla, a paleontologist on the University of Michigan, curator on the college’s museum of pure historical past and co-author of the paper, first started learning the Smitanosaurus agilis specimen within the late 2000s. They have been excited to review the fossil as a result of the top and vertebrae maintain worthwhile data.
“The back of the skull has a lot of information and a lot of distinct features as do the vertebrae. With something like the back of a skull, there are entry and exit points for nerves and blood vessels to connect to other bones. There’s three-dimensional information there that you can use to find unique attributes,” mentioned Wilson Mantilla. He and Whitlock developed three-dimensional models that present these traits.
Scientists beforehand knew the animal was a sauropod, a taxonomic clade (or pure group) made up of large dinosaurs identified for his or her exceptionally lengthy necks and small heads. When first found, the dinosaur was considered a new species of the genus Morosaurus —Morosaurus agilis. Later, most of the Morosaurus species have been subsumed inside one other genus, Camarasaurus, however “Morosaurus agilis” was left in a taxonomic limbo, with an outdated genus identify and no taxonomic residence.
As Whitlock and Wilson Mantilla’s venture progressed, the clues started so as to add up about the place the fossil belonged within the dinosaur tree of life. Careful research of the small fragments related to the specimen additionally fell into place, and the crew was capable of match an articular aspect onto the third vertebra. This match was confirmed by a drawing of the specimen made by its excavator J. August Smith. This sketch confirmed the piece belonged and confirmed the unique association of the bones within the subject.
It turned clear that the specimen really belonged to a household of sauropods generally known as the Dicraeosauridae. Although dicraeosaur species had been found in Africa and South America, till not too long ago they hadn’t been present in North America. With its household lastly decided, the enigmatic fossil additionally wanted a new genus: Smitanosaurus.
“At its heart, this is how science in general is supposed to work. It’s about allowing new information to change our perception. Here, that means reclassifying a thing and changing its name,” mentioned Whitlock.
A practice of accumulating for future discovery
Paleontological analysis makes use of not simply fossils but additionally subject notes, maps and different materials from when the fossils have been collected.
“By collecting it all, including contextual information, you can track back to a real spot on the Earth in four dimensions — that is latitude, longitude, and altitude plus deep time, which is, in this case, the Late Jurassic. All that information is important and builds over time,” mentioned Wilson Mantilla.
Paleobiology collections and archives at museums just like the National Museum of Natural History function repositories for these supplies. And all that materials ceaselessly results in discoveries.
“Museums in general are known for being places where you can discover new species. By keeping these collections, we allow ourselves this possibility that in 100 or 200 years someone with more knowledge and ability can get more out of the specimen than we could,” mentioned Carrano.
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