September 17, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Is Dinosaur Diversity an Artifact of Headline-Hunting?

Many dinosaurs classed as different species are actually the same animal with different names, a publication of the Royal Society announced.  Read two news reports on this, however, and you will get two different opinions about how serious the problem is.
    Rex Dalton in Nature News sounded the alarm: “One hundred and thirty-five years of questionable judgments, some driven by a lust for headlines, have left dinosaur nomenclature in disarray, according to two new studies.”  His article, “In search of Thingummyjigosaurus,” claims that nearly half the names given to dinosaurs have errors.  “The high error rate is not just a problem for fossil hunters; it is a warning that scientists should take extra precautions when identifying new species as they assess modern biodiversity, too, says [Michael] Benton.”  Benton [U of Bristol], author of one of the studies, said “It is a bit scary” to think that there are so many misnamed species.  16% of dinosaur names are duplicates, the study found, and another 32% have other classification problems.
    The BBC News downplayed the seriousness of the problems.  It says most of the errors were made by self-promoting headline seekers in the early years of dinosaur hunting; “My research suggests we’re getting better at naming things; we’re being more critical; we’re using better material,” Benton told the BBC.  Another source of error has been the fragmentary nature of the evidence.  Paleontologists often have to classify a fossil based on just a hip or leg bone or vertebra.  In spite of these difficulties, “modern practice is now very good,” the BBC claimed.
    Still, the BBC acknowledged that the ramifications of bad classification can be serious.  “There’s no point somebody such as myself doing big statistical analyses of numbers of dinosaur species through time – or indeed any other fossil group – if you can’t be confident that they really are genuinely different,” Benton told the BBC.  Accuracy is important for all biodiversity studies.  “People have also been looking at our current knowledge of mammals and insects and other animal groups and asking the simple question: are the species totals and lists we use for important conclusions – including to give political advice about endangered species – are they correct?” Benton asked.  “There’s been a big debate about vast extinctions among amphibians.  We have to know what the species are first, before we can talk about that.”

This is the inverse of a long-lost cartoon.  A museum curator in Mexico shows a patron the skull of Montezuma.  Another smaller skull nearby prompts a question about whose it was.  “That,” the curator announces confidently, “is the skull of Montezuma as a little boy.”  There was a case of classifying two individuals as one man.  This is a case of classifying like objects as different species.  Think of the fun they could have with dogs and cats.
    Classification is a human game.  Classification can have impact on human psyches and politics.  Remember that when you see a Thingummyjigosaurus in the museum, it might just be a Artifactofnomenclaturasaurus by another name.  But make no mistake.  That Bullfrogus headlineus in the path of construction is an endangered species.  Quick, pass a law!

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