5 Massive Screw-Ups in Paleontology

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By Jeff Fleischer

1» THOMAS JEFFERSON'S MISTAKE

asloth.jpgIn decades past, American presidents apparently had hobbies other than playing golf and eating at McDonald's. Thomas Jefferson, for one, was an avid paleontologist. As early as the 1790s (before it was cool), he kept an impressive fossil collection at his home in Monticello. So when a group of confused miners came upon some unidentifiable bones in a West Virginia cave, they sent them to Jefferson. Judging from the long limbs and large claws, the president suspected they belonged to a giant cat "as preeminent over the lion in size as the mammoth is over the elephant," and that the animal might still exist somewhere in the unexplored West.

Jefferson got the size right. The description? Not so much. The animal he named Megalonyx (giant claw) was actually one of the giant ground sloths that slowly roamed America during the last ice age. And while Jefferson later agreed with this alternative diagnosis, his error wasn't a complete waste. The Megalonyx marked one of the first important fossil finds in the United States, and it prompted the first and second scientific papers on fossils published in North America. In honor of the president's contribution, the sloth's name was later formalized to Megalonyx jeffersonii.

2» THE DINOSAUR THAT NEVER WAS

aBrontosaurus.jpgTo this day, the Brontosaurus remains one of the most popular and recognizable dinosaurs in history—an impressive feat for an animal that never existed. The confusion started in 1879, when collectors working in Wyoming for paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh found two nearly complete—yet headless—sauropod dinosaur skeletons. Wanting to display them, Marsh fitted one specimen with a skull he found nearby, and the other with a skull he found in Colorado. Voilà!—the Brontosaurus was born.

Unfortunately for Marsh, the skeletons were later exposed as adult specimens of a dinosaur he'd already discovered, the Apatosaurus. The error was formally corrected in 1903 by Elmer Riggs of Chicago's Field Museum, and scientific papers haven't called the animal Brontosaurus since. Seventy more years passed before researchers determined that the skulls Marsh borrowed really belonged to the Camarasaurus, a discovery of his archrival, Edward Drinker Cope. Pop culture, however, missed the memo altogether.

3» GETTING YOUR HEAD SCREWED ON RIGHT

Paleontology's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys, Marsh and Cope [see #2] had a nasty and long-running professional rivalry. Although they'd actually started out as friends (with each even naming a discovery after the other), by 1870, their relationship had taken a turn for the worse. A year earlier, Cope had assembled a skeleton of the sea reptile called Elasmosaurus. However, in his rush to publish his discovery, he placed the head on the wrong end, giving everyone the impression that the animal had a very long tail instead of a very long neck. Marsh poured ample salt in that wound by making fun of Cope's error in print (suggesting he rename the animal "twisted lizard") and constantly ridiculing it at parties and exhibitions. Given the stakes, he might as well have slapped Cope across the face with a glove and insulted his mother. As it was, all Cope could do was try and buy up all the published examples of his posterior-backwards construction.

The feud only grew from there. The two men fought over allegations that, on a tour of Cope's digging operations in New Jersey, Marsh bribed collectors to send key fossils to him. And in 1877, a part-time collector in Utah incited a whole new string of cutthroat arguing by trying to sell bones from his site to both of them. Other feud highlights included a series of snippy "he said, he said" pieces in the New York Herald, and the time the Smithsonian confiscated much of Marsh's fossil collection after Cope accused him of misusing tax dollars to hoard fossils for himself.

For all the angst it caused them, though, Marsh and Cope's constant one-upmanship was great for science. During their 20-some years of bickering, the two added 136 new species (including Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Diplodocus) to the nine that had previously been discovered in North America.

4» PULLING TEETH

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Henry Fairfield Osborn was a giant in the field of paleontology, but he also has one giant mistake to his name. In 1922, while serving as president of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn received a fossil of a tooth found in Nebraska. Suffering from a bout of overconfidence, the normally careful scientist published a paper announcing (based on one tooth, mind you) that he'd discovered Hesperopithecus haroldcookii, the first anthropoid ape unearthed in North America.

Taking into account that all of this was happening just three years before the Scopes Monkey Trial, word of a missing link was a pretty big deal. Add to that British anatomy professor Sir Grafton Elliott Smith touting the discovery as a potential breakthrough, and artist Amedee Forestier drawing a famously speculative picture of the "Nebraska Man" (and Woman) in the widely read Illustrated London News. Although Osborn never hypothesized where (or if) his ape fit into the evolutionary chain, he used the discovery to fuel his war of words with anti-evolution blowhard William Jennings Bryan. Osborn made sure to note the irony of the tooth having come from Bryan's home state, and even suggested calling the ape Bryopithecus in honor of "the most distinguished primate which the state of Nebraska has thus far produced."

Unfortunately, in this particular case, said distinguished primate got the last laugh. Upon further examination, it was determined that the tooth belonged to a millennia-old peccary—otherwise known as an ancient pig. In fairness to Osborn, the similarities between human and peccary teeth had already been noted in scientific literature, so it wasn't that wild a guess. Of course, that didn't stop creationists from pouncing on the mistake.

5» CREATING A MONSTER (AND THE BIRTH OF THE GRIFFIN)

Long before there was a science called paleontology, people were trying to come up with explanations for giant bones found in the ground. And often, those explanations pointed to mythological creatures. But of all the fairy-tale creatures accused of inhabiting the ancient world, the griffin might claim the most direct connection to actual fossils. Usually depicted in folklore as a lion with an eagle's head and wings, the griffin was said to fiercely guard its gold. The hybrid animal appears consistently in the art of ancient Rome, Greece, and Persia, and its legend apparently originated with Scythian nomads who wandered east toward Mongolia's Gobi desert.

So, how do fossils fit in? The Gobi is filled with the fossils of both the Protoceratops, a lion-size dinosaur with a birdlike beak, and of the similarly beaked Psittacosaurus. And while there were no massive hoards of gold around, the skeletons were often found guarding something arguably more valuable—hoards of eggs. The ancients were wrong about griffins, but that may have had more to do with misdiagnosing evidence than with legend or superstition.

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July 18, 2008 - 4:11am
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