Multiple specimens

This post is, in a way, an excuse to show off this specimen of Anchiornis which I was surprised to see on display at the IVPP. Surprised because I hadn’t seen it before and didn’t know it was in the collections, but even in these times of endless publications, not all specimens get illustrated in the literature. This leads me reasonably onto the area of multiple specimens of taxa, something that does seem to cause confusion for some people, perhaps because it’s simply never discussed.

While the fossil record is famous for being incomplete, and while a great many vertebrate taxa are named from a single and often very incomplete specimen, that does not mean that all fossils species are like that. Predators are, naturally, rather rarer than herbivores but there’s over 30 specimens of Allosaurus known (and probably quite a few more knocking around in various basements) over 15 Tyrannosaurus and who known how many of Coelophysis. Even so, often only the single best specimen of a given species is illustrated in a paper and that one image can be endlessly reproduced in papers or in books and these days online too. That means it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking these is only one specimen out there when there may be dozens.

Microraptor (yes, that again) serves as a good example – search for images of this genus and you’ll find hundreds of photos of the holotpye of M. gui. You could be forgiven for thinking that this was the only one, but this was the second species to be named in the genus. On top of that, the holotype was one of six specimens listed in the 2003 description that named M.gui. Since then plenty more specimens have been uncovered and are in various museums but few have been described since they don’t contain much more information than is available in the holotype and are unlikely to be anyone’s top priority.

Given the readership of this blog, this is likely stating the obvious, but the short version is that (as noted before) there are a lot of fossils out there, and often far more than you might realise. Certainly there are a lot more specimens of some taxa that you might ever see going by images used by the media, or books, or even in some cases the scientific literature itself. After all, if you want to quickly and effectively communicate what Microraptor looks like, you’d include a photo of the M. gui holotype and not a half incomplete one with no skull and no feathers preserved. However, that won’t stop the others from existing or any information on the genus as a whole being based on multiple specimens, something that seems to bypass at least a few people from time to time.

9 Responses to “Multiple specimens”

  1. 1 Mickey Mortimer 19/02/2010 at 12:21 pm

    Thanks a lot for the photos! I wouldn’t complain if you photographed some of those other Microraptor gui paratypes either. 😉 Honestly, neither the M. zhaoianus or M. gui holotypes have been described decently, though Hwang et al. (2002) described a couple specimens well. Still, we could really use a detailed description of the skull and manus.

    • 2 David Hone 19/02/2010 at 12:55 pm

      Well as I’ve noted before Xu has a very long term project going mongraphing the Chinese dromaeosaurs, though new taxa keep getting in the way. I’ve not actually even seen most of the paratype material, and I only publish photos of things on display or that I have explicit permission to use and not even having see this staff means they’re unlikely to turn up on the Musings any time soon, sorry!

    • 4 David Hone 20/02/2010 at 10:11 am

      It’s not that good Tom. You really should come over to China and see the full set. The specimen in the Nature paper is much better preserved for example.

  2. 5 Jaime A. Headden 20/02/2010 at 3:56 pm

    Dave, forgive me if you can, but is that a propubic pelvis in an otherwise seemingly properly articulated specimen?

    • 6 David Hone 20/02/2010 at 4:24 pm

      It does rather look like one, but I’d have to go and check the slab to make sure. The tail at least clearly has a break / disarticulation and I’ve seen things before that are all but perfectly articulated but for one or two elements so I’d want to make sure before jumping to conclusions. I’m sure I’ll send up in the museum again this week for one reason or another so I’ll go a check.

  3. 7 qilong 17/04/2010 at 12:21 am

    As a potential refresher on this topic;

    These specimens remind me a lot of various “Microraptor” and “Sinornithosaurus” photos you see on the internets, fakes being sold on eBay, replicas at fossil shows, or the real thing at said fossil shows, most of them alluded to the aforementioned taxa largely on the basis of the feathers. With fully feathered Anchiornis available, we can be certain to stir the pot on the identity of the specimens a lot more when more of these museum fossils are identified.

    Aside from that, though, for anyone’s enjoyment, my own personal honorific to Huxley is here:


  1. 1 More Gorgosaurus and Anchiornis « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 03/03/2011 at 1:44 am
  2. 2 Anchiornis & Microraptor « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 15/08/2011 at 1:41 am
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