The other day I was shamelessly self-googling Zhuchengtyrannus to keep an eye on how it was spreading through the web. I’ve been surprised at the longevity the story has had and the fact that (admittedly increasingly short and obscure) reports and blog posts are appearing. One thing that did crop up was the appearance of ZT on a Wikipedia list of new dinosaurs for 2011. While of course this includes various things that are still ‘in press’, it’s only just hit May and already we are at some 26 new genera, and 2010 apparently produced 61 with another 44 from 2009. We are then averaging around 1 a week or even more for new dinosaurs (and by the way, about 1 a month for pterosaurs too). That is really quite something to keep up with and I freely admit that I really struggle.
There are already well over a thousand valid dinosaur genera and about 150 for pterosaurs and I certainly can’t remember all of them, let alone add another half dozen per month. (And don’t forget that of course there are hundreds more invalid names too). Plus a name’s not that much use on it’s own, for it to be of much purpose in your daily work you should at least try to know who described it, where it’s from, how old it is, and which group it belongs to. I also feel like I’m falling further and further behind since I was never really on top of them as it was, and the rate of discovery is massive and seems to be growing.
This is in part perhaps, driving the trend towards specialisation in palaeontology. That compendium of dinosaur biology ‘The Dinosauria’ listed just 8 troodontid taxa back in 2004 (and most of them were known from incomplete remains), but there are now at least 15 of them known and at least a couple more on the way, many of which are known from multiple specimens, and with feathers etc. also preserved. To be an expert on them now takes a great deal more knowledge and study than it did even 5 years ago – someone doing a PhD on them could find the field has tripled in the time it takes them to write a thesis!
That is not something that is conducive to effective cross-referencing of literature. I find it quite common that between my submission of a paper and it’s return from review or time to publication a new taxon has appeared or a directly relevant new paper is published. Integrating this into your work is not always as easy at you might think and sadly I have found some referees to be quite niggly about this (one individual admonished me for not including a paper that hadn’t been published until after I had submitted my manuscript – it seems precognition is now also a requisite for academia). It does make life hard when the rate of research actively exceeds the publication turnaround time and if we keep to, or even accelerate past, one taxon a week, that will only get worse.