Dinosaur discoveries

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.

8 Responses to “Dinosaur discoveries”

  1. 1 Mango Punch 11/05/2011 at 1:10 pm

    This seems like the type of thing you want to be able to complain about.

  2. 3 Allen Hazen 11/05/2011 at 11:32 pm

    Maybe publishers should allow, in planning page allocations, for an extra paragraph at the end of EVERY article, and authors then be encouraged to include a supplementary bibliography of “papers that came to our attention too late to take into account”? This would certainly be useful for (at least some) readers, but wouldn’t contribute much to the glory of authors: should be done as a public service.

    • 4 David Hone 12/05/2011 at 8:45 am

      Well you sort of can. In the Velociraptor / Protoceratops paper we added a note in proof to cover the new presence of Linheraptor (that was especially odd as that was our work too) and others have done similar things in the past. It’s just becoming increasingly necessary and complicated.

  3. 5 Mark Robinson 12/05/2011 at 5:37 am

    In the mid-nineties I was able to rattle off all of the valid and “probably valid” genera with their classification down to (Linnaean) family/sub-family, and tell you their approx adult size, broad distinguishing anatomical features, what they liked for breakfast, etc. Now I can’t keep up.

    If it’s too hard for me at that superficial level of detail, how difficult is it for professionals to be across everything that they need to be, and to the required depth? What you guys need is a global on-line central database that encodes morphological characteristics for all the valid taxa. That would at least assist with the phylogenetic side of things when you’re next trying to determine the affinities of some new specimen.

    Obviously there are some trivial matters to sort out, like which taxa are included (dinosauria/archosauria/modern Aves?), who decides what gets in (and what gets taken out), who physically maintains it, and who pays for it? Perhaps it’s another cool thing that Google could address?

    • 6 David Hone 12/05/2011 at 8:48 am

      Actually I had almost the exact same idea recently and have been thinking it through as far as possible. There are of course general databases and books that cover things like the (the Dinosauria is still a go-to reference) and the situation isn’t *so* bad. Most people work on a relatively narrow group (like paravainas, or basal theropods, or hadrosaurs) and while they’ll dabble in other things, they only really need to stay on top of 50 or so species and that’s not too bad. I am rather more broad in my research than most which makes me a bit of a special case, but I like to at least keep on top of things as far as possible just in terms of new taxa and I simply cannot.

      • 7 Mark Robinson 13/05/2011 at 8:04 am

        Welcome to my world, Dave! I work in IT and would like to be across all of the changes in processors, storage options, operating systems, server software, networking, internet connectivity, mobile computing, web-based stuff, cloud computing, etc, etc, but couldn’t manage this even if I spent all my free time on it (and, as you can see, I have interests outside of IT).

        Like most of your colleagues, I have had to restrict myself to a relatively small area that I can know well and try to remain up-to-date with.

        With regard to dino info, if you’re looking for an excellent first port of call, you could do a lot worse than The Dinosaur Encyclopaedia database from HyperWorks Reference Software. It has an entry for each Mesozoic genus that has ever been considered to be a dinosaur or bird. These entries are aimed at lay people and only contain basic anatomical information.

        However, the feature that might interest professionals is that each of these entries contains an almost complete list of every single specimen that has been assigned at some point to that genus, broken down species by species when assigned to that level. Also included with each entry is a list of the published literature references used.

        If you’re interested, there is a brief review of version 10 at Dino Russ’s Lair (http://web.me.com/dinoruss/de4opening.html) and version 4 is on-line, altho’ it has greatly improved since then (current ver is 12).

        A small caveat is that about ten years ago (after ver 4) I supplied some content (initial lists of ichno- and ootaxa) to the encyclopaedia, and also offered some corrections plus a small amount of supplementary data. I don’t receive any financial benefit – I just think that it fills a need that Wikipedia hasn’t yet managed to supplant.

  1. 1 Discovery rates « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 12/05/2011 at 8:44 am
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