Sometimes, even research that gets a fair bit of press can get overlooked–particularly for little tidbits in the paper that might get obscured by the “big picture” stuff.
One of the coolest fossils I’ve ever worked on is a “baby” Parasaurolophus from southern Utah. The fossil–the smallest, youngest, and most complete of this kind of duck-billed dinosaur (hadrosaur) ever discovered–was found in 2009 by one of my high school students. The resulting 2013 paper received international press and has racked up a decent number of citations since. The fossil was even invited to travel to Japan as part of the 2016 Dinosaur Expo, where it was viewed by nearly a million people!
I am incredibly proud of the work, a collaborative effort with high school students, myself, and bone expert Sarah Werning, and consider it one of the best pieces of research I have ever published. Yet, there is one tiny angle that seems to get overlooked by a lot of people: the beak.
The skull on our baby Parasaurolophus is accompanied by an impression of the horny beak that lined the front bones of the upper jaw. Notably, it shows that the skull was not a terribly accurate representation of life appearance–the beak itself extended far beyond the bony anatomy.
Importantly, the baby Parasaurolophus was not the first hadrosaur to show this, either. Fossils of Edmontosaurus, reported as far back as the 1920s, revealed a similar structure, and strongly indicate that an elongated horny beak was pretty typical across “duck-bills”. In fact, they weren’t really duck-bills at all, but more like “shovel-beaks” (Brian Switek has a great post on this topic). The beak extension created a big scoop that was perfect for mowing off vegetation!
Despite a long history of knowledge about the beaks in these animals, very few artists include the structure in their reconstructions. I’m not sure why this is, but even very recent reconstructions by many talented artists simply follow the bony outline of the jaws. It is just a tiny blow to my ego that this tidbit from our Parasaurolophus paper (and work by others) gets overlooked!
Hadrosaurs looked quite a bit different than usually pictured. So, if you are an artist, or advising artists, give hadrosaur beaks an extra little bit of love!
If I have to pick an underappreciated historical paper, I would say it has to be the classic monograph on the anatomy of Protoceratops by Barnum Brown and Eric Schlaikjer. It’s got a ton of careful anatomical description and some really brilliant thoughts on ontogeny (changes during growth). There is unfortunately a bit of a misconception arising that long-ago paleontologists didn’t think about ontogeny in any serious way–Brown and Schlaikjer show this isn’t true. Peter Dodson’s 1975 paper on ontogeny in hadrosaurs is another great one–he was one of the first people to show that what had been split into multiple species of duckbilled dinosaurs were in fact young and old individuals of a single species. This work by Brown, Schlaikjer, Dodson, and others paved the way for ongoing investigations of ontogeny today, many of which are using methods like histology to add another layer of data to the questions.
Brown, B., and E. M. Schlaikjer. 1940. The structure and relationships of Protoceratops. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 40:133–266.
Dodson, P. 1975. Taxonomic implications of relative growth in lambeosaurine hadrosaurs. Systematic Zoology 24:37–54.
Farke, A. A., D. J. Chok, A. Herrero, B. Scolieri, and S. Werning. 2013. Ontogeny in the tube-crested dinosaur Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and heterochrony in hadrosaurids. PeerJ 1:e182.
Morris, W. J. 1970. Hadrosaurian dinosaurs bills–morphology and function. Los Angeles County Museum Contributions in Science 193:1–14.
Versluys, J. 1923. Der Schädel des Skelettes von Trachodon annectens im Senckenberg-Museum. Abhandlungen Der Senckenbergischen Naturforschenden Gesellschaft 38:1–19.