Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Big, Different, and Gone

Dr. Jack Horner, one of the two or three most famous paleontologists in the western hemisphere, if not the world, has become known as a radical lumper, pushing to cull the taxonomic ranks of dinosaurs. In November, he spoke at a TEDx event in Vancouver, arguing that the twelve dinosaurian denizens of the end-Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation could be cut down to seven.

Acknowledging the way many media outlets fumbled his and John Scannella's Triceratops and Torosaurus paper earlier in 2010, Horner makes clear once again that it is Torosaurus that would be dropped from usage, not the massively popular Triceratops. Unfortunately for me, he offers no remorse for proposing to kill my personal favorite dinosaur name of all time, Anatotitan, which he maintains is merely a mature Edmontosaurus. I'm willing to grant that he's on to something here, and hope that this debate continues vigorously. I like the way he presents the Hell Creek as a distinct package of dinosaurs, as it seems to be an easy concept for the general public to understand. I'd like to see more of this. It might help clear up the muddled view of dinosaurs many people have, in which they all kind of existed at the same time, some foggy eons ago.

In this talk, I find the way Horner sells himself as something of a rogue paleontologist pretty interesting. I don't use the word "rogue" to imply that his ideas are absolutely crazy, but in that he's willing to do things like cut into dinosaur bones at the Museum of the Rockies, whereas other museums consider their collections too precious to risk. Perhaps "maverick" would be a better word here. Many of his big laughs come from the way he packs his observations in a pragmatic, blue collar, almost John Wayne-y persona. This is an old tradition in science: establishing oneself as a member of the masses, willing to get dirty while effete intellectuals bandy about theories in the parlors of academia.

If you've got a free twenty minutes, check it all out for yourself. The video from his November talk is posted below.



H/T to Melissa Zhang, who shared this with the Facebook Paleontology group.

3 comments:

  1. The trick to being happy about this, if you are the sort who likes names, is that it gives us the opportunity to repurpose those names (perhaps unofficially) to describe the various growth stages of dinosaurs--there are already plenty of great words for extant animals at different ages, so it's great, we don't even have to think of new terms. You can even relate it, if you really wanted, to the different names of Pokemon "evolution" stages, even fourth graders should find that appealing.

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  2. It's funny, as I don't even think Jack is so rogue here. He's giving voice in a shrewdly public way to a movement that has been afoot in paleontology for a while now, plus he has a great collection at MOR to pull and pick (and some would say cherry-pick) from. Funnily enough, I first met him in '96 when he lectured at Trinity University in San Antonio, and his speaking style was then more academic-feeling (he was fully in his T. rex=scavenger period and Maiasaura seemed like a footnote). Afterwards we spoke and he was more laid-back. We talked about bird embryos and he said some hilarious things about Alan Feduccia, the observation that he was "full of sh*t" among them.

    Funny, in all the years I spent at Montana State as a grad student and then as a faculty member I ran into him constantly around Bozeman but I never tried to speak to him again. It would have been easy; we both ate lunch in the student union at the same time, but I was just not thinking about dinosaurs back then. Missed opportunity.

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  3. There's a Facebook Paleontology group? -Immediately hurries off to join-

    Whether one agrees with these hypotheses or not, that was an excellent presentation.

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