1 Comment »Posted on Monday 2 November 2009 at 7:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A meteorite impact may have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but we know a lot about them thanks to the fossils they left behind. Now it seems we might be due another extinction event, after a pair of paleontologists discovered a mistaken duplication of dinosaur species – including one named after Hogwarts, the wizard school in Harry Potter.

It turns out that scientists have been assigning different names to juvenile and adult fossils from the same species of dome-headed dinosaur, Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis. The confusion arose because the younger ones start out with a set of horns that gradually morph into a dome as they get older.

“Juveniles and adults of these dinosaurs look very, very different from adults, and literally may resemble a different species,” said dinosaur expert Mark B. Goodwin, assistant director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology.

Working with John Horner of the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman, Goodwin discovered that two species, Dracorex hogwartsia and Stygimoloch spinifer, have been misidentified. They published their research last week in the journal PLoS One.

D. hogwartsia (upper left) and S. spinifer (upper right) are actually younger versions of P. wyomingensis.
D. hogwartsia (upper left) and S. spinifer (upper right) are actually younger versions of P. wyomingensis.

What’s more, Horner suggest these two might not be the only dino duplicates. “What we are seeing in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana suggests that we may be overextended by a third,” he said. His colleague Goodwin blames fellow scientists for skimping on the details.

“Early paleontologists recognized the distinction between adults and juveniles, but people have lost track of looking at ontogeny – how the individual develops – when they discover a new fossil,” he said.

I’m sure many will be said to see the Harry Potter-inspired species go, but it’s not the first time we’ve lost a great name to the rules of science. In cases like this scientists revert to the name of the first fossil discovered, which is why Brontosaurus (thunder lizard) became Apatosaurus (deceptive lizard). The former is a much cooler name, but the latter wins out because it was discovered first. A shame, but them’s the rules!

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