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Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus, 1775

Mythology seeps into everyday life without as much as a whisper.  So too does it pervade the sciences.  Consciously and subconsciously tales of great feats of Gods and heroic deeds of men and women have made their indelible imprint amongst the taxa and the creatures they represent.  Invoking persons or creatures of mythology into science, specifically naming new discoveries after them, always has a broad appeal.  We can stretch this back as far as Carl Linnaeus’s (1707-1778) “Systema Naturae”, which first appeared in 1735.  This is the original source of today’s binomial structure of ascribing genera and species names, like Homo sapiens, or Tyrannosaurus rex.  [In religious characters, Adam ordains the ‘kinds’ of animals in Genesis, under his charge.]  In 1945, John Heller (Trans. and Proc. American Philological Assoc., 76, p333-357) assessed Linnaeus’s sources for trivial (species) names.  “Linnaeus” he wrote “nowhere justified his choice of trivial names…for plants or animals, but it is very evident from his practice that classical mythology was a … favorite source”.  Though Linnaeus gave structure to early biodiversity awareness, the rational for source names was, from the beginning, less stringent.  The tradition of finding suitable names amongst the volumes of cultural history, with a little more clarity, centuries later, continues today.  
[And to further stretching of the cultural sources beyond traditional ‘western’ cultural history, North American first nations too have been the source for ‘trivial’ names.  Famed paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1985), for example, used the language of the ‘Dakota Indian’ when identifying a new genus and species of fossil rodent from the Oligocene of South Dakota (Amer. Mus. Novatates, 1941, No. 1145).  Manitsha tanka refers to a “big” ground squirrel or gopher.]

Earlier last year a group led by M. C. Lamanna of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburg, announced in the online pages of PLoSOne (9(3):e92022. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092022) a new dinosaur from North and South Dakota, Anzu wyleie.  Anzu, sourced, is for “a feathered demon in ancient Mesopotamian … mythology.”  The animal is a largish theropod dinosaur, “presumably feathered” of unusual characters.   Anzu is part of a rather infamous group of dinosaurs now called caenagnathhids in that like its Asian cousins, these were edentulous animals – lacking teeth – and may have been more of a conservative generalist in its consumptive practices, eating insects, eggs and vegetation.  Its general ‘birdish’ body plan was about 3.5 m in length but only 1.5 m at its hips.  Body mass estimates are between 200-300 kg, small compared to its tyrannosaurid neighbors, but still large for its group.  The largest is Gigantoraptor, from China and Mongolia, weighs in at 1400-3200 kg.  The North American Anzu also had a cranial crest, recalling a cassowary-like outline.

Their absence from Saskatchewan rocks was not so much of a surprise, and may have reflected a preservational bias, as with many of the mid-sized dinosaurs.  Small and medium sized dinosaurs are much more fragile and infrequent compared to the robust horned dinosaurs, or the heavy duckbilled dinosaurs; further, as with much of the meat-eaters, theropod bones were hollow, making them structurally at risk at the time of decomposition and fossilization. The pounding weathering of today’s erosional obliteration doesn’t help either.  At least that is what we comforted ourselves with.



Life restoration of Anzu wyliei 
Image: ArthurWeasley CC-BY-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons


There have been a number of  palaeontologists who have passed through Saskatchewan, sporadically enhancing the growing suite of dinosaur-dom in Saskatchewan.  Characters like G. M. Dawson  (1849-1901) who discovered the first dinosaur in western Canada in the 1870s, from what is now the east block of Grasslands National Park (GNP); R. C. McConnell (1857 - 1942), Charles M. Sternberg (1885 -1981), and Loris Russell (1904-1998) are others.  These names may not be familiar to you, but in paleo-circles, these gentlemen are revered.  

Another was Wann Langston (1921- 2013).  After graduating in 1952 from University of California, Berkeley, he was lured away to be the vertebrate paleontologist for the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa (now the Canadian Museum of Nature).  Dr. Langston was an American, and despite the wealth of opportunities in new northern territories, it didn’t take long for him to return to his native United States.  Still, his time in Canada was well spent and included the discovery and study of some truly remarkable specimens, like the odd Pachyrhinosaurus dinosaur from Alberta – an earlier kin ofTriceratops, but instead of a distinct horncore above the nose, it had a rugose ‘stump’ - or marine reptiles from Saskatchewan, from when much of Saskatchewan was part of a north-south interior seaway.  But he continues to be noted for some smaller specimens, including some toe bones of a unique dinosaur. 

Dr. Langston

Dr. Wann Langston, Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the
National Museum of Canada (now, the Canadian Museum of Nature)
Image: Dr. M. Brown of University of Texas

In Saskatchewan one of Dr. Langston’s focus was the survey of what would later become Lake Diefenbaker.  Previous, the South Saskatchewan River snaked through giant swaths of the upper layers of the prairie crust exposing what is called the Bearpaw Formation, approximately 75 or so million years.  The construction of the Gardner Dam which began in 1959 would eventually create the lake.  Knowing that many of the lower levels of bedrock would eventually be inaccessible with the anticipated flooding, several parties began their explorative planning.   Initially from Ottawa, Langston expressed his desire to take control of the paleontology operations of these regions.  In a letter dated February 24, 1958, his plan was for the RSM to be “under my supervision” and that all collections would be “sent to Ottawa for preparation”, with “duplicates … returned to Saskatchewan.”  This didn’t sit too well with provincial administrative expectations, and eventually a reconfigured mutual agreement was reached, whereby both institutions surveyed the rocks of the Bearpaw Formation of Saskatchewan.  From 1958-1962, many skeletons, skulls, and other skeletal parts of marine reptiles were collected.  Creatures like mosasaurs, and plesiosaurs were expediently gobbled up by Dr. Langston, and the RSM.

Dr. Langston did work in other regions of Saskatchewan during his short time in Canada, particularly those of what is now the east block of Grasslands National Park, bordering Montana.  These were the last geological moments of the entire Cretaceous Period, locally referred to as the Frenchman Formation, overlain by the younger, dinosaur-barren Ravenscrag Formation.  In 1962, under instructions of the director of the CMN, Dr. Loris Russell, Langston was provided with the following shopping list for field work that year.  To quote:
    1.  Examination of reported dinosaur discovery in the Drumheller area of Alberta.
    2.  Collection of a dinosaur specimen near Foremost, Alberta.
    3.  Survey the exposure of St. Mary River beds near Lethbridge, Alberta.
    4.  Examination of Cretaceous rock exposed in the Frenchman River drainage of 
         southwestern Saskatchewan

Langston admittedly was following the steps of an earlier paleontologist, Charles M. Sternberg; and a reading his notes, Sternberg was just following the earlier trail carved out by George Dawson from the late 19th century.  With this series of palaeontological begetting, it was with Langston’s fourth item where he collected several things, first in GNP, including a partial skeleton of a Triceratops, but also bits and bobs of isolated small bones, including the terminal dinosaurian toe bones – unguals – of something quite different than ever was imagined.

One of his bit specimens ended up in Ottawa in the collections of the CMN.  The other, for whatever reason, didn’t stay in Saskatchewan or Canada for that matter, but was kept by Langston and later deposited at the Texas Memorial Museum (TMM).  And there, catalogued and consumed by both institutions, they both stayed for decades, seemingly ignored and unwanted.  But that is the way of all museums; having the collection safe and secure, for others to review, armed with new insights, or technologies: specimens just waiting to be re-discovered.

Very recently, scouring collections of years past has almost become a paleontological industry.  Any museum worth its salt has collections of fossilized scraps that have yet had the intense examination they should have; the person-power and insight are just not there.  And, especially when the cost of doing field work increases with sometimes unfulfilled results, economically digging through cabinets, drawers, and shelves can be very luring.  And this is what happened with the collections of fossils from Saskatchewan’s Frenchman Formation, now residing at the CMN and the TMM.

A group of scientists led by Dr. P. R. Bell of University of New England in Australia recognized that the caenagnathid group of dinosaurs has particular skeletal features that only belong to this group.  One of which are their unguals.  A few months ago, in the early edition of the research journal Cretaceous Research (2015, vol. 52, p. 101-107), Dr. Bell and others published “Large Caenagnathid (Aviasauria, Oviraptorsauria) from the Uppermost Cretaceous of Western Canada.”  The fossils discussed in this paper were a bit younger than the collection reviewed by Dr. Lamanna earlier in the previous year.  Dr. Bell’s study determined that large caenagnathid dinosaurs, likely of the genus Anzu, were part of the Saskatchewan Frenchman fauna.

One of the interesting bits to this story is the technological advances of producing science today, compared to decades past.  For example, communicating results of scientific merit was considerably more protracted.  In my lifetime, submission of manuscripts, reviews, modifying text, re-submission, constructing galley prints after acceptance of the paper, another review, all of which is done at the snail pace provided by postal services.  Finally in print, authors would acquire, often at their own expense, reprints or separates of their printed articles as they were called, each circulated to other paleontologists (who would often do the same with their own pieces of palaeontological literature).  I still remember postcards I created requesting from an author a reprint of one of their articles, and waiting patiently for the return mail.  All of this was labor intensive, compared to the mode of the scientific industry in its digitized fashion today.  The research papers of Dr. Lamanna and colleagues, describing a new genus and species of dinosaurs, and Dr. Bell and colleagues, adding to the biostratigraphic and paleogeographic range of this same genus, all came out in a single year.  In decades past this was rather unheard of.  Today, in the speed of light communications through an ever expanding web of publication platforms, the rapidity of news announcing new discoveries is becoming the norm.

Anzu UngalsUngals, or toe bones of Anzu from the Frenchman Formation
Image: Dr. P. R. Bell


Historically, scientists had more time to review and digest each relevant new discovery.  Publications and journals were fewer 30 years ago, and it was easier to follow the advances in one’s own field.  Earlier, in the 19th century, most of the new information was to a certain extent released through journals, but also in the protracted pages found in books.  Books allowed room for negotiating interesting thoughts, but also required even further compositional time.  Now in the 21st century, computers, internet, mega-databases have since revolutionized scientific communication.  Further, with this explosion of new information, it is growing more difficult year after year to keep up.  Complimenting this change, resources to produce at least some of the science, like field work, is growing more difficult to acquire.  It is easier, and at times equally more efficient, to scour existing collections than the shale, sandstone, and layers of clay that predominate in the regions far away.  The sum of this version of the industry of science, and most invigorating, however, is the reality that the faunas and floras of millennia past are still growing.

Anzu MapA final postscript.  Nearing the completion of this post, in the blithering volumes of versions I create, another, related discovery is now in print.  Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues of the Smithsonian Institution, and Alexander Averianov, of the Russian Academy of Science, announced “New material of Caenagnathasia martinsoni (Dinosauria: Theropoda: Oviraptorosauria) from the Bissekty Formation (Upper Cretaceous: Turonian) of Uzbekistan”, also in the pages of Cretaceous Research (2015, vol. 54, p. 50-59).  From older deposits than any of the recent material from North America, and from a differing paleogeographic region, the information garnered by the two earlier papers I discussed is already included in the Uzbekistan analysis.  And that, once number-crunched, C. martinsoni is a sister-taxon of Anzu.  This, along with other faunal members, provides fuel for bigger discussions like timing, and dispersal patterns – “a time of extensive faunal interchange between the Asian and western North American landmasses’.  Now, by the time this reaches its posting, it would not be surprising if another review or discovery is announced that adds even more to our understanding of this group of theropod dinosaurs.  Perhaps, if the discoveries keep coming at this pace, even more characters from cultural history will have to be searched to fill this niche in the progress of classifying and understanding biodiversity.  But then, there are always characters from the works of fictions to be sourced.

Thanks to Dr. P. R. Bell for allowing use of illustrations from his paper on Anzu, and Dr. M. Brown of University of Texas for picture of Dr. Langston at the CMN.