The scientific community may have a bone to pick with a team of paleontologists before they finish sending up to a third of all dinosaur species back to the tar pits. A research team comprised of Berkley’s Mark Goodwin and Montana State’s Jack Horner. The idea is that many discovered dinosaur “species” may have just been babies, rather than different dinos.
The relatives of many dinosaurs, including T. Rex, have been mistakenly given their own species when they really were just juveniles. This development with age is fundamental and readily observable in several species today. One obvious example is the caterpillar, which when in its younger stage is barely comparable to its eventual physiology. It is even called a butterfly at that point, though it is the same creature. Young frogs lose their tales and sprout legs, which they can use to eventually become quite adept both on land and in water. Even young humans look completely different from adults, although the change is less drastic. The riddle of the Sphinx, ‘what walks upon four legs, then two, then three,’ is an apt dramatization of this metamorphic process. The answer of course is man, eventually stooping over and requiring a cane to walk. So why should dinosaurs be any different?
Included in the list of deleted dino species is the nanotyrannus, a suspected younger version of the Tyrannosaurus, discovered in 1946 by paleontologist Charles W. Gilmore. Dr. Horner says the T-Rex’s skull changed significantly as it grew, muting differences originally thought to indicate it was of an alternate origin. Nanotyrannus has an elongated skull, which Horner suspects would have been shortened as it grew to eventually the bulkier more stout-faced shape of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The main difference between T-Rex and nanotyrannus, however, was a difference in the number of teeth. T-Rex had 12 teeth while its smaller counterpart had 17. Then the mid-sized “teenager” T-Rex was discovered with a full mouth of 14 teeth. Scientists now suspect that as they grew, they lost their baby-teeth, which were smaller and more blade-like and replaced them with fewer larger teeth. This makes sense, as the adult Tyrannosaur would be consuming far larger prey than it would as a baby.
This new discovery asks a very important question in the field of paleontology. Can any valid scientific theory about the past be made based on the evidence of one or two specimens? Any individual specimen will be unique in several ways, and could even have developed mutations that could jeopardize its credibility. And given the more tumultuous periods of time with long periods of massive isolation, how can we be sure of the reliability of any single skeleton? If Lucy had even one deformity (particularly with her thumbs) we could make a grave mistake assuming all of our ancestors shared it.
What then, of the recently discovered Ardi skeleton thought to be a precursor to modern man? While it is no doubt a massively important find, it is still only a piece of an ever expanding puzzle. It’s clear that more samples will be required of different stages of human existence before a truly accurate model can be created. As for the nanotyrannus, it doesn’t stop existing if it ends up being removed from the Cretaceous hall of fame, it’s just being upgraded.