The 'New Dinosaurs'

Recent discoveries and reclassifications have made the prehistoric creatures we remember from youth, well, extinct. Giganotosaurus is now the big 'man' on campus, and brontosaurus is actually an apatosaurus.

June 09, 2006|By CARRIE STETLER | CARRIE STETLER,NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

Five years ago, Michelle McCourt was reading her son's favorite bedtime story, How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? when she noticed something strange.

The dinosaurs she remembered from her childhood in the 1970s were gone. In their place were unfamiliar creatures such as the "apatosaurus" and the "pteranodon."

"The brontosaurus didn't exist anymore. A pteradactyl wasn't a pteradactyl," said the 41-year-old mom from Sparta, N.J.

As McCourt and other parents have discovered, things are different in Bedrock these days. For instance, Fred Flintstone's "bronto burgers" now would be called "apato burgers" because paleontologists started publicizing the dinosaur's proper name in the 1980s.

In the past 30 years - a "golden age" in paleontology - well-known dinosaurs have been renamed or made over to reflect current knowledge. Recent discoveries, like the giganotosaurus - bigger and badder than T-Rex - are now sold as common playthings, while once-obscure dinosaurs, like the pachycephalosaurus, are featured in children's books.

For parents whose dinosaur-awareness lapsed between grade school and the purchase of their child's first velociraptor, today's prehistoric landscape can be disorienting.

"The thing I hear most is parents talking about the explosion of range and variety of dinosaurs. It's not just the stegosaurus and triceratops anymore," said Myles Gordon, vice president of education at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "Dinosaurs are really a part of popular culture, so people become aware of the changes."

New dinosaur fossils are discovered at the rate of about two a month, experts say. But unless they are paleontologists centscm+RDlschubert: themselves, most adults won't recognize the "beipiaosaurus" or the "caudipteryx," two freakish, feathered dinosaurs from China, unearthed in the late 1990s.

Both, however, are brisk sellers for Safari LTD, which manufactures several lines of dino toys, including scale replicas of real dinosaurs authenticated by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

When Safari introduced four feathered dinosaurs this year, they were a hit.

"There is such a high demand, we cannot keep them in stock," said Alexandre Pariente, a spokesman for the company.

While kids can accept the fluffy predators, for grown-ups, they take getting used to, according to Thomas Holtz, a paleontologist at the University of Maryland.

"Some older folks can't get over the fact that a lot of the advanced meat-eating dinosaurs were feathered," he said.

The same is true of velociraptors, discovered in the 1920s but virtually unheard of until the 1993 film Jurassic Park, in which they were erroneously depicted with reptilian skin, said Holtz, author of a coming Random House dinosaur encyclopedia for kids.

"We now know velociraptors were as feathery as ostriches," he said.

Other dinosaur images have also changed. The triceratops is slimmer. T-Rex has morphed from a lumbering green monster, tail dragging, to a wiry brown creature with an uplifted tail. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the T-Rex fossil no longer stands upright "like Godzilla," said Mark Norell, curator of fossil reptiles at the museum. "He walks with his back more parallel to the ground."

For the public, perhaps the most startling changes are the dinosaurs' new names.

The "pteradactyl" suffered from a case of mistaken identity. Its proper name was always "pteranadon," but illustrators often mislabeled it, perhaps confused by the term "pteradactyloids," which refers to a subgroup of winged reptiles, Holtz said.

The extinction of "brontosaurus" is a longer story.

When a fragment of the dinosaur was found in the 19th century, paleontologist O.C. Marsh named it "apatosaurus" ("deceitful lizard" in Latin). Later, he found parts of another creature dubbed "brontosaurus," (or "thunder lizard"). By the early 20th century, paleontologists realized they were the same dinosaur. But since "apatosaurus" was first, it became official, in keeping with a zoological code that governs the naming of species, Norell said.

The public, however, was largely unaware of the new name until 1989, when the U.S. Postal Service featured a brontosaurus stamp and paleontologists pointed out the error.

Whatever they are called, the dinosaurs of tomorrow should be just as bewildering to the next generation of parents - who will wonder, no doubt, why their kids' caudipteryxes look so different from the ones they remember.

"In 2026, the way we think of dinosaurs today is going to look quaint," Holtz said.

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