Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Leaping Laelaps, Indeed

In Friday's Vintage Dinosaur Art post on Charles R. Knight, I couldn't resist including his famous painting of E.D. Cope's theropod Laelaps, (which his bitter rival O.C. Marsh would rename Dryptosaurus in 1877 when it was discovered that a mite had the name Laelaps first). This sparked a conversation in the comments about the general reputation of large theropods in the late 19th century. In the early 20th century, the "ladder of progress" idea of evolution came into vogue and the dinosaurs became exemplars of evolutionary failure: beasts too stupid and ponderous to survive the mammalian apocalypse.

But it wasn't always like that; I knew Knight's painting reflected the view of the theropod as a dynamic, active predator and I wanted to dig into some literature and find where this began. It's not a completely thorough review of every mention of Laelaps, but I think I've dipped into enough from the era to give a good impression of just how dynamic a predatory dinosaur was thought to be. One quick note: I'll use both Dryptosaurus and Laelaps in this post, the former when discussing the modern knowledge about it, the latter when referring to it in a historical context.

As noted in the previous post and its comments, Knight was not an artist who did his own research, as Gregory S. Paul does today. Knight followed the most contemporary knowledge of the paleontological community and his individual patrons, which in this case was Cope. Indeed, in an early account of his work in The American Naturalist, Cope himself would invoke a modern analog when discussing Laelaps when he wrote that the long legs of the dinosaur...
...joined with the massive tail points to a semi erect position like that of the Kangaroos while the lightness and strength of the great femur and tibia are altogether appropriate to great powers of leaping.
Hardwicke's Science-Gossip, a short-lived 19th century pop-sci magazine, echoed this in an 1891 story and added a bit of gory detail:
The Laelaps was forty feet long, stood twenty-five feet high on its hindlegs, and was built like a kangaroo. It was the most astonishing jumper that ever existed, with teeth for cutting and sharp claws on the front feet, evidently designed for tearing out its adversary's eyes.
Taking it even further, Sir John William Dawson wrote a colorful passage on Laelaps in his 1873 pop-sci book The Story of Earth and Man, culminating with this image:
Had we seen the eagle clawed Laelaps rushing on his prey; throwing his huge bulk perhaps thirty feet through the air, and crushing to the earth under his gigantic talons some feebler Hadrosaur, we should have shudderingly preferred the companionship of modern wolves and tigers to that of those savage and gigantic monsters of the Mesozoic.
Dawson accorded Laelaps an even higher standing than mammals, a comparison that would be considered a bit absurd once dinosaurs fell from grace. Even today, when theropods are generally considered to be the "peers" of today's dynamic mammalian predators, few paleontologists would conjure the image of a large one leaping thirty feet.

A more modern look at Dryptosaurus, the artist formerly known as Laelaps. By Frederik Spindler, via Wikimedia Commons.

We now understand Dryptosaurus to be a primitive throwback compared to its more advanced tyrannosaur contemporaries; while the best known Late Cretaceous North American tyrannosaurs are from the west, Dryptosaurus lived on the other side of the Western Interior seaway that split the continent in two, on a land mass called Appalachia. Unlike its western counterpart Laramidia, we have precious few geological windows into this time in the eastern US. Dryptosaurus is an intriguing critter. Why did it preserve more primitive tyrannosaur features? What was its environment like? The Earth's geological processes have unfortunately hidden many of these answers from us, then made the region attractive to human settlement, limiting our access to Mesozoic rock further.

I can't end this without contrasting the taxonomic change of Laelaps to Dryptosaurus with Torosaurus being possibly absorbed into Triceratops. While Scannella and Horner have their work cut out for them if their lumping of the two genera is to be accepted, at least they don't have to deal with the level of rancor that existed between Marsh and Cope. After all, renaming a species because its name is already taken is pretty cut-and-dry, and requires little evidence to justify: just show that it's been given to an organism in the scientific literature, and the matter is settled. But notice that a couple decades after Marsh reassigned it to Dryptosaurus, Knight still chose Cope's original Laelaps for his title.


  1. "But notice that a couple decades after Marsh reassigned it to Dryptosaurus, Knight still chose Cope's original Laelaps for his title."

    And Cope also kept using the name to, ignoring Marsh's change

  2. Right, as Knight basically hewed to Cope's views when he worked with him. Laelaps stuck around in the popular press as well as shown by the Hardwicke's passage above. Judging by what's available to view via Google Books, Dryptosaurus really didn't gain traction in pop-sci writing. Most references to it are from more scholarly sources. This may have been one area where Cope won a PR battle with Marsh.

  3. Doing a quick search within the date range 1900-1960, it looks like Dryptosaurus quickly overtook Laelaps once Cope was gone. ~550 results for Drypto, ~35 for Laelaps.

  4. How many of those google hits were due to the alliterative majesty of the title "Leaping Laelaps" and the assocated artwork?

  5. Sorry- I was unclear there. It was a search specifically on Google Books, and it looks like none of them are captions or references to the painting. I also switched the numbers, not that it adds much. Laelaps pops up in 53 results.

    Here's the URL for the search: http://www.google.com/search?tbs=bks:1,cdr:1,cd_min:Jan%201_2%201900,cd_max:Dec%2031_2%201960&tbo=p&q=laelaps+dinosaur&num=100

    I added the term "dinosaur" to filter out references to the mite who is the true owner of the name.

    If Google Books was a guy, I'd have such a man-crush on him.

  6. Very interesting post. The Knight family are very good friends of mine and help run my project. Can't wait to read more....

  7. "A more modern look at Dryptosaurus, the artist formerly known as Laelaps"???

    "the artist formerly known as Laelaps"???

    I think you meant "the DINOSAUR formerly known as Laelaps"...

    1. Oh shit, thanks for catching that, what an embarrassing mistake.


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