Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Stupid Lizard

If you've got a bit of spare time, the library of the Field Museum's flickr photostream is well worth a look. It features a nifty set of photos from the days before the institution moved to its current home on the Lake Michigan Waterfront. During its first couple decades, it was located on the spot where the Museum of Science Industry stands presently.

Those were the days before the well-populated dinosaur halls we're lucky enough to wander through today. One Mesozoic denizen of the Field was a reproduction of America's first complete and mounted dinosaur, Joseph Leidy's Hadrosaurus foulkii, towering over a pair of Cenozoic mammals, as if to boast, "I'm basically a Mesozoic cow, y'all!"

Paleo reconstructions

Besides the simple enjoyment of old photos, online galleries like this one sometimes contain unexpected glimpses into paleontology as it happened. One of the photos shared by the Field library is this sauropod leg found in 1899, identified as Morosaurus impar. Morosaurus is probably one of the most hilariously awful names ever imposed on a dinosaur, meaning "stupid lizard." This was a flash of genius from the Great Dismal Swamp himself, O.C. Marsh.

Morosaurus impar right forelimb

Much of the plate was painted white to mask out the leg for photographic reproduction. That reproduction was then used for a 1901 paper written by Field geology curator Elmer S. Riggs. Besides describing this forelimb, Riggs briefly touches on the taxonomic status of Morosaurus and another sauropod, Atlantosaurus. In the kind of taxonomic bloat that characterized the Bone Wars era, Marsh had assigned about a dozen specimens between the two genera to their own species (see Morosaurus and Atlantosaurus at the Dinosaur Encyclopedia). Having visited with Henry Fairfield Osborn recently - who was preparing a monograph on E.D. Cope's Camarasaurus - Riggs foresaw the demotion of both of the genera, writing,
"In his original description Cope predicted the unusually long humerus which the Museum specimen has so well demonstrated. The three specimens may thus be regarded as representatives of a single genus, which, in view of its priority, should retain the generic name Camarosaurus [sic]. The description of the type specimen promised by Dr. Osborn will doubtless throw further light upon the relationship of this interesting group."
Though he produced a few works on sauropod anatomy in the years after Riggs wrote this, it wouldn't be until 1921 that Osborne's great monograph would be published. A mere four years later, it was topped by Charles Gilmore's monograph on Camarasaurus, starring what is still considered the finest sauropod skeleton ever excavated. Gilmore's monograph also spelled curtains for the stupid lizard, synonomizing it with Camarasaurus, which took precedent. Though "chamber lizard" isn't exactly glamorous, it's quite a step up from the demeaning epithet thought up by Marsh.

Camarasaurus - 01
The famous Carnegie Camarasaurus, star of the Gilmore monograph. Photo by Kabacchi, via flickr.

For more on the Camarasaurus monographs of the early 20th century, check out these two pages at the wonderful Linda Hall Museum Paper Dinosaurs digital exhibition.


  1. Great find of the Field Museum's picture cache!

    I was hoping to see the room set a side for the Hoosier geologist, William W. Borden's crinoid fossil collection. It was donated to the Field museum in 1923 which was three years after some of those pictures were taken. Learn more about William Borden and his museum in Borden, Indiana as this link.

    Interesting side note, he was a business partner with Marshall Field who the Chicago museum is named for.

    Thanks for the Twitter links and I will try to write some post about dinosaurs so I can join your next blog carnival.

  2. David,
    Wow, great photo showing the Hadrosaurus. That model, in fact, was made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, the sculptor of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, as well as several more Hadrosaurus models. The model at the Field Museum was originally built for the Smithsonian. How it got to the Field is not exactly clear but it appears to have arrived at the museum after the Chicago World's Fair of 1894. The Field acquired the collection of Henry Ward that had been set up at the Fair and the Hadrosaurus model most likely was part of Ward's display, although there is no direct evidence. The Field's Hadrosaur disappeared at some unknown point shortly after this picture was taken.

    Other Hadrosaurus models made by Hawkins went to Princeton and the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. His first Hadrosaur was the one he made for the Academy of Natural Sciences. He also made another model for the proposed Paleozoic Museum in Central Park, but it was destroyed by Boss Tweed's henchmen in May 1871. Of all the models, only the head of the Academy one still exists.


  3. Mike: The blog carnival is not limited to dinosaurs - all of paleontology is welcome, so please join in! Thanks also for the link to your Borden post. I'm really intrigued by the Borden collection at the Field, and I'll look into it more.

    David: Thanks for that information. Another Field mystery to look into. The only work that Hawkins really gets recognized for is his Crystal palace statues, so I'll have to write a bit about his other work. And I've been meaning to write about the Paleozoic Park for a while.

    Great comments, both of you! Really appreciated.


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