One of my father’s frequent pithy comments, one of his stock phrases, was, “The world is made up of two kinds of people: lumpers and splitters.” And palaeontologists are no exception. Actually, they may be the definition of lumpers and splitters.
Scientists in almost every discipline are, whether they choose to admit it or not, are natural splitters. Every (well, almost every) budding palaeontologist is a splitter. Why? What better way to get one’s name noticed, to get that elusive grant or, even better, teaching position, than to have your very own genus chalked up on your wall of fame? This means, of course, that species are sometimes described based upon flimsy evidence. One of the most famous was Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus. Othniel Marsh, one of the true giants of early palaeontology, described Apatosaurus ajax based on a very incomplete fossil in 1877. Then, two years later, he described Brontosaurus excelsus based on six skeletons and part of a skull. A quarter century later, the species, which had been split, was lumped back together by Elmer Riggs. Of course, Brontosaurus is such a beautiful name that we continue to use it, though it is a junior synonym. Read the rest of this entry »