Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"Why does science have to name every little thing?"

One of the most common questions I got when I was teaching as some variation on that theme. "Why do scientists have to make things so complicated?" "Why can't they just call it something simple?" It is a question bigger than just high school level as well; one of the barriers to effective science communication and education seems to be the general "fear" of overly technical language . The general public seems to view scientists as speaking in convoluted and complex terms.

It is true that scientists have devised some very complex ways of describing things that might seem simple to a layman. And sometimes we can get wrapped up in using the terms we are familiar with when talking about our research, to the detriment of any non-technical audience. The media is also partially to blame as well, with perpetuating ideas such as all prehistoric reptiles are dinosaurs. But why do these terms exist in the first place?

This brings me to Hendrickx et al. (2015). Hendrickx and his coauthors published a paper last year breaking down theropod dinosaur teeth and analyzing many different aspects of their morphology. In addition, the authors created a standardized terminology for future paleontologists to use when describing their dinosaur teeth. Hendrickx and his coauthors explain why creating such a terminology is needed succinctly; in effect answering the question of why scientists create names for so many things.
...several pivotal theropod taxa with well-preserved dentitions still lack a thorough dental description...leading numerous authors to identify isolated theropod teeth to broad clades with uncertainty...isolated teeth are key pieces of evidence to assess vertebrate paleoecological diversity and are often used for stable isotopic studies with various applications...A better understanding of theropod anatomy and morphological variation is therefore central to help resolving systematic relationships and to provide paleoecological clues. Tooth morphology is tied to diet, which has extensive evolutionary repercussions, such as morphological convergence, more than other parts of the skeleton. Yet, theropod teeth have been shown to possess many diagnostic features of taxonomic value...Although theropod teeth seem simple at first sight, this is effectively a result of the absence of comprehensive studies on tooth anatomy and morphological variation among theropods, as well as the lack of a uniform anatomical nomenclature.
What does the wall of text mean? Basically, theropod dinosaur teeth can be used to study evolutionary relationships, paleoecology, and several other important things in paleontology, but no one has bothered to come up with a good way to talk about them.

That's the crux of scientific terminology; coming up with a good way to talk about things. Good, in this case, means usable. Terms should describe well-defined parts of an organism's anatomy. If we say, "the tip of the tooth," on a tooth that has multiple "tips", how are we to know which specific tip we're talking about? Are there differences between "wrinkles" and "grooves?"

Figure 1 from Hendrickx et al., 2015

Without understanding the distinctions between subtle anatomical differences in different taxa, how are we to find out if these features are actually taxonomically important? A quick example from the Morrison Formation. Here in western Colorado we have basically two relatively common large theropods from the Morrison: Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus. Skeletal remains of Allosaurus, including teeth, seem to dominate in the Morrison making up 3/4 of all the theropod remains (Foster, 2007). Teeth attributed to Ceratosaurus do turn up in the field, however, and are usually distinguished by the presence of ridges near their bases. Now that we have Hendrickx et al.'s paper, we can go into a bit more depth. We can say, for instance, that the teeth attributed to Ceratosaurus have basal fluting, and these flutes are not seen in the contemporaneous Allosaurus. So this may help us distinguish between these teeth in the field and keeps us from mistaking Ceratosaurus teeth (with their flutes) with wrinkled or ornamented teeth (or tooth fragments).

The description of Ceratosaurus teeth by previous authors, however, has been lacking in detail and confusing, often using different terms for the same anatomical feature. As Hendrickx et al. note, having their framework in place will help facilitate such a description and they specifically mention Ceratosaurus as being in need of such a redescription. Hopefully such a project will be forthcoming. This topic will also be the focus of my next blog post!

Going forward I am hoping to see a theropod-wide tooth catalog. While Hendrickx et al. do point out that teeth are quick to change, evolutionarily speaking, to changes in diet and feeding behavior, they also note the taxonomic utility of teeth. While many theropod teeth can't be narrowed down to a genus or species, being able to address higher-level taxonomic questions with teeth is important. In addition, some taxa appear to have diagnostic dental modifications. Doing systematic studies and descriptions of theropod teeth may yield more information on what characters are taxonomically useful and potentially add autapomorphies to established genera.

My biggest complaint is that the authors did not examine what a theropod tooth is. They identify problems with past work, the utility of teeth, and the need for a framework but there is no way to determine if this framework is applicable to a given tooth. Obviously for teeth attached to theropod jaws this isn't a problem, but the majority of the dental fossil record for archosaurs consists of isolated shed teeth. While workers in the Cretaceous and Jurassic strata have this problem to a lesser degree (though it is possible that some crocodylomorphs developed similar tooth morphologies), those of us working in the Triassic are confronted with a host of dental convergences! One need look no further than the saga of Revueltosaurus to find examples of teeth that look similar between widely divergent clades. In the Triassic there are plenty of carnivorous reptiles, many with laterally compressed teeth. While in truth the terms developed by Hendrickx et al. (2015) are likely to be broadly applicable, a brief discussion of what synapomorphies exist among the dentition of theropods would have been appreciated, so that those of us working under all that overburden could sort our rauisuchian teeth from our dinosaur teeth just a little easier.

Works Cited

Foster, John. 2007. "Allosaurus fragilis". Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and Their World. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. pp. 170–176

Hendrickx, C., Mateus, O. and Ara├║jo, R., 2015. A proposed terminology of theropod teeth (Dinosauria, Saurischia). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology,35(5), p.e982797. 


  1. Many thanks for your post mostly referring to my work on this terminology I recently proposed for theropod teeth, appreciated. One little comment though: "My biggest complaint is that the authors did not examine what a theropod tooth is. They identify problems with past work, the utility of teeth, and the need for a framework but there is no way to determine if this framework is applicable to a given tooth." Well, I already published two papers providing tools to identify isolated theropod teeth (Hendrickx & Mateus, 2014, Zootaxa, on abelisaurid teeth from Portugal and Hendrickx et al., 2015, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, on the megalosaurid dentition) and a monograph sized paper on the distribution of dental features in non-avian theropod is on its way to be published in Palaeontologia Electronica. The latter discuss the taxonomic potential of isolated theropod teeth in relatively good details. Sometimes, one cannot add all the information he/she wants in a single paper, especially in a JVP paper!! Cheers, Christophe

    1. It is very true that we're often limited in space with our publications, especially in print venues.
      I was actually going to delve into that megalosaurid paper this weekend, so I'm glad to hear that it covers exactly what I am looking for! I'll get into the 2014 paper you mention as well then too. Thanks for the heads-up!

  2. And I also wish to give a thorough description of the Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus dentition in a far future, if possible! C.

    1. Excellent, I look forward to that! I've got a blog post coming out next week musing about Ceratosaurus teeth and what we actually know about them based on the published record. I hope you find it interesting.