When I was a child, dinosaurs were extremely popular. They remain so with children today.
Back then, in the late-1960s and early 1970s all us kids knew that dinosaurs were closely related to lizards. After all, the quintessential dinosaur was Tyrannosaurus Rex, which we all knew to mean “tyrant lizard king.”
The word dinosaur itself is derived from the Greek words deinos meaning “terrible” and sauros for “lizard.”
It made sense 200 years ago when people started discovering dinosaur bones. At first glance, despite their size, they did bear a striking resemblance to modern lizard bones.
Early fossil finders can be forgiven their folly as can a circa 1960s six-year-old.
But today, every child knows dinosaurs are actually much more closely related to birds, in fact, directly so.
It’s not a new concept by any means. By the late 19th century, individuals such as the English author Thomas Huxley and German naturalist Ernst Haeckel were starting to make a connection between birds and dinosaurs and progress was made throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Still, even when I was studying geology at university in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the lineage was not nearly as universally accepted as it is today. For example, although most of my fellow students and I were on board, our paleontology professor was decidedly not.
In the interim, however, an explosion of evidence, both of the fossil and genetic variety, has left little doubt.
Of course, if you go back far enough in time, everything is related. In fact, technically speaking, mammals up to and including us, are reptiles.
You have to go back around 325 million years to find the common ancestor, however. Roughly 300 million years ago early reptiles split into synapsids and diapsids. Synapsids would eventually become mammals.
Diapsids, by at the latest 250 million years ago, had branched into archosaurs and lepidosaurs. The archosaurs in turn evolved into crocodilians and dinosaurs while the lepidosaurs led to snakes and lizards.
I am not going to get into where turtles fit into all this, in case you’re wondering, but the most current theory is they are closer to the archosaurs than to the lepidosaurs.
The crocodilians survived the great Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction as did the ancestors of modern snakes and lizards. So did the avian dinosaurs, the ancestors of today’s myriad species of birds.
This is all greatly simplified of course, broad strokes, for the sake of op-ed column writing. The point is, as far as living relatives of dinosaurs go with direct lineage back to the common diapsid ancestor, lizards are the most distantly related of any of them.
Birds, of course, are direct descendants, crocodiles are next closest, then turtles and finally snakes and lizards.
All of this is to say, I was just a little bit disappointed with the naming last week of B.C.’s very first unique non-avian dinosaur.
Don’t get me wrong, it was the most exciting news of the week for me. As a former geologist and lifelong dinosaur enthusiast, something so close to home and illuminating of an area that is underrepresented in the fossil record is extremely exhilarating.
Nicknamed “Buster” this hornless, parrot-beaked herbivore was a member of a rare family of dinosaurs called Leptoceratopsidae and closely related to one of the most famous of all dinosaurs, Triceratops.
Of course, I’m probably just splitting feathers here, but I have to ask. With everything we now know about the lineage of dinosaurs why are we still saddling them with scientific names like Ferrisaurus sustutensis, meaning “Iron Lizard of the Sustut River?”
And honestly, Ferrisaurus in a mixture of Latin and Greek.
I am joking. A naming convention is merely that and we’re certainly not going to go back and rename T. Rex and all the others. That would just be confusing. For the sake of continuity alone we’re stuck with the lizard-based terminology as erroneous as it may be.