New discovery may endanger T-Rex's name

By Time of article published Jun 13, 2000

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Sioux Falls, South Dakota - Would a Tyrannosaurus Rex by any other name sound as scary?

The ancient predator's Latin name - which means "tyrant lizard king" - may be on the endangered list, according to a fossils expert.

The T-Rex, the first specimen of which was discovered in Montana in 1902, was named three years later by paleontologist Henry Osborn.

But dinosaur bones unearthed last week at a South Dakota ranch could be part of a fossil found earlier, in 1892, and called Manospondylus gigas, said Peter Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research.

If that's the case, Larson said, rules of paleontology say the first name would take precedence.

"That puts the name Tyrannosaurus Rex in peril," Larson said Monday.

Larson's company in 1990 dug up Sue, the most complete T-Rex fossil ever found. Last week, it excavated about 10 percent of a fossil on a ranch in Perkins County, the same general area where paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope made his 1892 discovery.

Cope didn't have enough of the fossil for the name he chose -Manospondylus gigas, which means "giant, thin vertebra" - to become the accepted terminology for the species now known as T-Rex, Larson said. The discovery of the more complete fossil in 1902 by Barnum Brown led to that designation.

"You can't describe a species from a single bone or a single tooth," Larson said. "It doesn't tell you what the whole animal looks like. It's not enough."

Larson suspects the newly discovered bones, including ribs, vertebrae, the jaw and parts of the skull, are part of the same animal Cope found. With a fuller complement of bones on hand, Larson believes the terrifying T-rex could become Manospondylus gigas. The fossil already has been nicknamed "E D Cope."

Carrie Herbel, a paleontologist at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, is not so sure. A name change would require overwhelming evidence that it is the same creature, she said.

"I think that would be very difficult at best," Herbel said.

And then there's the dinosaur-enamored public - especially children.

"It would be a real hard sell," she said. "I don't think anybody in the world would want to change it. People would be up in arms."

Even Larson is not thrilled by the idea.

"It would be very sad if the name had to be changed," said Larson, who plans to conduct research at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to determine whether the fossils are from the same animal.

The more recent fossils were discovered last December by rancher Bucky Derflinger on his family's property. Derflinger said he has no fear that Tyrannosaurus Rex will lose its place in the language.

"Even people who don't know anything about dinosaurs know what a T-Rex is," he said. "You can't replace T-rex."

Larson said the dinosaur is an adult male, about 12m long and weighs about 6 tons. He said he plans to do more excavating at the ranch.

"Hopefully there will be just a little bit more," Larson said.

The T-Rex called Sue was unveiled May 17 at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. That skeleton is named for Sue Hendrickson, the fossil hunter who found it. The museum spent $8,36-million (about R59-million) at an auction to obtain the specimen, which scientists say is about 67 million years old. - Sapa-AP

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