Life, art, scrambled dinosaurs — again

Dinosaurs upside down, backwards, or scrambled are the subject of art yet again imitating life. In this case it’s art imitating life about the art of trying to describe life. The Onion has just published a splendid parody article called “Paleontologists: ‘We’ve Been Looking At Dinosaurs Upside Down“.

But this joke has been lived out, many times. Earle Spamer describes one of the most celebrated incidents. Spamer’s report “Edward D. Cope, Heads Above the Rest, the First Electronic Publisher in Science” appeared in vol. 6., no 6 of the Annals of Improbable Research. Here is a reconstruction of Cope’s Elasmosaurus skeleton:

Spamer explains:

Cope had named Elasmosaurus based on bones sent to him from Kansas. At first he gave two different names to the bones, thinking them to be from different creatures, then discovered they were but one. Drawing a reconstruction of the skeleton, he showed a giant ocean-swimming reptile with a short neck and a very long tail. So pleased was Cope that he distributed offprints of the article before the whole issue of the journal was published. Except (as Marsh was quick to point out) that he had failed to notice a key anatomical indication of “front” and “back” in the reptile vertebrae. In fact the long, flexible tail was a long, flexible neck.

Mortified, Cope attempted to recall and destroy all the copies he had sent out. (He missed a few, so we know about the mistake today.) He redrew the skeleton and rewrote parts of the description, which already had been typeset and laid in galleys at the print shop; but he grammatically connected the pieces badly, and it shows. He tried to cover the whole thing up by redistributing new offprints with the same date of publication as the first (of course with no mention of Marsh’s assistance).

(Thanks to Maggie Koerth-Baker for bringing the Onion piece to our attention.)

BONUS: Some of the startling species “discovered” a century later amongst a trove of Ediacaran fossils in Canada, a few turned out to be mistakes — pieces of unrelated animals were at first thought to be all parts of a single animal. If you know of links to good explanations of those, please send’ em here.

BONUS #2: Our psychology editor suggests that Cope’s re-assemble-able dinosaur be called the IKEAsaurus.