I can only imagine how E.D. Cope reacted to O.C. Marsh’s 1877 report “Notice of a new and Gigantic Dinosaur”, but I am certain that it could not have been good. Although their first meetings had been amicable enough, both men were hard-headed bone hunters who quickly developed a bitter rivalry over who would become the preeminent describer of North America’s prehistoric past. Their tit-for-tat antagonism was nearly impossible to avoid. Most of the best field workers had been hired by one or the other, and both sniped at each other over the esoteric anatomical details of prehistoric creatures in the academic journals.
Marsh’s 1877 notice was another salvo in the constant back-and-forth between the paleontologists. The main purpose of the paper was to describe the remains of “Titanosaurus” from the Cretaceous rock of Montana, but in a footnote at the bottom Marsh made the audacious move of renaming Cope’s most favorite dinosaur. Eleven years earlier Cope had described the predatory dinosaur Laelaps from a fragmentary skeleton which had been extracted from the mucky marl of southern New Jersey. To Cope, this dinosaur was a voracious predator, “the devourer and destroyer… of all… it could lay claws on”, and its peculiar anatomy had helped spur the restoration of dinosaurs as dynamic, birdlike animals. (A trend which later fell out of fashion at the beginning of the 20th century before more recently coming into vogue on the back of new evidence.) Laelaps was Cope’s prize, but, unfortunately, its name had already been applied to a mite often found parasitizing fancy rats. Since the mite had been named first, it had priority on its side, and in the little academic footnote Marsh took the liberty of renaming the dinosaur Dryptosaurus.
(Oddly enough, Marsh made the same mistake as Cope in his description of Titanosaurus. That name had already been applied to a different dinosaur by the time of Marsh’s publication, and he later had to change the name to Atlantosaurus, a name which is of uncertain validity today.)
Surprising no one, Cope refused to accept the name change. He kept using the name Laelaps for the rest of career, even going so far as to keep naming new species of Laelaps from fragmentary specimens found out west (a practice which created innumerable headaches for other paleontologists when they set about revising the morass of names Cope and Marsh had left as part of their legacy). Strong as it was, though, Cope’s stubbornness could not change the system by which organisms are named – the tyrannosauroid dinosaur he discovered is called by Marsh’s name today – but I have to admit that Laelaps has a bit more aesthetic appeal than Dryptosaurus. The moniker of a dog from Greek mythology which never failed to catch what it was hunting (except for that one pesky fox), Laelaps was a fitting name for the apex predator of New Jersey’s Cretaceous shore, and when I started science blogging in December of 2006 it seemed like the perfect blog name. The discarded name for a tyrant dinosaur from my home state, Laelaps encompassed my interests in the history of science and paleontology. I have been using Laelaps as a symbol for my writing ever since.
But the skeleton on this blog’s banner is not “Laelaps“, nor is it a dinosaur. Back when I was writing at ScienceBlogs I asked the very talented artist Matt Celeskey to create a skeletal restoration of Dryptosaurus (using its cousin Appalachiosaurus to fill in the substantial gaps) as it might appear preserved in the New Jersey greensand, but when it came time to pick a mascot for this iteration of my blog I decided to go with another fossil favorite of mine. Called Amphicyon ingens, this animal was a long-lived species of mammalian predator from the western half of North America which is commonly known as a “bear-dog” for its close relationship to dogs (canids) and its robust, bearlike appearance. Given the original meaning of Laelaps, the choice seemed especially appropriate, especially since Amphicyon is just the sort of animal I love writing about; it was one of the coolest creatures you may never have heard of. You may not find dinosaurs here – I cover them exclusively for Smithsonian magazine’s Dinosaur Tracking – but you are likely to find stories about other lesser-known creatures which deserve to have their stories told.
More than anything else, though, this blog is my writing lab. Laelaps is my own small space on the web to experiment with different stories, writing techniques, and to otherwise try to improve my writing. (It was this approached which generated my first book – Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature – which is due to hit shelves on November 1st.) I usually don’t know what I am going to write about on any given day – more often than not, I start my day by skimming journals for interesting new stories – but I usually try to pick a small story, fact, or idea which is indicative of some grander pattern or trend. Sometimes it comes off well, others times not, but I look forward to continue my experiments here for both old friends and new readers.