Goodnight, Linnaeus: Bathtub Systematics and the Nature of Scientific Curiosity, Part I

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diplo_tub150 million years ago in what is now the North American West, mighty diplodocus thundered across the terrain, stripping leaves from branches with its peg-like teeth and lashing away pests and predators with the 80-some vertebrae of its whip-like tail. They were magnificent creatures, as long as three school buses each. And for nearly a year I thought I had one in my bathtub. That’s where the trouble began.

My relationship with dinosaurs has always been a little vague — a fondness, really, rather than a passion. I like the heft of them, and pondering the just-solvable mysteries of their former lives and ultimate demise. Plus, their distance from us in both time and position on the tree of life liberates them from the melancholy sense of loss I have for the much-more-recently extinct Pleistocene megafauna. (Triceratops is so foreign to our times, it might as well be an alien. A few evolutionary contingencies one way or another, though, and you could have had a giant ground sloth for a pet.)

But still, even when I’ve written about dinosaurs I’ve been drawn to general things about them, like their physiology and their behaviors. So I lack the precise, detail-oriented knowledge of species names and weights and lengths so common in today’s children. That gauzy focus got me into trouble once early in my journalism career, when I referred in print to a duck-billed dinosaur as a sauropod, when any eight-year-old knows that hadrosaurs are ornithopods. It was gargantuan boner—as baldly, fundamentally erroneous as calling a cow a fish, or Barak Obama a socialist.

I’ve been damned careful about dinosaur systematics ever since, let me tell you. Or at least I was, until a herd of them — literally a mixed bag — invaded our bathroom a couple of years ago. They spilled out of the second-hand store bag in a mismatched profusion of colors and shapes and sizes, and quickly became a regular part of the fun of evening bath time for our toddler son. (His baby sister has recently joined him there, and has found an soft, rubbery apatosaurus she adores to gum.) We played with them generally at first, but before long he was asking what each was called. Oh dear.

I was comfortable introducing T. rex, Stegosaurus and Triceratops. (No surprise: they’re three of the five total dinosaurs my friend Sue — the mother of three dino-passionate boys — insists existed when she was in school, after all.) I was proud to remember club-tailed ankylosaurus, and didn’t mind looking up gargoylosaurus, with its lumpy back and lateral ridges of long bony spikes.

By the time we came to the two identical plant eaters, however … Well, I knew these ones really were sauropods – lumbering herbivores of the brontosaurus* school – and the steep nasal ridge atop its head was tauntingly familiar. Try as I might, though, I could not dredge the right name from my play-weary mind. Instead, I defaulted to the test-taking logic of my university days: always better to guess than to leave a question unanswered. “Diplodocus,” I said with much more confidence than I felt. “Two of them. Do you think they’re friends?”

Chummy they may well have been, but I seriously doubted their status. And though I meant to look them up, uninterrupted web time is among the working parent’s most limited resources. Months went by before I got to it, and not before I came to dread my son’s gleeful shouts of “diplodocus!” Finally, I checked. Diplodocids, as you doubtless already knew, are entirely anodyne sauropods, with none of the eldritch charm of our snorkel-headed bathtub beasts. No, these creatures were clearly something else. They were almost certainly brachiosaurs, I figured, or something very much like them.

So … what to do? Obviously I couldn’t just let the error stand — heck, we ran a letter to the editor about the “sauropod” thing at Newsweek, and I wasn’t about to let journalistic standards slip at home. But on the other hand, we were having fun and learning lots of things much deeper than systematics. I don’t dismiss the importance of nomenclature lightly. But I worry that a too-early emphasis on facts and figures can snuff out the joy of curiosity and discovery. Besides, I have a hunch that some kids are drawn to dinosaurs for a thrilling first taste of pedantry, and that’s hardly the kind of scientific spirit I want to encourage. Did it really matter what we called the 6-inch lump of injection-molded plastic, I wondered?

I did the only thing a responsible parent could: I asked Facebook. The answers ranged from pragmatic — “Replace it with the correct dinosaur and bury the wrong one in the backyard” — to downright poignant: “Wait about a year and he’ll correct you and feel really smart.” But again I defaulted to my own early ways, and, raised by historians, consulted a book. “Let’s look it up,” I said, all casual like. We compared pictures to the plastic models and agreed – our guys looked a little like diplodocus, but they looked a lot more like brachiosaur.

I didn’t know how it would go — at two-and-half, kids can get a little testy about change. But I shouldn’t have worried. We talked in the tub that night about the shape of our dinosaurs’ heads, the the length of their legs. They played together peacefully with a rubbery alligator and several farm animals. And as we left the bathroom for bed, my towel-swaddled son called back over my shoulder, “Goodnight, brachiosaur!” For the moment at least, my systematics worries were over.

Until … NEXT: Bathtub Systematics Part II: Mammal – Not a Mammal

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* You know about brontosaurus, right? Oh, you didn’t? I’m so sorry.

Image: Brachiosaur, or something else? Let me know, once and for all, in the comments. And don’t hate me if I don’t tell my son.

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3 thoughts on “Goodnight, Linnaeus: Bathtub Systematics and the Nature of Scientific Curiosity, Part I

  1. Very evocative and quite well written; reminds me of bath tubs and die-cast dinos from the Denver Museum of Natural History… No plastic back then (well Bakelite and maybe styrene); but we still had great combats between Triceratops and T Rex (or was it Allosaurus?).

    Old Geoscientist

  2. Nice job. I was confused on one point though. Just so I am clear, I can NOT have a pet giant sloth, right? Because I feel like I should have one. It’s the just the way I feel, but it sounds like you are pretty sure I cannot.

  3. Bruce, thanks very much – I’m glad you enjoyed it, and glad to know that dinosaurs and tub time have such a long, satisfying history together. Now I want die-cast dinos, too, though. Metal seems to have all but disappeared as a material for children’s toys and I feel almost as melancholy about that as I do about the loss of the Pleistocene megafauna.

    Erik, I also feel you should have a pet giant sloth, and I really hope you won’t let my pessimism dissuade you from trying. It hasn’t been so long since credible scientists went looking for them in the Amazon basin, and it’s just possible they held on in the Antilles until slightly after Columbus. Please don’t hesitate to investigate if you happen across large footprints on one of your treks down there in Mexico.

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