10 November 2010

Fossil Vertebrate of the Month: Diplodocus carnegii

Last month's Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting was held in Pittsburgh and while animal chosen for the conference logo was the awkwardly-named tetrapod Fedexia, there is another animal that will forever be associated with vertebrate paleontology in that city's Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The museum has existed since 1895, but it was in 1898 that its namesake would spur the discovery of its most famous specimen. It's unclear whether Andrew Carnegie was alerted to the publicity value of sauropod skeletons by a visit to the American Museum of Natural History or by a sensational newspaper headline trumpeting the discovery of "The Most Colossal Animal Ever On Earth." Regardless of the cause, he hired away some of the AMNH's paleontologists and sent them to the badlands of Wyoming to find a giant dinosaur for his museum. His team succeeded spectacularly, and in 1901 the fruits of their labor were described as Diplodocus carnegii. The skeleton, which for decades was the longest - though far from largest - dinosaur known, was a huge hit in Pittsburgh and around the world, as Carnegie presented casts of the skeleton (known affectionately as Dippy) as gifts to museums in capitals across the globe. Dippy even has a couple of connections to paleontology in Oregon: D. carnegii was one of the taxa modeled by UO computer scientist/paleontologist Kent Stevens, and the cast presented by Carnegie to London's Natural History Museum was the first fossil I ever saw and was largely responsible for setting me down the path I'm still traveling today.