Monday, January 17, 2011

Mistake in naming of flying reptile leads to lost credit, bruised feelings

Doctoral student Victoria Arbour holds a fossil found off Collishaw Point on Hornby Island. University of Alberta photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 17, 2010


On a warm May morning six years ago, Sharon Hubbard took advantage of an extraordinarily low tide to wander far off a beach on Hornby Island.

What she found would lead to the discovery of a new species of prehistoric flying reptile. An inadvertent mistake in its naming would lead to bruised feelings.

The shoreline near Collishaw Point is known by locals as Fossil Beach, a rocky stretch littered with concretions — rocks that can be cracked open to reveal fossils. The ammonites hidden inside are usually the fossilized hard shells of extinct mollusks.

Ms. Hubbard, an artist, likes to carve their coiled image into soapstone.

An amateur paleontologist, she has eagerly shared with academics discoveries from Hornby and places farther afield such as Apple Bay on northern Vancouver Island.

Far off the shore at Hornby, in an area usually under water, she clambered over rocks slick with kelp.

“I tapped this one concretion,” she said, “expecting something else than what I got.”

She had never seen anything like it.

“The teeth were evident, 50 or 60. I had never seen teeth that shape. They were about half-an-inch long, conical, serrated edge.”
Rock on Hornby Island held fossilized pterosaur jaw

She placed a ruler beside the fossilized jawbone, taking three photographs.

She carefully made her way over the rocks to show her find to Graham Beard, who had accompanied her that day. Mr. Beard is curator of the paleontological collection at the Qualicum Beach Museum, where the current star attraction is a 70,000-year-old walrus skeleton, known as Rosie.

“I honestly thought he was going to have a heart attack,” she said. “He couldn’t even breathe. I knew I had something really incredible.”

Mr. Beard took the fossil, which eventually was sent to the University of Alberta, where it was placed in a storage cabinet and forgotten.

Six years passed. Over that time, doctoral student Victoria Arbour stumbled across the Hornby fossil, identified as VIPM 1513, the abbreviation representing Mr. Beard’s Vancouver Island Paleontological Museum. She was puzzled. It could have been a fish, or a dinosaur, or a marine reptile.

The way in which the teeth were set so close together reminded her of piranha teeth.

The dentition also reminded her of a pterosaur, a prehistoric flying reptile.

She compared the fragment with other pterosaurs before coming to a conclusion — this was a new species, a scavenger of the late Cretaceous period, about 70 million years old. It is believed to have had a wingspan of abut three metres.

It is also the first pterosaur to be found in what is now British Columbia.

(When the flying creature dined on leftovers from predatory dinosaur kills, the coastal islands of British Columbia were at least 2,400 kilometres south of their present location, around Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.)

Ms. Arbour wrote an academic paper with professor Philip Currie, which was published online last month. A press release issued by the university a week ago introduced the creature to the world.

As a new genus and species, the creature needed a name. The academics came up with Gwawinapterus beardi — from the Kwak’wala word for raven, because the jawbone is reminiscent of the raven masks worn by the Kwakwaka’wakw people; and, to honour Mr. Beard, who “discovered the specimen, and for his contributions to the study of paleontology on Vancouver Island.”

Only Mr. Beard didn’t discover the fossil. Ms. Hubbard did.

The academics “feel very badly” about the mistake, Ms. Arbour said, accepting responsibility for the error.

They will try to have a correction added to the scientific paper to ensure Ms. Hubbard’s discovery is properly credited.

One thing they cannot do, though, is change the name.

Under the conventions of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, the pterosaur is to remain Gwawinapterus beardi.

Ms. Hubbard, who is the first Homo sapiens to hold in her hands the remains of this creature, had thought it could be called Hornbyensis humbardii.

Though she is not be rewarded with the honour of lending her name to her discovery, Ms. Hubbard, 63, promises to share the find with the people of the province. She would like to place the fossil with the Royal B.C. Museum.

Meanwhile, she will not abandon the hunt.

“I tend to find the unusual. I’ve done it over and over again,” she said.

“Paleontology here is only 150 years old. By finding new stuff, you’re just about an explorer.”

You never know which rock, which “dark grey silty mudstones with thin-bedded sandstone turbidites,” will crack open to reveal a prize never before seen by human eyes.

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