New discovery means P.E.I. fossil name could change

Colin MacLean colin.maclean@journalpioneer.com
Published on November 26, 2015

Even after 160 years of study Prince Edward Island’s most famous fossil is still giving scientists something to talk about.

Researchers from the University of Toronto, Carleton University and the Royal Ontario Museum recently published their findings from a CT scan they did on a fossil originally dug up by a French River farmer in 1845.

It turns out, P.E.I.’s famous fossil, named Bathygnathus borealis, is part of a family of ancient animals whose fossils have also been found in some southern U.S. States and Europe called Dimetrodon.

Anyone who’s ever played with dinosaur toys as a child will recognize Dimetrodon as the squat lizard-like animal with the large sail on its back.

They lived about 300 million years ago, about 50 million years before dinosaurs came along.

Kirstin Brink, formerly of the University of Toronto, was the lead author scientist on the team that examined the P.E.I. fossil.

She credits modern technology with helping to finally place the fossil in its family tree.

“The field of paleontology is adopting all of these really neat methodologies like powerful microscopes, CT scanners and other different methods that allow us to get more information on the fossils than just simply looking at it from the outside,” said Brink.

Bathygnathus borealis has been studied off and on since it was discovered but scientists had been unable to tell for sure exactly what it was.

The fossil is just an upper section of jaw with protruding teeth; no other examples of the species have ever been found.

Brink and her team used the CT scan to examine the teeth and determined that they were indicative of those unique to the Dimetrodon genus.

It’s the latest discovery for a fossil with a long history in the paleontology world, said Brink.

“It’s actually a really cool fossil that has a really interesting history in Canada,” she said.

Bathygnathus borealis was only the second animal fossil ever named in Canada, so generations of scientists have had their hands on it.

“Because it was named so long ago, pretty much every kind of important paleontologist since then has talked about it or looked at it or described it in their research papers.”

But while Bathygnathus borealis might be famous among scientists, it’s the name Dimetrodon that the public is more aware of.

And that’s created something of a problem for Brink and her team.

In science, whatever name is given to the first example of a new species is technically its name in perpetuity.

Bathygnathus was discovered years before the next scientists came along and discovered more examples of the genus in the U.S. and, not knowing about the find on P.E.I., named their discovery Dimetrodon.

So technically, the history books should be rewritten to erase Dimetrodon and replace it with the genus name Bathygnathus.

But that’s probably not going to happen.

Brink has written another paper outlining why the name Bathygnathus, and not Dimetrodon, should be erased from the history books.

She’s proposed that P.E.I.’s famous fossil be renamed Dimetrodon borealis.

It comes down to which name is more popular, said Ted Daeschler, a paleontologist with the academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, in Philadelphia, where Bathygnathus borealis has been housed since shortly after its discovery.

“If the name change would create some disruptive issues, you can go with the one that is better known,” said Daeschler.

But Islanders shouldn’t worry about losing the name of their most famous fossil, added Brink, because either way, it will always be famous.

“It’ll either be really well known for being Canada’s first Dimetrodon, or it’ll be the specimen that ruined Dimetrodon.” 

Colin.MacLean@JournalPioneer.com