By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
Axel Hungerbuehler, Ph.D, gave a history lesson from the science of pre-historic reptiles Monday in a talk to the Tucumcari Historic Research Institute.
Hungerbuehler, a paleontologist, a scientist who studies dinosaurs and other ancient creatures, and curator of the Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum, was the guest speaker at the historical society’s annual meeting and dinner at the Tucumcari Elks Lodge.
He told the story of how a fearsome, crocodile-like carnivore got the name “plant-eating reptile,” or “phytosaur.”
Hungerbuehler’s story was an example of being wrong for all the right reasons.
Georg Frederick Jaeger, a German scientist and one of the earliest to study ancient fossils in the early 19th Century, gave the phytosaur its name. Because paleontology has a rule about keeping names of species once assigned, “phytosaur” is still the name of these reptiles with enormous, pointed, carnivore teeth that lived upwards of 200 million years ago.
Throughout history, other paleontologists like Hungerbuehler have ridiculed Jaeger for his mistaken labeling of the phytosaur as a plant-eating reptile. Since Hungerbuehler has made a specialty of phytosaurs, however, he said, he has studied Jaeger’s original evidence and conclusions and found them scientifically sound, based on the knowledge available to Jaeger at the time.
Phytosaur fossils are discovered all over the world today, but the creatures lived at the time when all of Earth’s continents were together in a land mass called Pangaea, before “continental drift” pulled this mass apart over millions of years to form the current continents.
The one Jaeger studied was found in a quarry in southwest Germany, Hungerbuehler said, and had been pulled apart in a crude effort to pull it from the quarry rock. Some of the fragments went to a museum far away, but some ended up in the museum of natural phenomena in Stuttgart, where Jaeger worked.
While Jaeger had some pointed dental fossils, Hungerbuehler said, he recognized them for casts of the root of a tooth, not the actual tooth, and since what looked like teeth on the skull appeared to be flat-topped molar-like teeth, he concluded those were plant-eating teeth.
Later research would reveal what Jaeger thought were teeth were actually sockets for pointy, carniverous teeth. Hungerbuehler said, however, that Jaeger’s examination yielded some surprisingly correct findings, such as recognizing some tooth-prints cast in stone and recognizing that the actual teeth had dissolved over millions of years of exposure to water.
Still, he said, like Columbus, who died thinking he had sailed to India rather than bumping into a previously unknown hemisphere, Jaeger stuck to his guns in thinking phytosaurs were plant-eaters, not ferocious meat-eaters.