Every time I mention the name of my blog to friends or acquaintances, I usually get a response similar to “Laelaps? What’s that?” It’s an odd term to be sure, not one that you’re likely to be familiar with unless you know your paleontology or Greek mythology, so I thought I would shed a little light on the name and why I used it here.
While you might think you have no idea what Laelaps means, I’m fairly certain you’re already familiar with it. Here’s a painting by celebrated artist Charles R. Knight that may jog your memory;
You see, Laelaps used to be the genus name for the late Cretaceous Dryptosaurus aquilunguis, a member of the Superfamily Tyrannosauroidea and known from a few locations in New Jersey. Why the name change? Parts of a skeleton were found by Edward Drinker Cope in 1866 and named Laelaps, but Cope’s rival O.C. Marsh pointed out that the name was already taken, belonging to a kind of mite. Thus, in 1877, the genus name was changed to Dryptosaurus.
Despite the name change, this “primitive” tyrannosaur had a significant role to play in how we look at dinosaurs. While many of Knight’s paintings feature drab and apparently sluggish dinosaurs, his rendering of two Laelaps in combat is so striking that it is still a very popular image (the “leaping Laelaps” is one the cover of Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack, for example), and the painting was very progressive for its time. Indeed, the skeletal structure of this dinosaur inspired Cope to ponder the relationship between dinosaurs and birds, the prominent paleontologist envisioning Laelaps being active and jumping on unsuspecting prey due to its unusual foot/ankle structure. Cope’s ideas (and those of others who suspected a dinosaur-bird link) were lost for a time, but were eventually reinvigorated by Ostrom’s discovery of Deinonychus decades later. Still, Cope and others were pondering what we can plainly see now, even though it’s not always easy to determine these ideas from the artwork of the time. For the sake of completeness Cope’s rendition of Laelaps should also be included, even though it isn’t quite as striking as Knight’s;
The choice of the name Laelaps based upon a myth of a dog that always caught its quarry is a bit ironic; all we have of the dinosaur now-known as Dryptosaurus are fragments. I intend on visiting Big Brook this summer in order to look for some bits of this ancient predator, but I won’t hold out hope; what has been found is very rare and fragmentary, every bit of tooth or bone the rocks give up being cause for celebration. Even so, I picked the name because it represents a striking image of a swift, powerful Cretaceous predator from my own state that remains elusive, one that I have to become better acquainted with in the future.