May 15, 2012
I wish I could take dinosaurs away from the media for a while. Someone certainly should. Lazy journalists and unscrupulous documentary creators have amply demonstrated that they just can’t play nice with Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops and kin.
In the past month and a half, we’ve seen aquatic dinosaur nonsense resurface in shoddy news reports, a brief media invasion of hyperintelligent alien dinosaurs and stinky stories about dinosaur farts, not to mention the bizarre creationist/extraterrestrial conspiracy-theory mashup on Ancient Aliens. I’m almost surprised that this glut of utter dreck wasn’t followed by reports of dinosaurs who used their noxious flatulence to propel themselves through space. To paraphrase the immortal words of Ozzy Osbourne, it would seem that dinosaur news has gone off the rails on a crazy train.
And the distortions keep coming. The sci-fi and science news aggregator io9 just drew on a ceratopsid misunderstanding I thought had been left behind two years ago. Yesterday afternoon Ed Grabianowski posted an article titled “Everything you need to know about the scientific controversy that could destroy Triceratops.” The article was meant as a quick survey of recent, and quite controversial, research about whether the horned dinosaurs called Torosaurus and Nedoceratops are really more mature forms of ol’ three-horned face, Triceratops. The general idea is that the solid, rounded frill of Triceratops changed shape and developed two large holes, called parietal fenestrae, relatively late in life, when the dinosaur hit skeletal maturity. What were previously considered to be three different dinosaurs might actually just be three growth stages of the same genus.
Whether this was truly the case is a matter of debate. And while Grabianowski produced a fair review of the research, the post repeated the hyped—and entirely wrong—idea that paleontologists might soon be sinking Triceratops. “If you cried over the sick Triceratops in Jurassic Park, or just loved this horned dinosaur as a kid,” Grabianowski wrote, “there’s one scientific controversy you need to understand right now—it’s the one that may wind up demonstrating that Triceratops never existed.”
Here’s the thing. Triceratops is totally safe. It’s only the dinosaur die-hards who adore Torosaurus and Nedoceratops who have anything to worry about. I covered this two years ago, when the publication of the first paper in this ongoing debate kicked off a wave of ill-informed hysteria. (Although I must say that the Triceratops-Pluto shirt design was pretty cool.)
If—and I emphasize if—Triceratops, Nedoceratops and Torosaurus turn out to be growth stages of a single dinosaur, then the name Triceratops has priority. Paleontologist O.C. Marsh named Triceratops in 1889, and he followed that with the first description of Torosaurus in 1891. Nedoceratops is a newcomer name for a single skull that has been given many monikers over the past century; A.S. Ukrainsky coined the name in 2007. Given the taxonomic arcana that govern the proper scientific names for organisms, Triceratops would remain the proper name for the dinosaur since it was established first.
(“Brontosaurus” was put to bed for the similar reasons. Brontosaurus is a synonym for a dinosaur O.C. Marsh named earlier—Apatosaurus—and paleontologist Elmer Riggs recognized this state of affairs more than a century ago. But Brontosaurus still has a great deal of cultural cachet because museums, books, documentaries, writers and paleontologists keep reminding everyone of the name change. Brontosaurus still lives because we keep reminding people that it didn’t really exist.)
No matter what happens, Triceratops isn’t going anywhere. What we think we know about the dinosaur’s biology might change, but the classic name will stay. I pointed this out on Twitter shortly after the io9 post appeared, and, to io9′s credit, science editor Analee Newitz quickly changed the headline and introduction. I appreciated the speedy edit. The body of the post was a good summary of the argument as it presently stands, but it was painful to see the same “ZOMG, THEY’RE TAKING AWAY TRICERATOPS!” myth used to frame the article.
I’m thrilled that dinosaurs are so popular. Discoveries are coming so fast and furious that it is almost impossible to keep up, and a new wave of cultural dinomania seems to be swelling. That’s why I get so frustrated by misrepresentations of what we’re actually learning about dinosaur lives. We don’t need embellishment—whether it’s teasing us with the false threat of a beloved dinosaur’s disappearance or the idea that sauropods farted themselves into extinction. The wonderful resolution we’re gaining into dinosaur biology and evolution is best communicated simply, directly, and without having to find some snarky or inaccurately comedic hook that ends up distorting what we actually know. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that scientists sometimes play this game, too. Chemist Ronald Breslow tried to use armchair speculation of space dinosaurs to give an otherwise mundane paper a little spice—a ham-fisted and ill-executed grab for attention that I sadly saw some other writers agree with. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?
Of course, I realize that simply shaking my fist in the air and frustratedly growling “Do better!” isn’t going to fix the problem. There are seemingly innumerable internet news outlets, and never enough professional science writers, so it’s all too easy for dumbed-down churnalism and other misconstrued reports to richochet around the web. Maybe we’ve seen the last of dinosaur farts and space tyrannosaurs, at least for a while, but places like the Daily Mail, FOX News, and the various outlets that pass off barely modified press releases as news will undoubtedly come up with another headache-inducing hook in the not-too-distant future. If it’s not too much to ask, though, I’d like it if the usual suspects gave it a rest. Dinosaurs are amazing enough without the sensationalism.
November 18, 2010
Earlier this week paleontologists Mark Witton and Michael Habib published a new study in PLoS One on how pterosaurs—particularly large forms such as Quetzalcoatlus—took to the air. Rather than pushing off the ground with their legs, pterosaurs used their arms in a pole-vault type of motion to launch themselves skyward. Interesting stuff, but I quickly became irritated by some of the popular coverage of the new research.
Whenever a story about pterosaurs makes it into mainstream news outlets, it is almost inevitable the flying archosaurs are going to be mistakenly called “dinosaurs” by at least one source. In this case the British newspaper the Telegraph and the venerable BBC were two of the main offenders, each declaring that pterosaurs were dinosaurs in their headlines.
It might be easy to brush off my complaint as a case of paleo-pedantry, but word choice matters. “Dinosaur” is a word for a specific group of creatures united by shared characteristics and which had their own evolutionary history—it is not a catch-all term for anything reptilian and prehistoric. Calling a pterosaur a dinosaur is an error of the same order of magnitude as saying that our species is a marsupial, but to understand why we need to flesh out the evolutionary relationships of these animals.
Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up. The Archosauria is a diverse group of reptiles which contains two major subsections: crocodiles and their close relatives (collectively called crurotarsans or pseudosuchians) are on one side of the split, and dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and their closest relatives (called avemetatarsalians) on the other. For our purposes here, we’re concerned with the second group.
Looking at the Avemetatarsalia (see the diagram above), a major split is apparent at the base of this group. On the one side are the dinosaurs and their closest relatives, and on the other are pterosaurs and animals more closely related to them than dinosaurs. Both pterosaurs and dinosaurs are distinct groups that shared a common ancestor, and so to call a pterosaur a dinosaur is to ignore this major divergence in the evolution of both groups. A pterosaur is no more a dinosaur than a goldfish is a shark.
There is no reason for news sources to keep applying the word “dinosaur” to pterosaurs. We have known about this distinction for a long time, and I bet that your average 10-year old paleo fan would know not confuse the groups. With even just a tiny bit of an evolutionary perspective, the distinction becomes clear.
To learn more about pterosaurs, visit Pterosaur.net, which was recently created by a team of pterosaur experts including Witton and Habib.