Monday, August 2, 2010

Is Triceratops a Damsel In Distress?

Golden Triceratops

"The Triceratops May Not Be A Real Dinosaur," reads one headline, currently on the first page of Google results for Triceratops.

"The Triceratops Never Existed, It Was Actually a Young Version Of Another Dinosaur," says Gizmodo.

"The Three-Horned Dinosaur Triceratops Never Existed, Say Scientists," reads another.

A Boing Boing post, while not nearly as bad, also expresses confusion over the issue, with a predictably depressing comments section.

A facebook page called Save the Triceratops has also been set up. Part of the page description reads, "science wants to take away the Triceratops with its recent findings that suppose that the three horned beast never existed." It's also on Buzzfeed. The Facebook page has gained five followers in the last twenty minutes, as I write this. Clearly, this has struck a chord. (Update: After I commented on the Facebook page, the moderator sent the word out that it's all good. At least one subsequent commenter believes that the page succeeded.)

It's understandable. Triceratops is friggin' awesome. People love Triceratops. They love saying Triceratops. They love the funny way their children mispronounce Triceratops. I love all of it, too. I like the name Brontosaurus more than the name Apatosaurus. The thought of Triceratops being an invalid name is not cool to me. I wouldn't like it.

The really good news: Triceratops is safe.

Sometimes, especially in paleontology, a single species might be given two different names. This may have happened with Triceratops and a larger, similar animal called Torosaurus. When they were originally discovered, described, and named, scientists had good reason to believe they were different. But we progress, we learn more, we develop new ways of studying fossils. Science is a self-correcting process. Paleontologists John Scannella and John Horner studied many fossils of both dinosaurs and determined that the evidence heavily favored that Torosaurus is a more fully-grown version of Triceratops. When these issues are found precedence is given to the first name. Triceratops was first, therefore it's not in danger of being stricken from usage. For more on this issue, I suggest the thorough post at Dinosaur Tracking.

This mess is another reminder of just how much of paleontology is alien to most people. Not that I needed another reminder. There aren't many shining examples of nuanced portrayals of scientists in the media. Too often, they're either doddering boobs so obsessed with minutia that they're divorced from the reality they're supposed to explore, or they are rigidly deductive and cold to the point of amorality.

Are there scientists who fit those stereotypes? Probably a few. There are cops, teachers, and plumbers who probably do, too. Scientists are regular human beings. They've pursued specialized education, sure. They use jargon while debating ideas with peers, naturally. They approach their work with a high degree of skepticism and critical thinking, ideally. And none of this means that they're not emotional, passionate, messy people like everyone else. They have families and pets. They like certain foods more than others. They play video games. They worry about money. They're capable of mercy and kindness and rudeness and anger. On top of all this, they've devoted their lives to ordering the natural world for the benefit of our entire species. It's not an easy job, and it's not fun to clean up messes created in the early days of a discipline, when rules, processes, and standards were still being sorted out. So when you read a story about scientists debating a change in classification - like the Pluto thing - cut them some slack.

12 comments:

  1. Well it is a relief to know that the "Triceratops", or "tritops" as my little Jack likes to call him, is safe.

    What is not as safe is the existence of a separate ceratopsian species at the end of the Cretaceous. If this hypothesis is eventually accepted, the evidence for decline in speciation at the end of the dino era becomes that much stronger.

    This feeds right in to the misperception of evolution as an steady upwards procession. After millions of years, were dinos merging into a top design for each famous family? T-Rex, Triceratops, a few types of hadrosaur, etc.?

    And if so, did this contribute to their vulnerability to a catastrophy such as an asteroid event, something that the dinosaurs had survived before when they were more diverse?

    I think a good test would involve an analysis of fossil sources to determine if sample bias might be a contributor to the lesser diversity found in the C-T strata. Are the fertile bone beds for that era less numerous, or less prone to widespread events, such as flooding, that would preserve a wide variety of the local species? By definition, with fossilized remains we are dealing with outliers in the normal process of decay, so understanding the underlying probability distribution for fossilization is critical.

    T-Rex and Triceratops are huge animals with massive bone structures that likely fossilize more easily than those of smaller creatures that may have been contemporary - especially if most of the fossils from that era are due to individual death events and not to widespread natural disasters like flooding (or, due to unnatural disasters that might wipe out all organic evidience, such as the asteroid strike itself).

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  2. I agree, the public deserves it's Triceratops! Hopefully that name will come out the winner, and Torosaurus be absorbed.

    I don't think people are going to let this one go, especially since losing out on Pluto.

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  3. It is interesting how quickly people are jumping on the "no more Triceratops" headlines when it seems the issue is cut-and-dried that Triceratops is the earlier name and that, if this theory gains wide acceptance and a name needs to be dropped, it is poor Torosaurus who is the new kid on the block.

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  4. And I should say, I've always likes Torosaurus. But if one must be dropped, I'm glad it's Toro. I was also thinking of Jack's "tritops" when I wrote this! Priceless.

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  5. David,

    I particularly appreciate the bit about how scientists are portrayed in the media, and about cutting them some slack for doing the jobs that most don't appreciate, but all enjoy the spoils of.

    The thing that really gets me about this particular situation: one would really only have to look at the title of the paper to get the facts straight, but people are still getting it wrong! Unbelievable!

    David

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  6. DT - Yeah. Perfectly stated. This isn't even a confusing thing. One person misinterpreted it, went off, and now it's grown into a monster. It's been quite a month on the science communication front.

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  7. Once again the media ads some 'special spice' to a science story and completely changes its meaning.
    This sort of Science reporting is like a red rag to palaeontologists like Dave Hone.
    Funny, I've just blogged a related bit on the media and science and public perception.

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  8. I see what you guys are saying, but there's plenty of fun to be had with the whole "first Pluto, now Triceratops" meme. I think the whole point is that it's drawing out the fact it's not an apples-to-apples comparison (not even close!). But c'mon, isn't that what the interwebs is all about?

    FWIW, I thought reclassifying Pluto was the right move--it worked out for the best--we gained a whole new class of planets!

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  9. What always galls me about the creationist/luddite response to scientific controversies such as this is how quickly they rush out with the "See! Them evil-utionists can't even keep their story straight! How can we believe them when they can't even make up their own minds!"

    Of course, they completely miss the point, which is that we are seeing a case of scientists being able to absorb new evidence and even to revise long-standing theories to account for it. Rather than being distressed that someone was wrong, we should be impressed that the scientific community is willing to admit that they may have been wrong and to be open-minded enough to change.

    Contrast this with the team of "archaeologists" who recently found a wooden structure on a mountainside in Asia Minor, and immediately declared they were "99% certain" that it was indeed Noah's Ark. No word as to whether an inventory survived showing that there was no room for dinosaurs and they were consequently left behind, to the dismay of the children who so loved to go for rides on them.

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  10. Rats. I kind of liked the idea of Toros and Trikes being two different animals. But if only one name is kept, I'm glad it's Triceratops.

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  11. Does this mean that all the Triceratops specimens currently known are sexually immature? That seems to be the implication. If they did not reproduce at the Triceratops stage, the final frill change would presumably have been driven by the necessity to find a mate during the Torosaurus stage. If they did reproduce at the Triceratops stage, then why would the frill continue to change after the reproductive years were over?

    And why would there be such an enormous disparity between numerous juvenile specimens and few adults? Is there anything comparable in other dinosaur species?

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Trolls get baleted.