Numerous popular press outlets reported last week that Triceratops was going the way of the dinosaur (haha) and that Triceratops was no longer a valid genus name because it was potentially just an example of a juvenile stage of a dinosaur with another name, Torosaurus. Here are some examples. At Science… sort of you would think that we would not be swayed by the popular press, we would go straight to the primary literature, read the study ourselves and then report on what the actual scientists said, maybe even interview them. Wrong; we made the same blunder that many popular press outlets did in our podcast episode 48 – No Frills. When it came down to it, we were rushed to put a show together and had already read too many pop press accounts of the Triceratops article that many a member of the Paleoposse had sent us. As a result, we gave the primary literature only a quick once over before we (or at least I) thought we understood the crux of the argument.
Oh, did we miss the boat.
It was listener Nicole Ridgwell who first spotted (heard) our blunder. She wrote to me and you can see her (very accurate and polite) comments here. The long and the short of it is that the genus name ‘Triceratops’ is safe, if anything is in trouble, it is the genus name ‘Torosaurus’. This is because Triceratops was named a few years earlier (1889) than Torosaurus (1891). Thus, if it turns out they are the same animal, we’ll go with the one that was named first. We made the mistake of incorrectly thinking that because Triceratops was potentially a juvenile, if Triceratops and Torosaurus turn out to be the same animal, we would go with the name of the adult. When naming species, it is true that it is good practice to only name adults, but if you do name a species based on a juvenile specimen, the name stands. All this is according to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, which is a fascinating text available in your choice of French or English (actually if you buy it, you’ll get both French and English in the same book), which I apparently need to spend more time reading.
The good news is that much of our discussion about this issue is still accurate. Our discussion about how Triceratops ages is accurate and observations on whether or not the two animals are the same or different is still valid. It’s just that we would have applied the wrong name to the dinosaur if it had come to pass that the Triceratops and Torosaurus were one and the same. Therefore, the Triceratops you know and love (or knew as a kid and loved), still exists (at least in taxonomic terms) and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So, those of you who cried out for us to do something to save the Triceratops, didn’t cry out in vain. Actually, your cries did fall on nearly deaf, uninformed ears here at Science… sort of but eventually the science won out and saved the day. As Nicole has shown, dear reader, you are part of a very smart and attentive listership, the Paleoposse, so congratulate yourself on being part of such an elite group. Ok, I’m gonna go start reading up for next week’s show, in hopes of not embarrassing myself again.