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[Comments] (4) Bully For Torosaurus: While I was gone there was an online flurry of interest about a paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, "Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny". The general tenor of this discussion is conveyed by this Daily Mail headline: "Triceratops 'never really existed but was just a young version of another dinosaur'". And the larger implication is conveyed by this guest post to Kottke, classifying Triceratops with Brontosaurus and Pluto as an instance of science cruely taking away a beloved childhood icon.

First off, the Daily Mail headline is inaccurate. (Shocking, I know.) It should be "Torosaurus 'never really existed but was just a mature version of another dinosaur'." Why? Look at the dates. The first Triceratops was discovered in 1899, and Torosaurus was discovered two years later. When two species turn out to be the same, the earlier name takes precedence; that's why Brontosaurus became Apatosaurus and not vice versa. The name of the paper is "Torosaurus is Triceratops", not "Triceratops is Torosaurus". So whatever happens, the name Triceratops stays.

But it is just a name. There's not some platonic form of Triceratops that can be taken away from you. Nothing changed about the universe. Pluto is still out there and these animals did exist. But we come up with abstractions like "planet" and "Triceratops" to help us manage the complexity of the universe, and abstractions are always leaky.

All three of the incidents in that Kottke guest post have this in common: you learned to give a name to something, and then the people responsible for names changed the name on you. Here's a 1989 New York Times editorial quoted by Steven Jay Gould in the title essay of Bully for Brontosaurus:

The Postal Service has taken heavy flak for mislabeling its new 25-cent dinosaur stamp, a drawing of a pair of dinosaurs captioned ''Brontosaurus.'' Furious purists point out that the ''brontosaurus'' is now properly called ''apatosaurus.'' They accuse the stamp's authors of fostering scientific illiteracy, and want the stamps recalled.

Apparently there was backlash against this, even though Brontosaurus was formally retired in 1903, so there's no reason except pop culture that anyone in 2010 (or even 1989) should even remember the name "brontosaurus". And people got really angry about the redefinition of "planet" to exclude Pluto. But if scientists made some discovery that shattered our preconceptions, like discovering that Triceratops was a carnivore or that Pluto is actually the size of Jupiter, no one would be angry. There'd be no one to be angry at.

People get angry when they see the social constructs of science being refactored to be simpler. It looks like the scientists are cheating, because the refactoring has no basis in physical reality. But the constructs themselves—"planet" and "species"—are just tools we came up with to make thinking easier. This is why two species can be discovered to be the same species, and why the name of the combined species is chosen according to arbitrary rules. The rules are all there are.

Incidentally, you know how the Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus thing happened? Well, in 1877 A.O. Marsh described Apatosaurus in a "typically rushed note" (Gould), and then two years later he described Brontosaurus. As I mentioned, the distinction lasted until 1903. Quoting Gould again:

When [Elmer] Riggs restudied Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus, he recognized them as two versions of the same creature, with Apatosaurus as a more juvenile specimen. No big deal; it happens all the time.

That's exactly what happened with Triceratops! A.O. Marsh really loves taking credit for discovering species. He describes some juvenile specimens as Species A, and two years later some more mature specimens as Species B. Still later, some other paleontologists restudy the specimens and call him on it. Same story both times. It's just that in the case of Apatosaurus it took about twenty years, and in the case of Triceratops it took a hundred and thirty.

At the Museum of the Rockies there's a line of Triceratops skulls from juvenile to adult. Jack Horner, one of the authors of this paper, is the paleontology curator at the MotR and probably worked on that exhibit. I wonder if there was some moment where Horner looked at that line of skulls and thought "Maybe that should keep going..."

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Comments:

Posted by Susie at Fri Aug 06 2010 17:39

I've been wondering what happened to Brontosaurus. I can't believe it was in 1903! Tasha and I compared Brontosaurus to Pluto as well.

I thought Torosaurus looked remarkably like Triceratops - even more than other ceratopids.

Posted by Sumana Harihareswara at Sat Aug 07 2010 00:01

A.O. Marsh's name of course reminds me of A.O. Scott, NYT film critic. Good thing A.O. Scott is clear on what he's discovering and whom to credit (I assume).

Posted by Alyson at Mon Aug 09 2010 08:57

Susie, have you ever considered you might have the makings of a great paleontologist???

Posted by Susie at Mon Aug 09 2010 10:14

I thought you meant me, in which case, no. But Maggie...


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