Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Toros, Trikes & the Media

I thought that I’d add my little contribution to the media reaction to the synonymy of Torosaurus and Triceratops. This has provoked an unjustified furore outside of the palaeoworld since, yet again, the media has incorrectly assumed that the taxon Triceratops is about to be lost forever in favour of Torosaurus.

Why is it that the media never ever appears to do any research into these matters? How much time can it take to do a little research so that at least the correct facts are presented to the public? And when are they actually going to show the people they interview a little respect instead of condescension?

A couple of nights ago I heard an interview on BBC Radio Five Live between a female interviewer (who shall remain nameless) and palaeontologist Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies. Straight away it was very obvious that the interviewer had done no preparation at all and proceeded to ask questions in that ridiculous “I haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about” tone with a slight giggle to hide her obvious embarrassment.

In line with so many other media organisations, she immediately got the wrong end of the stick and got the sinking of Torosaurus into Triceratops the wrong way round. Jack, in his first response, corrected this straight away which completely wrong footed the interviewer and thus threw out of the window what ideas, if any, she had regarding the subject. It could only get worse.

To Jack’s eternal credit, he sussed this out straight away, and proceeded to explain, in layman’s terms, some of the subtle differences that led John Scannella and himself to the conclusions that they had reached. He didn’t once mention parietals, fenestrae or ontogeny. He did mention neck shields, holes in the neck shields and growth stages.

He attempted to explain in a slow deliberate way, using such simple terms as above, why Torosaurus is indeed the adult stage of Triceratops. When he mentioned that Triceratops is actually sub-adult, the interviewer, however, couldn’t even comprehend the phrase “sub-adult”. Jack kept his cool but I was rocking just listening to it.

At the end of the interview Jack was virtually cut off in mid sentence – incredibly rude but I wasn’t surprised. And this was the worst thing. Talking to such an eminent scientist as if he didn’t know what he was talking about, I found it insensitive, patronising and insulting. Well done Jack for keeping his composure at all times and being a credit to the paleontological world in the face of crass questioning from a clearly unsuitable interviewer.

As for the paper itself, I was lucky to be at SVP last year when John gave his presentation in Bristol. I was pretty convinced then to be honest and reading the paper now has only reinforced their research. I understand there will always be a few doubters but the demonstration of cranial morphological transformation within Triceratops appears telling.

It’s fascinating that the parietal-squamosal frill actually gets thinner and gains fenestrae in the adult stage morphing from the thickened fenestra-free version of the sub-adult. This appears to bring a halt to the theory that Triceratops frills thickened as an aide against predation from tyrannosaurs (which I have supported) and thus reinforces the belief that chasmosaurines did indeed use their cranial ornamentation for intraspecific communication, a theory that has gained significant momentum over the last few years.

An excellent paper and well worth your time. If only the media would bother to read it.


Scannella, John B. and Horner, John R.(2010) 'Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny', Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 30: 4, 1157 — 1168


For those people you know who are still concerned, point them to this link. I'm grateful to Tom Holtz via Lee Hall for supplying the detail.


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