So, the main character in the latest episode was working on a paper arguing that Triceratops was not a real species. This, to be very clear, is something we made up. Triceratops is fine. We can all breathe a sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that we don’t have to learn a new name to answer that oft-repeated question “Which dinosaur is the best one?”
But another three-horned dinosaur might suffer another extinction, thanks to Triceratops.
There is a debate in palaeontological circles (as there always is – we call this process ‘science’) concerning the fate of this poor chap:
This is Torosaurus. Discovered in 1891, two years after Triceratops, the largest distinguishing feature is the holes in the frill. It was originally, and is right now officially, thought to be a completely separate species to Triceratops – related, but different. But in 2009 some researchers suggested that what we see here is, in fact, just an older Triceratops; that as Triceratops ages, the frill changes and those holes open up (along with other changes – the holes aren’t the only difference between the two). It’s still an open question, with proponents on both sides of the issue – may I recommend this article for more details on it? Well, I have.
Now, keeping things like this clear is fairly important, otherwise all of zoology would be a great big hairy mess. So there’s a standard naming system to keep everybody on the same page. It has a handy mnemonic to help remember it: “Dignified Kings Play Chess On Fine Green Silk”.
So, let’s track Triceratops’ name to give us an idea of how it works:
- Dignified -> Domain. For Triceratops this is Eukaryote (basically, if it’s not a single-celled organism, or a bacteria, then it’s in this Domain)
- Kings -> Kingdom. Triceratops is in Animalia (confusingly, the number of Kingdoms there are slightly depends on who you agree with, but the six-kingdom system is reasonably standard)
- Play -> Phylum. Triceratops is part of the Chordata club (there’s about 35 different Phyla in Animalia)
- Chess -> Class. Triceratops flies the Reptilia flag (because dinosaurs are reptiles). There are sub-classes, called clade, and Triceratops gets a Dinosauria mini-flag-on-a-stick – so it’s class is Reptilia Dinosauria
- On -> Order. Triceratops wears the Ornithischia t-shirt. There are sub-orders, too, and Triceratops gets a Ceratopsia shade of those.
- Fine -> Family. Triceratops goes to the Ceratopsidae reunions, huddles in the corner with it’s sub-family of Chasmosaurinae, and gets into a round system with it’s sub-sub family, called tribe, of Triceratopsini
- Green -> Genus. Triceratops is part of the, wait for it you’ll never guess, Triceratops Genus (this is the level most people mean when they talk about Triceratops, but it’s not the most specific..)
- Silk -> Species. And now it depends what particular type of species of Triceratops you’d like to talk about. Triceratops has two – horridus and prorsus. Horridus is the ‘type’ specimen, which means the ‘default’ triceratops, if you like – so that’s the one the name ‘triceratops’ is really tied to. So, for example, if it turned out that prorsus was a different Genus, horridus gets to keep the ‘Triceratops’ bit, and prorsus has to get a new name.
About now is where you feel sorry for the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, whose job it is to keep all of that straight for every living thing in the world.
Aren’t you glad now you don’t have to learn a new name for your favourite dinosaur?