Tyrannosaurus is a tyrannosaur, but not all tyrannosaurs are Tyrannosaurus

The title of this post is perhaps blindingly obvious to the vast majority of the readers here – we all know that bongo are antelope, but not all antelope are bongo, mackerel are fish, but not all fish are mackerel and well, ad infinitum for the whole of biology really. Now, I do appreciate that with palaeontological names (and those in general without ‘common’, non-Latinised names) this can get trickier (so zebras are indeed within the genus Equus and are equids, though of course, not all equids / equines / equoids are in Equus!) and those little endings (-inae, -ines, -ids and more) complicate things but still, there does seem to be an annoying and unending confusion that somehow family etc. names are basically synonymous with species and generic names. This is no more obvious than with that most ubiquitous of dinosaurs in the media, Tyrannosaurus.

I really could not even begin to try and count how many times I see reports that refer to Tyrannosaurus, when they mean tyrannosaur. It is annoying as it can confuse things (tyrannosaurs have a good distribution in time and space, Tyrannosaurus does not, so saying you have an Asian Jurassic Tyrannosaurus is out). This for me (in terms of writing this piece) has come to a head with the reporting on Raptorex which for those who missed it is a new, small Asian tyrannosaur. In addition to the age old and very annoying ‘ancestor issue’ an unending stream of media reports called this animal “a new Tyrannosaurus” (italics and ‘rex’ are optional, see various reports for examples).

To go back to my well worn ‘rant hat’ and lay into the media once more, I really do understand that even many science journalists are not, and cannot, be experts in every field of science. However, this is absolutely basic biology and thus I think reasonable to expect them to get it right. I did the basic KPCOFGS stuff at school aged about 10, and while obviously taxonomy is more complex than that, journalists should be able to distinguish between a Latin binomial and an anglicised family name. They should be able to of course, but clearly almost none of them can. This is not hard and in the UK at least is taught as basic science to kids who are not yet teenagers. Getting it wrong therefore is pretty near inexcusable – if you can’t tell the difference between a species and a family, I’m not going to be brimming with confidence that you can tell an electron from an atom or a county from a country, let alone absorb, digest and accurately regurgitate the latest papers on quantum theory or cancer research.

Whether you are nodding in agreement at this point or shaking your head matters not as you can head here and listen to both sides in a debate on science journalism and its effects between Ben Goldacre of Bad Science and the UK minister of science, Lord Drayson. And in a similar vein, check out this handy little guide to reading and understanding media stories on health.

12 Responses to “Tyrannosaurus is a tyrannosaur, but not all tyrannosaurs are Tyrannosaurus”

  1. 1 Mike Keesey 04/10/2009 at 2:38 am

    Since there’s no “Tyrannosauria”, I don’t know why people would use “tyrannosaur”, anyway. “Tyrannosauroid”, “tyrannosaurid”, “tyrannosaurine”, “tyrannosaurin”, “tyrannosaurinan” are fine, but just what is a “tyrannosaur”?

    • 2 David Hone 04/10/2009 at 3:12 am

      Well I think you have to make an allowance for people *not* knowing every detail of taxonomic niceties, and I think ‘tyrannosaur’ is a perfectly serviceable anglicisation for all of the above (i.e. a general term for tyrannosaur-like animals and thus probably most closely synonymous with the most inclusive ‘-oids’). We are in an odd position with palaeo taxa since biologists get to talk to the public or journalists about toads and geese and elms and sharks without anyone questioning which Latin ending they are referring to, and I think that something like ‘tyrannosaurs’ serves well in this case. However I obviously still think it’s a problem if they mix that up with T.rex.

  2. 3 Mike Keesey 04/10/2009 at 3:39 am

    But in that case, “tyrannosaur” *could* refer to just Tyrannosaurina or Tyrannosaurus (which, by many people’s usage, only contain T. rex). You can’t blame reporters for being sloppy if they’re given vague terms to begin with.

    I don’t think very many English-speaking laymen would have a problem with “tyrannosauroid”. Just about everyone knows what “Tyrannosaurus” is (more or less), and just about everyone knows that “X-oid” generally means, “like X, but in a more general category”. (Look at non-taxonomic terms like “humanoid”, “spheroid”, etc.) Ask someone completely unknowledgable what they think a “tyrannosauroid” is, and I’ll bet they say, “Um … something like a Tyrannosaurus?” (Unless they think it’s a trick question or something.)

    (I’ve even seen a perfectly knowledgeable person once try to insist that vernacular terms ending in “-saur” *should* refer to the corresponding “-saurus” taxon. Obviously, this is in no way common practice — it usually refers to the corresponding “-sauria” — but there you have it.)

    • 4 David Hone 04/10/2009 at 4:09 pm

      I do see your point Mike, but personally I’ve never see ‘Xsaur’ used as a common term for ‘Xsaurus’- if people are doing that I can see where things may be going wrong, though this does seem (from your comment) to be a non-expert. As far as I can tell (and this goes beyond just the Raptorex stuff), the experts are not using the word in this manner and the journalists are simply misinterpreting / oversimplifying it and inevitably getting it wrong. I can once again retreat to my basic premise of ‘science reporters should know basic science and talk to the actual researchers’.
      I’d agree that ‘X-oid’ should not be a difficult concept for most, but there seems to be such a demand to simplify (something Ben Goldacre mentions in the link above) that there is simply nothing at all of depth in most science articles. I left physics behind as a subject and 16 and chemistry at 18, but I still find most articles on them too simple…

  3. 5 Mike Keesey 04/10/2009 at 10:12 pm

    Actually, now that I think about it, I have heard other people in the field verbally use “-saur” for “-saurus”, e.g. “apatosaur”, “allosaur”, “daspletosaur”, etc., although none of these people would do the same in a peer-reviewed paper, I’m sure. I do agree that science reporting is often abysmal, but I don’t necessarily blame the reporter in cases like this where the nomenclature is ambiguous to begin with. In a relaxed verbal context, the title of this post might not actually hold. (“We found some tyrannosaur material over that way and then some daspletosaur material over that way.”) And in stricter, semi-formal language, the term “tyrannosaur” doesn’t even exist.

    I do agree that science reporters should have a passing familiarity with mandatory rank-based suffixes (even if I think that system has done nomenclature far more harm than good, it’s still important to know about). But “tyrannosaur” doesn’t have any suffix!

    • 6 David Hone 05/10/2009 at 12:45 am

      I’m not sure I’d agree entirely, but that by itself rather supports your point (that there is some disagreement and ambivalence). However, in most cases the journalists were calling Raptorex an ancestor of Tyrannosaurus, or a new Tyrannosaurus either of which is wrong for all kinds of reasons, regardless of exactly what you want to call X-saur or X-saurus. While the specific issue might be complex, confusing species, genera and families is not something they should be doing, and if it’s complicated or confusing they should be making it clearer, and not more confused!

      • 7 Mike Keesey 05/10/2009 at 2:10 am

        Well I agree that those particular statements are likely more the journalists’ fault.Fuzziness of informal terms like “tyrannosaur” aside, genera (such as Raptorex and Tyrannosaurus) cannot include each other, and identifying ancestors in the fossil record is pretty much impossible. No science reporter should be ignorant of basic facts like that.

  4. 9 Diego 04/10/2009 at 10:22 pm

    That’s one of my pet peeves as well. And it’s one of the subjects I was determined to drill into the heads of the undergrads whenever I taught our animal diversity or comparative anatomy class. By the end most knew to capitalize the proper taxon names and leave the anglicized descriptors in lower case or face more red ink on their papers. 😉

    P.S. I also really get annoyed by the use of “hominid” to refer to the clade we now recognize as hominins. Unfortunately it’s not just the public and the media who didn’t get the memo on this one. A number of anthropologists refuse to accept our mere zoological classification. Nevertheless, I did succeed in convincing one anthropologist friend to accept hominin.

    • 10 Mike Keesey 04/10/2009 at 10:51 pm

      In response to Diego:

      It is actually not “wrong” to limit “hominid” to the human total clade, since 1) the ICZN makes no demands on what should and should be include, except that Homininae* must be included, and 2) nobody has, to my knowledge, published a phylogenetic definition of the “Hominidae”. In my opinion, this is a problem with the current system: two researchers can agree on the phylogeny, use completely different names for different taxa, and still both be in accord with the rules.

      More thoughts on this particular case here: http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/2008/01/ape-taxonomy-is-confusing.html

      * similarly vaguely defined

  5. 11 Zach Miller 06/10/2009 at 3:54 am

    I’ve lamented this point before, as well. Ultimately, it’s the same problem as calling pterosaurs and Dimetrodon dinosaurs–it results from a basic sense of apathy when reporting science news. These are facts a basic Google search would clear up.

    On the other hand, the vernacular “tyrannosaur” is problematic as well. The entire Tyrannosauroidea is plagued by the name of its most famous member, and distinctions between various “grades” of tyrannosauroids are met with slightly different endings to the same name:

    Tyrannosauroidae, Tyrannosauridae, Tyrannosaurini

    I can’t think of a better solution right now, but Mike is right–to the layman, these can be very vague terms. Alternatively, maniraptors have nicely differentiated names. Maniraptora, Eumaniraptora, Paraves, Deinonychosauria, Troodontidae, Dromaeosauridae, Aves, etc.

  6. 12 David H 17/11/2009 at 10:42 am


    I happened to stumble into this discussion via google. I’m a novelist, and I’m putting the finishing touches on a book inspired by Ray Bradbury (a huge dino-fan) and which features the animator Willis H. O’Brien (a huge dino animator) as a main character. I have only a couple days before the manuscript must be sent in, and one of my last minute concerns was the way I should refer to the various tyrannosauruses, triceratopses, arsinoitheriums, brontosauruses, and stegosauruses that exist in the book, either as animation armatures or real things.

    What is the correct way to refer to a single one of each? And to a group?

    thanks for any help,


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