Friday, November 7, 2008

Defending the indefensible

A couple of weeks back there was a fresh round of bashing on poor little Pantydraco. Bashing the name, not the dinosaur that is. It is a matter of some embarassment to me that I should be tied to what is widely regarded as the worst dinosaur name ever. I take pride in the names I craft, and I don't think I'm too bad at it (Dracovenator, Antetonitrus, Nanalania are some faves) even if I do say so myself.
So here is some of the backstory behind the name. Firstly: it was not my invention! That particular dubious honour goes to Peter Galton. When I first named the species caducus I found some characters that linked it with what I was calling (and still call) Thecodontosaurus antiquus, so thought that the wisest course of action was to name a new species in that genus. However as I found out more about Thecodontosaurus antiquus (and I regard all of the English cave fill sauropodomorphs as one taxon) more and more differences with the Welsh ‘Thecodontosaurus caducus started to show up. For instance the ischial shafts of T. antiquus are an unusal flattened ovoid cross-sectional shape whereas those of ‘T.’ caducus have the classic triangular cross section seen in most other basal sauropodomorphs. Significantly support for a monophyletic Thecodontosaurus had diminished to the point that it was no longer recovered in all of the most parsimonious trees of my improved cladistic analyses (as more characters were added and more scorings were based on first hand observations) . So I had come to the conclusion that it was time to erect a new genus for ‘T.’ caducus. I even had a tentative name thought up – Cambrambulus – the Welsh wanderer. However I was not quick enough and at the 2005 SVP Peter Galton told me that he was close to submitting an MS giving caducus that infamous generic name.
Naturally I felt rather attached to the first dinosaur species that I named and wanted to remain associated with the generic name (which after all is the most frequently cited name in dinosaur circles). So I told Peter about my plans and we agreed to write the paper together, even though our reasons for naming the new genus were different. Peter felt that Thecodontosaurus was a dubious name because he thought that the type specimen of T. antiquus (the type species of the genus) was indeterminate. I agree that it isn’t the best and that it has no single derived character that cannot be seen in other sauropodomorph taxa. However I am still unconvinced that there are two morphs in the original Durdham Downs quarry, or that Asylosaurus is all that distinct. Taken collectively the Thecodontosaurus antiquus sample is unique and diagnosable. The utility of bone bed taxa is itself the subject for another post but to put it simply I’m all for using them in the right circumstances. In this case the surviving scanty sample from Durdham Downs is backed up by a large sample from Tytherington . This is another set of sauropodomorph bones from a fissure fill in the English south-west. Here there is absolutely no sign of two morphs and all of the recovered bones are virtually identical with those from Durdham Downs.
So there we are, the Pantydraco paper is very much a compromise - melding two different viewpoints but agreeing that little caducus needed a new generic title. Perhaps I should have pushed Peter to change the name, but being my meek and mild self, didn't do so. In anycase I didn't think it was quite that bad at the time,although yes, I was quite aware of the conotations (I guess thats a little bit of my juvenile sense of humor showing though).
Lastly for all those who absolutely hate the name - remember it is correctly pronounced 'Pant - uh - dray - co' which is not quite so bad as 'panty'.


Mike Taylor said...

Nice try, Adam :-)

We can only hope that when people are discussing your work a century from now, they're not saying "Oh. yeah, Yates -- the Pantydraco guy, right?" :-)

220mya said...


Perhaps I'm not as familiar with all of your articles as I should be, but what is Nanalania?

Darren Naish said...

For Nanolania - 'dwarf butcher' (cf. 'you little ripper'!) - see...

Yates, A. M. 2000. A new tiny rhytidosteid (Temnospondyli: Stereospondyli) from the Early Triassic of Australia and the possibility of hidden temnospondyl diversity. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 20, 484-489.

Darren Naish said...

Oops, Nanalania of course.

Malacoda said...

Adam, I have to say I am a fan of your names (particularly Nanalania) and perhaps it is just a shame you didn't get to use your choice for caducus.

Vultur said...

Whoever thinks Pantydraco is the worst dinosaur generic name ever is full of it. With competition from lots of "unpronounceable-place-saurus" names and stuff like Mei ("sleeping" - thank you, that's so meaningful).

Sure it sounds bad if pronounced the obvious way, but there's a long and (sorta) honorable tradition of ribald names in taxonomy. And it's memorable!