Gizmodo, at 11:09am Gizmodo time today, published an article which has a rather unfortunate typo. I am interested in seeing where this typo came from.
Basic biological taxonomic primer
Biologists talk about a lot of taxonomic groups, but the two that we talk about the most are genera and species. Genera and species have formalized ways of being written about; the generic and specific names are either italicized or underlined, the generic name is capitalized, the specific name is not, and specific names have to be used with their accompanying generic name. The quickest way of illustrating this is to talk about the most famous biological taxonomic name in existence: the latest Cretaceous theropod dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex. The short form of Tyrannosaurus rex is T. rex. This all sounds fairly simple? I don’t think this seems that complex?
A new genus and species to write about
Yesterday a new article in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology named and described a new genus and species of extinct crocodylomorph. The new biological taxonomic entity is named Ieldraan melkshamensis.
If you’re familiar with the English alphabet you know that l and I look pretty dang similar; you know that capital I (like the Jovian moon, Io) and lowercase l (like the Earth felid, lion) look almost exactly the dang same. But you should also know from basic biological taxonomic rules that generic names start with a capital letter.
That means that if you have any basic biological taxonomic knowledge, at all, that you should know that this genus is spelled I e l d r a a n, not L e l d r a a n.
Some science writers still mess it up
For whatever reason a few online press outlets chose to spell it wrong. The London Economic article published about 15 hours ago spelled it with an L. The Daily Mail apparently had it with an L before fixing it. The International Business Times chose to spell it with an L. And Gizmodo chose to spell it with an L.
Let’s look at the common ancestor
Because the Gizmodo author doesn’t cite any sources other than the academic journal article, I assumed, based on what I know about the author’s science writing style, that they used a press release to help write their article but then didn’t cite it. The press release in this case is from the University of Edinburgh, it’s this one. I can tell that the Gizmodo author used it because the Gizmodo article repeats several of its errors. For example, the Gizmodo author writes:
the sub-family of prehistoric crocodiles to which this creature belonged, Geosaurini,
Which is wrong in the exact same two ways (subfamily is not a hyphenated word and Geosaurini is not a subfamily) that the press release is wrong:
the sub-family of prehistoric crocodiles to which the new species belongs – known as Geosaurini
Additionally, sometimes the first press release is then augmented and released via a secondary source. In this case, that secondary source is EurekAlert!, which the Gizmodo author also used information from without citing. Anyway neither the initial university press release nor the secondary press release appears to spell the new genus with an L. So there’s three main possibilities.
1 The error happened at the top. The U of E press release or EurekAlert! press release (maybe before they were published online, although an early-appearing copy of the EurekAlert! press release doesn’t have the error) had the wrong spelling, but they were fixed somewhen in time, but they were not fixed quickly enough to stop all press outlets from using the wrong spelling.
2 Multiple press outlets, including Gizmodo, independently chose the wrong spelling.
3 One press outlet made an error and Gizmodo, among others, copied the error.
Without direct feedback from the Gizmodo employees who contributed to the writing and editing of this article, it is difficult to tell which of these three scenarios occurred.