Dinosaurs sure do make news a lot, given that they’re extinct and all. Much of the time, it’s because scientists — or little kids — have discovered a new species or additional evidence to support theories for their extinction. But sometimes, instead of giving, science takes away.
No, I’m not talking about a cataclysmic meteor. I’m talking about the recent revelation that triceratops never existed. John Scannella and Jack Horner of Researchers at Montana’s Museum of the Rockies believe that what we previously identified as Triceratops were actually young Torosaurus.
This debate isn’t a new one. In fact, the same researchers from the Museum of the Rockies published a paper in 2010 arguing that the Torosaurus was a mature Triceratops. They even suggested that yet another dinosaur, the Nedoceratops, was actually the same species but in the middle, age-wise, like a teenager. Their paper fueled backlash and a spate of publications by scientists challenging their conclusions. One scientist insisted that Nedoceratops is its own species, while other scientists who compared 35 Triceratops and Torosaurus skulls believed the two to be distinct.
The two species are undeniably similar — they each have three horns and a bony ridge (kind of like a Minbari). But the horns and ridge have different shapes, with the latter being thinner and smoother, according to Scannella and Horner. The Torosaurus also has two holes on its head.
While all scientists concede the likeness between the two, the holdouts — should we call them separatists? — believe that the ridge makes all the difference. The bony extensions on the ridge, called epiparietals, to be exact. Those who disagree with Scannella and Horner argue that Triceratops had five or six epiparietals, while Torosaurus had twice as many, and that there’s no evidence to suggest the number of epiparietals would increase over time.
Scannella and Horner recently followed up their initial findings by studying Triceratops skulls and discovered thinning bone where the Torosaurus skull holes appear. They then counted the bones’ growth rings and concluded that all of the skulls they were looking at were from young dinosaurs. And it just so happens that there are no young Torosaurus skeletons or specimens found anywhere. Scannella explains that the horns, ridge, and skull would remain relatively soft and undergo changes well into the dinosaurs’ adulthood. “Even in the most mature specimens that we’ve examined, there is evidence that the skull was still undergoing dramatic changes at the time of death,” Scannella said. They also believe that, instead of functioning as armor, the ridge indicated maturity.
Of course, there’s a response to that too. In 1890, Yale University collected a specimen of a Torosaurus that some scientists maintain was both young and inarguably a Torosaurus. Scannella disagrees, saying that the specimen was older, and that studying Triceratops skulls makes more sense given how many more are available.
They can debate all they want, but the Torosaurus will fade into extinction, reclassified as Triceratops. That, I think we can all agree, is a name we should keep around.