The Triceratops that Never Wasn’t

 

I recently returned from a holiday abroad to find headlines proclaiming that Triceratops Never Existed! My first thought was of course, WTF? And my second thought was, just how stupid are they? And then the little pessimistic third thought was that the way this story is being waved about, it will be used as “ammunition” by antievolutionists, one more little item with which to further wrap themselves in ignorance.

So here is the story.

Ceratopsian dinosaurs were (mostly) large, quadrupedal herbivoves with a frill behind the skull, and many bore horns from the nose and/or the top of the skull over the eyes. There is substantial diversity in the group in the shape and size of the frill and horns, leading to the definition of many different genera and species. But there is also variation within each species, blurring the boundaries between the different classifications. Because of this, the group as a whole has undergone taxonomic revision several times. The recent work by John Scanella and Jack Horner continues this trend by further clarifying the taxonomy of this intriguing group.

Scanella and Horner surveyed known specimens of the ceratopsian classified as Torosaurus, and concluded that the developmental and morphological evidence suggests they are not members of a separate genus, but in fact “fully grown” members of Triceratops. This is bolstered by the fact that there are no known juvenile Torosaurus remains – though the discovery of such remains would, of course, reverse this change in classification. Since the name Triceratops was coined first, it remains while Torosaurus becomes obsolete (pending further study and corroboration by other researchers). This sort of thing happens all the time, partly because defining “species” for organisms that have been dead for 70 million years with only a limited dataset is tricky business, and partly because we learn more. Science progresses.

So, in fact, the story headlines should have read “Torosaurus reclassified as adult Triceratops“. But a) that requires understanding what is being written, and b) wouldn’t sell papers. It really ticks me off just how wrong the statement “Triceratops never existed” really is. Animals classified as Triceratops and Torosaurus did exist, which is why we have their fossils. The classification of one of these groups may be in error, but it would be Torosaurus that ceases to be as a genus.

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