Triceratops: Not quite dead yet


Have faith, o ye lovers of Triceratops. For the battle over dinosaur taxonomic delineation has only just begun to rage.

Last summer, many of you expressed dismay when a team of scientists at Montana's Museum of the Rockies published research suggesting that Triceratops were actually just juvenile Torosaurs. In your sadness, ye cried out, and Andrew Farke of the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California, saw your suffering and took pity upon you.

Farke reanalyzed the same set of fossils, and came to a different conclusion than the Museum of the Rockies team. The key was a skull that's long been classed as a third genera—called Nedoceratops hatcheri.

[The Museum of the Rockies team] called Nedoceratops an intermediate stage between Triceratops and Torosaurus. But [Farke] concluded that Nedoceratops was a distinct genera. In PLoS ONE, he reports that for the three genera to be different growth stages of a single dinosaur, "would require cranial changes otherwise unknown" in horned dinosaurs.

Who's right? Horned dinosaur fossils are common as fossils go, more research is in progress, and more debate is sure to follow.

In other words: Watch this space. I'll keep you updated as I hear more. However this shakes out in the end, though, you will be pleased to know that the name Triceratops is safe. When I first wrote about the Museum of the Rockies paper, it wasn't clear to me which name a combined creature would use. Now, New Scientist says that because Triceratops was named before either Torosaurus or Nedoceratops, it's the moniker that takes precedence. So, either Triceratops are their own dinosaur, and the name stays. Or, the three genera are one, and they're all Triceratops.

Image courtesy Flickr user lindseywb, via CC


  1. When I was young, I named one of the triceratops at the natural history museum Pluto. Now they’ve taken Pluto away from me, twice! Darn you, clever and self-correcting Science, darn you! (/sarcasm)

  2. This is bad news for those of us who live in Torosaurustown, USA (aka New Haven, CT). We would all be pretty bummed if the 2-ton bronze Torosaurus statue in front of Yale’s Peabody Museum suddenly became a boring old Triceratops.

    1. kbmcg – no way! Triceratopseses.. uhmm.. the Triceratops rules! I still tell my kids that’s a Triceratops out front of the Peabody when we drive by!

    2. I had the good fortune of contributing a few scales to the tail of that sculpture! (Though… I think they might have re-done that area of the sculpture before it was cast in bronze. Still fun though!)

  3. However this shakes out in the end, though, you will be pleased to know that the name Triceratops is safe.

    This makes me wonder why people keep reporting the story as “Triceratops may be young torosaurs”, instead of “Torosaurs may be old triceratops”. It’s misleading.

    1. It always amazes me how many people still cling on to that one considering that it was formally corrected 107 years ago. My wife still refuses to say “Apatosaurus” too.

      1. My 5 year old cousin seems to have no trouble with it.
        They’ve finally updated the children’s books to say Apatosaurus; 20 years ago, they hadn’t yet done that.

    2. No. In fact, just to punish everyone for asking, we’ve taken your favorite species of Brachiosaurus and renamed it Giraffatitan. Do not cross us again.

      Sincerely, palaeontologists

      1. Oh, my god. I first saw this comment in Moveable Type and didn’t realize it came with a link. And that it was not a joke.

        I don’t question the accuracy, but Giraffatitan has to be the lamest dinosaur name ever conceived.

    3. LOL! Sadly, two fossils of the same species were given different names, and the older name (Apatasaurus) is the formally-correct one … though I also prefer Brontosaurus. :-)

      As far as the heart of the matter goes: I gotta give Jack Horner massive credit for realizing that, in all probability, not every fossil we have found were adults. Some were most likely juveniles or sub-adults, and we have to consider that when trying to figure out what dino is what.

      After all, many, many creatures look incredibly different at different stages of their lives. Imagine paleontologists finding, say, a tadpole fossil. There’s a good chance they would initially think it was its own species, rather than a baby frog.

      On a side note, my six-year-old (a.k.a. The Boy) is absolutely OBSESSED with dinosaurs and actually wants to send Horner a letter about this issue. Specifically, if whether or not a Dracorex Hogwartsia really was a younger Pachycephalasaurus, since The Boy isn’t sure that was the case (and has some hypothesis as to why).

      And no, I’m not kidding. :-)

  4. All this fuss over classifying specimens based on head/frill shape comes from all the classifiers working on the assumption – possibly unfounded – that they are looking at *normal* representatives of the species. Maybe those differences in skulls were caused by sickness or genetic defects. Somebody is going to be awfully embarrassed if he insists that some particular frill shape or horn configuration is characteristic of a different species, and then he finds out that particular animal had acromegalia.

  5. As a child, Triceratops was my favourite: a vegetarian that didn’t go around looking for trouble (eating others) and would fuck you up if you messed with it – as often illustrated by a mis-judged attack from a Tyranosaurus Rex.

    A creed I live by to this day.

    1. That imagine–T-rex vs. Triceratops, battle royale style–is burned into the brain of everyone from my generation. Dinosaurs rule :)

  6. Doesn’t triceratops trump torosaurus? After all triceratops was described before torosaurus. So in reality a torosaurus is really just a more mature triceratops.

    However, if it is the species that is described second that wins the day, then I’m off to the paleontology section of my library and crossing out all references to apatosaurus and writing in brontosaurus with indelible ink!

    Is it just me, or does anyone else feel the hand of Big Brother in this? First Pluto stops being a planet and now triceratops is faced with being erased from history. What’s next?

    Regardless of what the experts say, it’s a triceratops. (And it’s a brontosaurus and Pluto is the 9th Planet!)

    Gotta go now . . . Hey you teenagers, get off of my lawn!

  7. “Genera” is the plural of “genus”. “A third genera” and “a distinct genera” are ungrammatical.

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