August 5, 2010
During the past week, people all over the Internet have driven themselves into a tizzy over the new study by John Scanella and Jack Horner in which the paleontologists hypothesized that the dinosaur known as Torosaurus was really the adult stage of the more familiar Triceratops. “Triceratops Never Existed” said the headline from Gizmodo (as did similar ones from CBS News, the National Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Newsoxy), while another one went as far as to ask “Triceratops a Hoax?” In comment sections and on Twitter people have been, well, all a-twitter about the idea that one of their favorite dinosaurs might be taken away—some folks likened the situation to the “demotion” of Pluto via t-shirt designs and others set up Facebook campaigns to “Save the Triceratops.”
All of this angst is unnecessary. As Scanella and Horner pointed out in their paper, and as multiple summaries of the study have stated, Triceratops (described in 1889) was named before Torosaurus (described in 1891). According to the rules by which scientists name organisms, this gives Triceratops priority, so the name “Triceratops” isn’t going anywhere. (TIME got it right, Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs tried to set people straight, and Geekosystem deserves some credit for amending their original post.) What is significant about the new study is that it may change our perception of what an adult Triceratops looked like, but the young-adult dinosaur we have traditionally called Triceratops is just as real as tadpoles, caterpillars, or teenage humans—they are all growth stages within a species. Given the number of Triceratops remains that have been recovered from western North America, there has never been any doubt that it was a real animal, though I am sure that many people are much happier calling it Triceratops rather than Torosaurus.
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