First Pluto, now this.
Scientists now believe that triceratops, best known for its role impaling tyrannosaurus rex in museum displays everywhere, may never have existed as a unique species. The fossil discoveries on which paleontologists based the species designation are now being reconsidered as juveniles of another documented dinosaur species: torosaurus. The demotion of one of the most iconic dinosaur species is sure to grate on dinosaur-lovers everywhere.
You all remember the kerfuffle a few years ago when the International Astronomical Union decided to sit down and settle, once and for all, what a planet actually is. It was something of an afterthought when our nine planet sytem dropped down to eight. Our beloved Pluto was stripped of its planetary status and – along with a newly discovered trans-Neptunian object known as Eris, and Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt – reclassified as a dwarf planet.
It was an afterthought for the astronomers, but not the general public. There was an outcry. A world-wide debate. In 2006, for weeks, everyone had an opinion on Pluto’s demotion, and wanted to know yours. I’ve never talked so much science with my less sciencey friends as I did during that period.
Likewise, the revelation that hypothesized scenes of herds of triceratops are inaccurate — even the well-recognized neck frill is now believed to be an intermediate stage of growth, with the rarer adult torosaurus specimens bearing a different shape than we’re all used to — is going to be a problem for some people. In fact, the original research is now more than a couple of years old, but the story’s recently revived and has been making the rounds. Click on the comments of that article for some very angry debates about dead languages and reptile evolution.
The discovery of triceratops dates back to the last quarter of the nineteenth-century, a period of fervent fossil hunting in the United States sometimes known as the Great Dinosaur Rush. Or perhaps you know it as the Bone Wars, a reference to the bitter rivalry between two great fossil hunters: Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh.
By most any measure, Marsh won the war. He not only discovered and named more species than Cope by half, but his discoveries include the most well-known species today, including triceratops, stegosaurus, and diplodocus. He was also the one to log torosaurus as a separate discovery, a decision which was accepted for over a century.
It’s not uncommon for species, particularly those that have been extinct for tens of millions of years, to be reclassified: Marsh’s brontosaurus fossils were recognized to be from a previously known species, apatasaurus, over a century ago. Despite that, the name, almost immediately defunct, is still bandied about today, thanks in part to popularizations like the Flinstones and even a taxonomically-inaccurate US postage stamp series in the 1980s.
It can be pretty hard sometimes to update scientific information once it has entered popular culture, after all. So this part is good news: torosaurus was named in 1891; triceratops in 1889. Even if they were only juveniles, by standard taxonomic rules, the earlier name stands. If the two dinosaurs are folded into a single species, it will still be called triceratops, only now all grown up. Thank goodness.
Image credit: Charles R. Knight