Triceratops Deemed Fictional; 5-Year-Olds Everywhere Riot

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.

Related stories:

Comet, Not Asteroid, Killed Dinosaurs, Study Suggests

5 Dinosaur Facts You Won’t Learn From Barney

Image credit: Charles R. Knight


Richard Hancock
Richard Hancock4 years ago


Sonali G.
Sonali G4 years ago

Never mind. We still only had the Torosaurus so we haven't really lost anything have we? I am certain that they are yet to discover more lost species in the rocks and fossils yet to be uncovered.

Judd R.
Judd R4 years ago

more on the state of the argument:
Summary: lots of newly found triceratops, more study needed. Really need a truly juvenile torosaurus.

Judd R.
Judd R4 years ago

More on the state of the argument:
There is evidence both ways and people need to study more of the recently available triceratops.

Marilyn Traver
Marilyn Traver4 years ago


Karen H.
Karen H4 years ago

Well, yeah, Mark, you’re right about that. In part. Like politics and religion, science has its fundamentalists who refuse to move on from “the traditional” interpretations of “facts”. I’m currently reading Land of the Fallen Star Gods by J.S. Gordon, which gives a whole ‘nother take on ancient Egypt. It was interesting reading the book while watching an Ancient Aliens marathon—the differences were mind-boggling.

Leia P.
Leia P.4 years ago

well that sucks

Robert Blumenfeld

"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."

And there's the reason "Intelligent Design" is believed to be as valid a "theory" as evolution by many scientific illiterates: The concepts of objective standards and evidence doesn't enter into their belief systems.

Mark Caponigro
Mark Caponigro4 years ago

Much ado about next to nothing. First, even if the vertebrate paleontological community agree that the set of fossils assigned to Triceratops and the set of fossils assigned to Torosaurus in fact are from individuals belonging to the same species, only the first set is more juvenile, the second set is more mature, the name "Triceratops" will remain, because it is older. So the article's title should read, "Torosaurus deemed fictional."

Secondly, there is no consensus yet that these two sets of fossils belong to one species of horned dinosaur. That is the suggestion of John Horner and his colleague. You need far more than that to bring about a species re-assignment. Remember what happened with Pluto: the planetary astronomers were presented the argument why Pluto should not be considered a planet, they considered the issue over a period of time, with lots of discussion, and finally they voted, and Pluto got re-classified. Nothing like that has happened yet with Torosaurus and Triceratops.

Amy Fisher
Amy F4 years ago

I wonder if this will affect the next Jurassic Park movie sequel, if it ever gets made. Dinosaurs are fascinating creatures, in any case.