After John B. Scanella and John R. Horner of Montana State University published a report in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in July stating Triceratops and fellow horned dinosaur Torosaurus were in fact the same animal, news outlets including The National Post and CBS News reported that Triceratops may never have existed, saying the animal was simply a younger version of the large-headed Torosaurus.
Not the case, says professor and Mesalands Dinosaur Museum curator Axel Hungerbeuhler. In fact, the report makes the opposite claim that Torosaurus is an older form of Triceratops.
"We don't need to change our label because Triceratops stays Triceratops. It's Torosaurus that will change, if it's accepted, to Triceratops," Hungerbueler said. "It's a very old Triceratops. Triceratops stays Triceratops, so that name doesn't change at all."
According to the report, Torosaurus is distinguished from Triceratops by a single physical feature, "its expanded, fenestrated parietal-squamosal cranial frill," the large bony, holy plate on its head.
Gretchen Gürtler, a Mesalands graduate assistant who works at the museum, said this difference was ontogenetic, meaning it occurred at different stages of the Triceratops' life, and is not indicative of a different creature.
Hungerbueler said he found the report's conclusion plausible but not definitive.
"What I find a little bit strange, but I've seen in other animals so it's not unheard of, is suddenly within a very short time, the whole thing, the whole skull, is remodeled. The entire rear end is being remodeled," Hungerbueler said. "It's an intriguing suggestion. What they need to do now is say first, 'Okay, we can go back and look.' We need more specimens. Let's go and look first at all the collections, then let's go in the field. We need 'in-betweens' that would support it."
According to Hungerbueler, the Triceratops likely roamed eastern New Mexico, but the rocks that would have fossilized the creatures eroded long ago.
"I'm pretty much sure they lived here, only the rocks are gone by erosion," Hungerbueler said. "We can't really know, but there's no reason why they shouldn't have been there."