The Thing I Like About “Toroceratops”

Let me first apologize for using “Toroceratops.” There is no such taxon, but the name is being used to describe the debate that is now raging through the dinosaur paleontological circuit, and it’s too catchy not to use. Now, on with the show.

SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY!!! Torosaurus and Triceratops go head-to-head!!!! Pay-Per-View only, $29.99!!!!

I’m not going to detail my impressions or comments on the work involved in the latest in the grand saga of trying to figure out is, and how, Torosaurus is a synonym of Triceratops. Brian Switek has been covering this in detail as well over at the Dinosaur Tracking blog, and has a great write-up here along with comments from John Scannella, one of the authors of the original argument purporting to sink Torosaurus latus and Nedoceratops hatcheri into Triceratops … something. He’s even got the references there, go check it out!

No, what I want to say is merely how pleased I am with HOW this argument is going. First, it’s occurring almost exclusively in Open Access media. If it weren’t, I could not post this image without worrying about the copyrights involved:

Figure 1 from Longrich and Fields (2012), depicted a skull of Triceratops prorsus (YPM 1822) and of Torosaurus latus (ANSP 15192). Both skulls are virtually complete.

The debate is happening almost exclusively through the open-access, digital journal PLoS ONE, including much of the histological and metaplastic research being conducted by some of the authors. This presentation means that instead of interested parties asking the authors for copies of the papers, and the authors worrying that they might be violating licensing or ownership arguments the publishers are insisting on, they can simply go to the website and download the bloody thing themselves, free, and leisurely.

Second, the papers themselves are slowly describing a story about growth and evolution, and though I wish the papers would get more of certain necessary details straight before they start tinkering with taxonomy, they are all very well written and present their data clearly and concisely.

Third, the papers are not simply offering counterpoint arguments, designed merely to reject the statements of other scientists without offering a precise conclusion on their own. Rather, they are bringing new data points into the mix, each one taking an extra step beyond the previous to expand the information we have about these end-Cretaceous titans. They are thus having a scientific conversation, but more over each paper is increasing our knowledge, so that each is advancing the Science of the discussion. Taxonomy can take a back seat to all this, as much as I care about it, and for me, that’s the real take-home message these papers provide.

I think, therefore, this message, these last two years of back-and-forth about the uniqueness or not of certain specimens, is better presented this way than obscure, pay-walled journals, and years and years of crawling through muck to get the story. No one’s getting rich off of these papers, and the scientists are getting perspectives from one another that can only increase our understanding of the biology of these long-extinct creatures. That can only be good.

Papers in order:

1. Scannella, J. B. & Horner, J. R. 2010. Torosaurus Marsh, 1891 is Triceratops, Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae) synonymy through ontogeny. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(4):1157–1168.
2. Farke, A. A. 2011. Anatomy and taxonomic status of the chasmosaurine ceratopsid Nedoceratops hatcheri from the Upper Cretaceous Lance Formation of Wyoming, U.S.A. PLoS ONE 6:e16196.
3. Scannella, J. B. & Horner, J. R. 2011.Nedoceratops’: an example of a transitional morphology. PLoS ONE 6(12):e28705.
4. Longrich, N. R. & Fields, D. J. 2012. Torosaurus is not Triceratops: Ontogeny in chasmosaurine ceratopsids as a case study in dinosaur taxonomy. PLoS ONE 7(2):e32623.

This won’t be the end, and surely new data must come forth to resolve the debate. The authors of each paper note that postcranial histology and microscopy, missing from these analyses due to the heavily-skull-skewed preservation and recovery processes that occurs for Maastrichtian ceratopsians, is one of the best tools to use for resolving the relative ontogeny, growth, and potentially taxonomy of these animals. Correct correlation of long-bone and horncore histology, the relationship of cranial suture fusion, surface textures and the presence of an external fundamental system not being actively remodelled, and so forth, will go a long way to correcting the many gaps in our knowledge. Meanwhile, each new paper adds more pieces to the puzzle, another perspective. It is mindful that we do not pretend that we really want to keep the names Torosaurus and Nedoceratops in useage, that it does not matter what these animals are named; but rather than the names follow the analyses, not the other way around.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. (This license does not cover the second image, which is owned by the Museum of the Rockies/Montana State University.)

This entry was posted in Biology, Paleobiology, Paleontology, Science Reporting and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Thing I Like About “Toroceratops”

  1. Andy Farke says:

    Agreed nearly 100% here! As one of the participants in the literature exchange, it’s been incredibly enjoyable discussing the topic with John Scannella. Although we currently hold differing interpretations of the data, I’ve found John to be an open, honest researcher who is just as crazy about ceratopsians as I am. For my Nedoceratops paper and his response, we actually traded drafts back and forth prior to submission, and had some excellent discussions in the process. If only all of science was this collegial!

  2. And as an outsider is also incredible fun to follow the entire progress over the last couple of years. :)

  3. Pingback: “Toroceratops” Matters, as an Open Discussion | The Bite Stuff

  4. Pingback: Is Torosaurus Triceratops? The debate rages on! | Green tea and Velociraptors

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