Triceratops' Quiet Cousin, the Torosaurus, Gains New Legitimacy

March 7, 2012 12:00 am

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NEW HAVEN -- Growing up in Calgary, Alberta, Daniel Field idolized John R. Horner, the well-known paleontologist who helped inspire Michael Crichton's novel "Jurassic Park" and won a MacArthur "genius award" in 1986.

Now Mr. Field, a 23-year-old graduate student in paleontology at Yale, has found himself on the opposite side of Dr. Horner in a debate over a horned, frilled dinosaur called torosaurus -- namely, whether the animal ever existed.

First identified in 1891 by the famed Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh, torosaurus went unchallenged as a species for more than a century.

But in 2010, Dr. Horner and John Scannella, both at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., published a paper arguing that torosaurus didn't exist, at least not as a separate species. Instead, they wrote, the dinosaur was an adult version of its more famous cousin, triceratops.

That hypothesis struck Nicholas Longrich, a Yale postdoctoral fellow, as dubious. Both dinosaurs' skulls, after all, sat side by side on display at the Peabody Museum of Natural History here at Yale, and they looked quite different. Triceratops's bony frill is relatively short and thick. Torosaurus's is larger and flatter, with two large circular holes called fenestrae on either side of it.

Working with Mr. Field, Dr. Longrich devised three tests to determine whether the two animals could be younger and older versions of the same species. The results, published on Wednesday in the journal PLoS One, suggest that the dinosaurs are separate animals.

The distinction may seem trivial, but it has generated much discussion in paleontology circles. It is the latest battle in what is sometimes called the war between "lumpers," who tend to consolidate species, and "splitters," who are more likely to tease them apart. Dr. Horner is known as one of the field's most ardent lumpers.

"Horner's got an agenda," Dr. Longrich, 35, said in an interview. "He has this hit list of dinosaurs that he's trying to get rid of." Sitting in his lab at a desk littered with snake skeletons and empty Coke cans, he added, "Sometimes it's fun to kind of pick a fight."


First Published 2012-03-06 23:01:51

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