Palaeontologists John Scannella and Jack Horner are presenting the case that the triceratops and it’s relative the torosaurus, despite the different skulls, are actually the same species in different stages of life.
Triceratops had three facial horns and a short, thick neck-frill with a saw-toothed edge. Torosaurus also had three horns, though at different angles, and a much longer, thinner, smooth-edged frill with two large holes in it. So it’s not surprising that Othniel Marsh, who discovered both in the late 1800s, considered them to be separate species.
Now Scannella and Horner say that triceratops is merely the juvenile form of torosaurus. As the animal aged, its horns changed shape and orientation and its frill became longer, thinner and less jagged. Finally it became fenestrated, producing the classic torosaurus form (see diagram, right).
This extreme shape-shifting was possible because the bone tissue in the frill and horns stayed immature, spongy and riddled with blood vessels, never fully hardening into solid bone as happens in most animals during early adulthood. The only modern animal known to do anything similar is the cassowary, descended from the dinosaurs, which develops a large spongy crest when its skull is about 80 per cent fully grown.
Shape-shifting continued throughout these dinosaurs’ lives, Scannella says. “Even in the most mature specimens that we’ve examined, there is evidence that the skull was still undergoing dramatic changes at the time of death.”