The first named specimen now attributed to Triceratops is a pair of brow horns attached to a skull roof, found near Denver, Colorado in the spring of 1887. This specimen was sent to Othniel Charles Marsh, who believed that the formation from which it came dated from the Pliocene, and that the bones belonged to a particularly large and unusual bison, which he named Bison alticornis. He realized that there were horned dinosaurs by the next year, which saw his publication of the genus Ceratops from fragmentary remains, but he still believed B. alticornis to be a Pliocene mammal. It took a third and much more complete skull to change his mind. The specimen, collected in 1888 by John Bell Hatcher from the Lance Formation of Wyoming, was initially described as another species of Ceratops. After reflection, Marsh changed his mind and gave it the generic name Triceratops, accepting his Bison alticornis as another species of Ceratops (it would later be added to Triceratops). The sturdy nature of the animal’s skull has ensured that many examples have been preserved as fossils, allowing variations between species and individuals to be studied. Triceratops remains have subsequently been found in the American states of Montana and South Dakota (in addition to Colorado and Wyoming), and in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, Canada.
An earlier specimen, also recovered from the Lance Formation, was named Agathaumas sylvestris by Edward Drinker Cope in 1872. Originally identified as a hadrosaur, this specimen consists only of post-cranial remains and is only provisionally considered an example of Triceratops.
Triceratops is the best known genus of the Ceratopsidae, a family of large North American horned dinosaurs. The exact location of Triceratops among the ceratopsians has been debated over the years. Confusion stemmed mainly from the combination of short, solid frills (similar to that of Centrosaurinae), and the long brow horns (more akin to Ceratopsinae, also known as Chasmosaurinae). In the first overview of horned dinosaurs, R. S. Lull hypothesized two lineages, one of Monoclonius and Centrosaurus leading to Triceratops, the other with Ceratops and Torosaurus, making Triceratops a centrosaurine as the group is understood today. Later revisions supported this view, formally describing the first, short-frilled group as Centrosaurinae (including Triceratops), and the second, long-frilled group as Chasmosaurinae.
In 1949, C. M. Sternberg was the first to question this and favoured instead that Triceratops was more closely related to Arrhinoceratops and Chasmosaurus based on skull and horn features, making Triceratops a ceratopsine (chasmosaurine of his usage) genus. He was largely ignored, with John Ostrom, and later David Norman both placing Triceratops within Centrosaurinae.
Subsequent discoveries and analyses upheld Sternberg’s view on the position of Triceratops, with Lehman defining both subfamilies in 1990 and diagnosing Triceratops as ceratopsine (chasmosaurine of his usage) on the basis of several morphological features. In fact, it fits well into the ceratopsine subfamily, apart from its one feature of a shortened frill. Further research by Peter Dodson, including a 1990 cladistic analysis and a 1993 study using RFTRA (resistant-fit theta-rho analysis), a morphometric technique which systematically measures similarities in skull shape, reinforces Triceratops’ placement in the ceratopsine subfamily.
- T. horridus (Marsh, 1889) (originally Ceratops) (type species)
- T. prorsus (Marsh, 1890)
Synonyms and doubtful species
The following species are considered nomina dubia (“dubious names”), and are based on remains that are too poor or incomplete to be distinguished from pre-existing Triceratops species.
- T. albertensis (C. M. Sternberg, 1949)
- T. alticornis (Marsh, 1887 [originally Bison])
- T. brevicornus (Hatcher, 1905) (=T. prorsus)
- T. calicornis (Marsh, 1898) (=T. horridus)
- T. elatus (Marsh, 1891) (=T. horridus)
- T. eurycephalus (Schlaikjer, 1935)
- T. flabellatus (Marsh, 1889) (=T. horridus)
- T. galeus (Marsh, 1889)
- T. hatcheri (Lull, 1907) (contentious; see Nedoceratops below)
- T. ingens (Lull, 1915)
- T. maximus (Brown, 1933)
- T. mortuarius (Cope, 1874) (nomen dubium; originally Polyonax mortuarius)
- T. obtusus (Marsh, 1898) (=T. horridus)
- T. serratus (Marsh, 1890) (=T. horridus)
- T. sulcatus (Marsh, 1890)
- T. sylvestris (Cope, 1872) (nomen dubium; originally Agathaumas sylvestris)
Triceratops were herbivorous, and because of their low head, their primary food was probably low growth, although they may have been able to knock down taller plants with their horns, beak, and bulk. The jaws were tipped with a deep, narrow beak, believed to have been better at grasping and plucking than biting.
Triceratops teeth were arranged in groups called batteries, of 36 to 40 tooth columns, in each side of each jaw with 3 to 5 stacked teeth per column, depending on the size of the animal. This gives a range of 432 to 800 teeth, of which only a fraction were in use at any given time (tooth replacement was continuous and occurred throughout the life of the animal). They functioned by shearing in a vertical to near-vertical orientation. The great size and numerous teeth of Triceratops suggests that they ate large volumes of fibrous plant material, with some suggesting palms and cycads, and others suggesting ferns, which then grew in prairies.