How Much Do You Really Know About Triceratops?

How Much Do You Really Know About Triceratops?

With its three horns and its giant frill, Triceratops is one of those dinosaurs that can be spotted from a mile away. But how much do you really know about this horned, frilled behemoth, other than that its plastic figurine looks cool posed next to your scale-model Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex? On the following slides, you'll discover 10 essential facts about this late Cretaceous plant eater.

Triceratops Had Two Horns, not Three

Triceratops is Greek for "three-horned face," but this dinosaur had only two genuine horns; the third, much shorter "horn" on its snout was actually made from soft proteins, the kind found in human fingernails, and wouldn't have been of much use in a tussle. (By the way, paleontologists have discovered the remains of a two-horned dinosaur called Diceratops, but these may represent a growth stage of Triceratops; see slide #8.)

The Skull of Triceratops Was One-Third the Length of its Entire Body

Part of what makes Triceratops such a recognizable dinosaur is the enormous size of its skull, which, with its backward-pointing frill, could attain a length of over seven feet. Unbelievably, the skulls of other ceratopsians (such as Centrosaurus and Styracosaurus) were even bigger and more elaborate, most likely as a result of sexual selection--and the biggest skull of all belonged to the appropriately named Titanoceratops.

Triceratops Was on T. Rex's Lunch Menu

Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus Rex occupied the same ecosystem (the marshes and forests of western North America) at the same time (about 65 million years ago). Therefore, it's reasonable to assume that T. Rex occasionally preyed on Triceratops, though only Hollywood special-effects wizards know how it managed to evade this plant-eater's sharp horns. (For more on this epic battle, see Tyrannosaurus Rex vs. Triceratops - Who Wins?


Triceratops Had a Hard, Parrot-Like Beak

One of the lesser-recognized facts about ceratopsians like Triceratops is that they possessed bird-like beaks, which they used to clip off tough vegetation. Triceratops also had "batteries" of shearing teeth embedded in its jaws, of which a few hundred were in use at any given time. (As one set of teeth wore down, they would be replaced by those from the adjacent battery, a process that continued throughout this dinosaur's lifetime.)

The Ancestors of Triceratops Were the Size of House Cats

By the time ceratopsians reached North America, during the late Cretaceous period, they had evolved to the size of cattle--but their distant progenitors were small, occasionally bipedal plant-eaters that roamed the expanse of central and eastern Asia. One of the earliest identified ceratopsians is the late Jurassic Chaoyangsaurus, which weighed 30 pounds soaking wet and had only the most rudimentary hint of a horn and frill.

Triceratops Used its Frill to Signal Other Members of the Herd

Why did Triceratops have such a prominent frill? As with all such anatomical structures in nature, this flap of skin likely served a dual (or even triple) purpose, but the most probable explanation is that it was used to signal other members of the herd. A brightly colored  frill (flushed pink, for example, by the numerous blood vessels lying under the surface) may have signaled sexual availability or warned about the approach of a hungry T.


Triceratops May Be the Same Dinosaur as Torosaurus

Various dinosaur genera have recently been reinterpreted as "growth stages" of existing species. This appears to be the case with the two-horned Torosaurus, which some paleontologists argue represents the remains of unusually long-lived Triceratops males whose frills continued to grow into old age. (Despite what you may have heard, it's not true that Triceratops will have to change its name to Torosaurus, the way Brontosaurus suddenly became Apatosaurus.)

Triceratops Was Once Mistaken for a Giant Bison

In 1887, the famous paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh examined a partial Triceratops skull, complete with horns--and promptly assigned the remains to the grazing mammal Bison alticornis, which didn't evolve until tens of millions of years later, long after the dinosaurs had gone extinct. Fortunately for his reputation, Marsh quickly reversed this embarrassing blunder. (See more about the discovery and naming of Triceratops.)

Triceratops Lived Untilthe Brink of the K/T Extinction

Because the skull and horns of Triceratops are so large, so distinctive and so resistant to natural erosion--and because so many fossil specimens have been discovered in the American west--museums and individual collectors are willing to dig deep to enrich their collections. The most famous recent example is Triceratops Cliff, purchased for $1 million in 2008 by a wealthy dinosaur fan and donated to the Boston Museum of Science.


Wait, There's More!

The fossil remains of Triceratops date to the very end of the Cretaceous period, only slightly before the meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs. By this time, paleontologists believe, dinosaur evolution had slowed to a crawl, and the resulting loss of diversity virtually guaranteed their quick extinction. Along with its fellow herbivores, Triceratops was doomed by the loss of its accustomed vegetation, as clouds of dust circled the globe in the wake of the K/T explosion.

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