Protoceratops, pronounced pro-to-SER-uh-TOPS, (Greek—First Horned Face) was a small prehistoric ceratopsian dinosaur of the ornithischian order that existed in the Late Cretaceous Period. Named primarily as designation of a similar genus to Ceratops, meaning “before Ceratops”, it is a genus considered on many platforms to be misclassified. Its type species is P. montanus. However, now the species is referred to as Ceratops montanus, or C. montanus.
|Prehistoric Era||Late Cretaceous|
|Weight||900 pounds (408 kg)|
|Length||6 feet (1.8 meters)|
|Height||2.6 feet (0.8 meters)|
|Maximum Speed||Unknown but Slow|
|Territory||Mongolia, North America|
In zoological nomenclature (1999) Paul Penkalski and Peter Dodson concluded that Ceratops is a nomen dubium, which is Latin for “doubtful name”. The scientists found remains to be inconclusively named prior, and of doubtful application. Protoceratops was different from later, already discovered Ceratopsians; it was much smaller and lacked the well-developed horns of the later ceratopsian. Protoceratops still bore certain primitive traits not seen in later genera Ceratops.
C. montanus is related to much larger Triceratops, the most popular ceratopsian when regarding the general public’s dinosaur awareness.
Researchers distinguish two species of Protoceratops (P. andrewsi and P. hellenikorhinus), based in part on their respective sizes. P. andrewsi had bones under its eyes which appear to have been a mechanism of natural defense against predators lunging at the throat. These bones could poke an eye out of an aggressive predator, or gouge its flesh.
P. hellenikorhinus is not as well-known as P. andrewsi. A larger type species, the skull of P. hellenikorhinus measures 80 centimeters, versus Andrewsi’s 50 centimeters in length. In addition, the ventral margin of Hellenikorhinus is straight as opposed to curved and sports two parallel nasal horns. At the same time, the nasal horn morphology of Hellenikorhinus is variable among the species, with some Hellenikorhinus missing horns entirely.
What Did Protoceratops Look Like?
Protoceratops was a small and quadrupedal Ceratopsian dinosaur, the size of a pig or sheep. Very stout, the species could weigh 400—900 pounds. The head was large for the body, with a protective shield in the form of a bony frill or plate, over the back of the neck. The snout was beaked, like that of a rhinoceros. In relation to the size of its face, the horn doesn’t appear sized to be of much effect other than to gore or disembowel. The jaws of Procreators were especially muscular and could lock down powerfully. It had teeth for chewing area plants and its tall beaked maxilla was incredibly large, having the appearance of being one with the skull. The mandibular joint had a horn-like protuberance known as the predentary bone which articulated with the upper rostral bone. Together, these two form a beak like a parrot (the lower predentary bone being found in all ornithischian animals). The skull has a triangular appearance due to the jugal bones which are located under the eyes and flare out to the side.
Although fossilized dinosaur eggs had been found in the 1920s (by Roy Chapman Andrews, the same expedition leader who actioned on Proceratops’ discovery in the Gobi desert, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, by photographer J.B. Shackelford) and were presumed to be eggs of Protoceratops, new findings in 1993 determined those eggs to instead be the eggs of Oviraptor. This was due to discovery of an actual embryo that was species determinable. Then, in 2011, a nest of young P. andrewsi was found. This is marked as the first found Protoceratops nest, and has led scientists to entertain the possibility that Protoceratops parents may have cared for young in their nests.
After hatching, the dinosaur babies probably resembled toads, with small bumps on the face and the indicative frill bump at the skull’s base. It’s thought that the horn bumps remained stunted—or did no develop—until later species of Ceratops.
What Did Protoceratops Eat?
Proceratops were herbivore Ceratopsians who used beaked snouts filled with teeth to eat on the period flora. The beak’s predenatory features aided Proceratops in its endeavors for food. It’s most likely that they grazed on fresh growing plants due to their small size, with later species grazing early grasses as they appeared toward the end of the cretaceous period. Horsetails were an important source of nutrition for herbivore dinosaurs. Fast-growing and resilient, Horsetails propagate via root systems that are underground and this allowed for much munching with plenty of new growth for some time. These and other flowering plants were widespread during the Cretaceous Period. These types of plants (angiosperms) evolved during the late Jurassic Period, and were largely contributive to the huge proliferation of dinosaurs of the dinosaur age.
Where early Mesozoic Era foliage included more tree-like specimens as Magnolias, Laurels, Figs and Sycamores, later Mesozoic Era plants—along with grasses—evolved much later. While these earlier foliages continued to thrive and propagate, the newer angiosperms were quick to adapt. This also led to the decline of many species of the period, in tandem with the rise of dinosaurs.
Proceratops likely lived a cathemeral lifestyle, being active throughout the day during short intervals. Prior to the feasibility of cathemeralism, Proceratops was considered to be primarily nocturnal, due to its large eyes.
How Did Protoceratops Move?
While Protoceratops evolved from the small bipedal Ceratopsians like Psittacosaurus, Protoceratops was larger and quadrupedal. The hind limbs were stronger than the forelimbs and lent the back a pronounced arch. Protoceratops front moved low to the ground, while its frill protected its neck from larger aggressors that would approach from the top. Protoceratops likely came out to feed and socialize during short interims of the day and night, as opposed to being strictly nocturnal or diurnal.
Where Did Protoceratops Live?
Protoceratops lived on the supercontinent of Pangaea during the Cretaceous Period, a time when the separation of continents was taking place. During the early Cretaceous, the climate was warm and humid. There would have been no polar ice in the beginning, and not much seasonality. However, as the Cretaceous Period moved on, there would have been dramatic climate changes, decreased sea levels and high volcanic activity. Protoceratops existed throughout a time of cataclysmic change, with new mountain ranges being formed and temperatures eventually cooling. As the continental plates continued to separate and drift, the seasons would have become more pronounced.
The Discovery of Protoceratops
Discovered primarily in China and Mongolia, various growth stages in Protoceratops are found. Photographer J.B. Shackelford discovered the first specimen of Protoceratops in the Gobi desert. Many different specimens were recovered by expeditions led by Roy Chapman Andrews. These included Velociraptor, Oviraptor, and ceratopsid Psittacosaurus. Protoceratops are considered to represent the horned, frilled and herbivorous Ceratopsians. So, Protoceratops is the first named Protoceratopsian, and lends its name to the family Protoceratopsidae. The Protoceratopsidae are more Psittacosaurid than Ceratopsid. The family is characterized by similarities to the Ceratopsidae, but they have more cursorial limb proportions, smaller frills and lack of large horns.
The Griffins of Yesteryear Were Protoceratops
Protoceratops may have been the first dinosaur ever found by people who lived on earth, long before the 20th century fossil discoveries. Although never credited as a prehistoric dinosaur, it is believed that the ancient Greeks began describing the prehistoric animal around 675 B.C.
Legend was built around the Griffin, a creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The Griffin was thought to be majestic and powerful, and thought to protect treasures and divine power. It is proposed (by historian Adrienne Mayor of Stanford U.) that the Greek Griffin was misconceived at the time, and actually derived from fossilized remains of Protoceratops. The word Griffin is related to the term Cherub.
The Significance of Protoceratops
Protoceratops (Ceratops) was the first dinosaur known through every stage of life, and ultimately to its extinction during the End-Cretaceous event that was responsible for the loss of the dinosaur species. Ceratops are found in abundance due to the stoutness of their build, and have helped scientists open many doors to the prehistoric era. Protoceratops is important in the history of dinosaurs, since it is the type species for which both Ceratopsia and Ceratopsidae are named.