Triceratops was a Late Ceratopsid Dinosaur
A ceratopsid (horned) dinosaur, Triceratops lived during the late Cretaceous Period about 65 million years ago, in what is now known as North America. Meaning “three-horned face” when translated from the Greek language, Triceratops (pronounced Try-serra-tops) was one of the last non-avian dinosaurs to live before the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction.
Triceratops is one of the most recognizable of all dinosaur species and is the best known ceratopsid. This was also the most numerous of all the horned dinosaurs as well the largest, though it is now widely agreed upon that Triceratops was only a juvenile; its contemporary Torosaurus being the adult version of this horned herbivore.
|Prehistoric Era||Late Cretaceous|
|Weight||7 short tons (6.3 tonnes)|
|Length||26 feet (7.9 meters)|
|Height||9.5 feet (2.9 meters)|
|Maximum Speed||20 mph|
What did Triceratops Look Like?
Similar in looks to a modern day rhinoceros Triceratops had a large sturdy body and was covered in a thick bumpy hide with a short pointed tail. This Ceratopsidae stood on four muscular yet short legs and had four “toed” hoofed feet and three “fingered” hoofed hands.
Triceratops measured approximately 26 – 29 feet in length and stood at a height of 9.5 feet weighing around 7 tons. Triceratops had a large distinctive head which was adorned with a horn on its snout just above the nostrils and a pair of long double-re-curved horns on its head, one above each eye. These horns could have measured about 3 feet long. Triceratops had a long but relatively short (in height) bony plate growing out from the back of its skull, this neck frill was made from bone and spanned almost 7 feet.
Physical Attributes of Triceratops
A dinosaur of intermediate intelligence, Triceratops had a distinctively large skull measuring up to 8 feet in length meaning it comprised almost a third of the length of the animal.
Triceratops had between 432-800 sharp teeth in its cheeks and had particularly powerful jaws, though only a fraction of these teeth were in use at any one time. Its teeth were arranged in groups called batteries with 36-40 teeth columns on each side of the jaw with 3-5 stacked teeth per column. The stacked teeth in these columns were constantly moving up to replace the older teeth above.
The Function of Triceratops Horns and Frills
The function of Triceratops frills and horns has long been debated over. Originally it was thought that they were used as defensive weapons in combat against each other as well as against predators such as T. Rex. Evidence exists that Triceratops and T. Rex did have aggressive head-on encounters.
More recently, with the realization that blood vessels were present in the skull bones of these ceratopsids, it is thought that Triceratops adornments were used mostly in visual sexual and dominance displays. This is similar to the way that modern day deer use their horns. Evidence suggests that visual display was important to Triceratops, whether in courtship or other social circumstances such as for identification. This can be seen by the fact that horned dinosaurs have different adornments making each family distinctive. The frills and horns developed at an early age in Triceratops, pre-dating sexual development, so the theory that their adornments were important for visual communication and in recognizing different species is backed up.
When Triceratops was first discovered it was thought that perhaps the frills served as anchor points for the jaw muscles to aid in chewing but this theory has been discredited. Further studies did not find evidence of large muscle attachments on the frill bones, however some palaeontologists do think that the frill may have helped to regulate the body temperature in the same way that a modern day African elephant uses its ears in thermo-regulation.
Perhaps Triceratops frill and horns were used in each of these different ways and that they didn’t have just a single function but until more evidence is found palaeontologists will continue their debate.
What did Triceratops Eat?
Triceratops was a herbivore and would have eaten large amounts of fibrous plant material though palaeontologists aren’t sure of the exact plant matter it ate. Because of its low head, it is thought that its primary food source would have been low-growing plants – though Triceratops may have been able to knock down taller plants with the strength of its body along with its horns. This evidence points towards the fact that Triceratops would have eaten ferns or palms and cycads.
Triceratops had a narrow beak similar to modern day parrots. It is thought by palaeontologists that this beak would have been used for grasping and plucking at the vegetation and its teeth would have been used to shred and grind the plants.
How did Triceratops Move?
Triceratops was quadrupedal, meaning it walked on four legs. Though this dinosaur had great strength and power it lacked speed with palaeontologist estimating a top speed of 20 miles per hour for Triceratops.
Triceratops’ posture is, again, debated by palaeontologists. At first it was thought that Triceratops front legs would have been sprawled out slightly at angles to bear the weight of its large head. But evidence in the form of track-ways and recent reconstructions of skeletons show that Triceratops (along with other ceratopsids,) moved with the elbows flexed and slightly bowed outwards just like the modern day rhinoceros.
Triceratops had primitive “hand” and forearm structures and walked with its fingers pointing out and away from the body, the weight of the body carried on just the first three fingers of each hand with the remaining two fingers being vestigial and lacking claws or hooves meaning they had become functionless in the course of evolution.
Where did Triceratops Live?
Triceratops lived in what is today recognized as North America ranging from the Western United States (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming) up into Western Canada (Alberta and Saskatchewan).
It is thought that Triceratops lived in herds, a theory which is supported by the discovery of bone beds where large deposits of bones from many individual Triceratops were found in one area.
Contemporaries of Triceratops include: Dryptosaurus, Corythosaurus, Ankylosaurus and Triceratops’ main predator the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The Discovery of Triceratops
There are two valid species of Triceratops, T-horridus and T-prorsus though many other species have been named but are now thought to be male/female variants.
Triceratops was first discovered in Denver, Colorado in 1887 from a fossil of two brow horns attached to the roof skull. However this fossil was originally identified as coming from an extinct species of buffalo (Bison alticornis). It wasn’t until 1888 with the discovery of a Triceratops skull, discovered by John Bell Hatcher, that the original fossil was realized to be from a horned-dinosaur and not buffalo. In 1889 the first genus (T. horridus, named from Latin meaning rough for the roughened texture of the bones) was described, documented and named by Othniel Marsh.
Many remains of Triceratops, including one partially complete skeleton have been recovered with specimens ranging from hatchlings to adults. Triceratops skeleton fossils are a very rare occurrence, though Triceratops skulls in fossil form are very common due to them being sturdy enough to survive over time. In just one decade (2000-2010) 47 complete or partial skulls were discovered in the Hell Creek Formation.
The Importance of Triceratops
Through palaeontologist’s continued work it is now believed that Triceratops was a juvenile dinosaur and that the mature version, once thought a different genus, is Torosaurus. With more evidence and palaeontologists re-examining evidence, re-classification and correcting mis-identification is possible helping us to find out more about the true evolution of these extinct creatures.
Triceratops is also vitally important since in phylogenetic taxonomy the genus Triceratops has been used as a reference point in the definition of Dinosauria. Also the order Ornithiscia (bird-hipped dinosaurs), to which Triceratops belongs, has been designated to mean all dinosaurs with a more recent common ancestor to Triceratops than modern birds.