Triceratops was a large and impressively armoured animal. It lived in the United States and Canada about 68 million years ago and became extinct about 66 million years ago. Fossilized remains of the animal are still being discovered and are gradually improving our knowledge of Triceratops and its life. Some interesting information is coming to light. I think that learning about the animals that once roamed the Earth is a fascinating endeavour.
The photo above shows a Triceratops model that I discovered in Vancouver. The model was part of an animated dinosaur exhibition at the PNE fair in Hastings Park. Though the exhibition was designed to entertain visitors, it was also intended to educate them. The model creators contacted scientists to discover the latest facts known about an animal before they created their replica of the species.
The name “Triceratops” is derived from Latin and Greek words and means “three-horned face”. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the derivation of the name is “New Latin, from tri- + Greek kerat-, keras horn + ōps face”.
Two species in the genus are currently known: T. horridus and T. prorsus. Words like “known” and “facts” should be considered provisional in the study of dinosaurs. As more fossils are discovered, previous ideas about the animals sometimes change. Based on the discoveries to date, an adult Triceratops had a body as long as twenty feet and as tall as ten feet. It may have weighed as much as 12,000 to 16,000 pounds. The front legs were shorter than the back ones and may have been bent or splayed during life. The toes are thought to have ended in small hooves. Unfortunately, we have no idea what colour the animal was.
Triceratops was a ceratopsian dinosaur. The animals belonging to this group had a frilled plate on the back of their head and a beak-shaped jaw. Triceratops had shearing teeth, which were located in the part of the jaw behind the beak. The start of the teeth can be seen in the front view of the model below. The frilled plate was as wide as three feet. As in other dinosaurs, the animal’s skin is believed to have been covered with scales. The tail was short.
The animal had two true horns and a shorter horn-like structure on top of its beak. It also had other spikes on its head. There has been a considerable amount of speculation about the function of the horns and the frilled plate. The horns may have been used in offence and defence. They may also have been involved in attracting a mate or in establishing dominance over other members of the species. The frilled plate may have been used to absorb heat on a cold day and release it on a warm one. According to the Redpath Museum at McGill University in Canada, the horns and the plate changed their shape and orientation as the animal matured.
North America was a single land mass until around 95 years ago. At this time, the sea level rose, separating the continent into two large island continents—Laramidia and Appalachia. The islands were separated by a body of water known as the Western Interior Seaway. They rejoined around 68 million years ago. Different sources give slightly different dates for the existence of Laramidia. The island was a long strip of land that today forms western North America. The area is a rich source of dinosaur remains.
The current ideas about the dates of Laramidia’s existence means the area may have been an island when some members of the Triceratops genus were alive. Even if this isn’t the case, the animals lived in the region once known as Laramidia.
Fossils of plant-eating dinosaurs are often found in groups. It’s thought that travelling in a group gave them protection from predators. Triceratops is often found singly, however, which suggests that at least sometimes it travelled alone.
Grasses didn’t exist when Triceratops lived. The animal probably ate shrubs, ferns, cycads, and palm fronds. Ferns and cycads were larger and more dominant in the time of the dinosaurs than they are today. Some palm species thrived in Laramidia. The Redpath Museum says that the jaws of Triceratops were strong enough for the animal to cut down and eat whole trees. It’s unknown whether it did this, however.
Triceratops lived at the same time as Tyrannosaurus rex and in the same habitat. The two species would very likely have come into contact with one another. It’s often assumed that the larger T. rex would have been the winner in any conflict between the species. This may not have been always the case.
According to the Natural History Museum in the UK, fossilized remains of a Triceratops showed that a horn had been bitten off. The bite shapes match those that would have come from a T. rex. The wound didn’t kill the victim and healed during the lifetime of the Triceratops. The recovery showed that it survived the attack.
At the end of the Cretaceous period, a mass extinction event happened on Earth and dinosaurs disappeared. Although the timing of this event is sometimes said to be 65 million years ago, a more recent analysis puts the date at 66 million years ago. The cause of the extinction is still uncertain.
One theory to explain the event says that a huge asteroid struck the Yucatan peninsula and sent massive amounts of debris into the atmosphere. The debris is thought to have darkened the Earth, killing plants by preventing photosynthesis and indirectly killing the animals that ate the plants. Not all life on Earth was harmed by the extinction event, however. In addition, many biologists believe that today’s birds are descended from dinosaurs, so their ancestors must have survived the cataclysm. In this case, it’s not correct to say that dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period.
I’m encouraged by the fact that even as we move further away from the time of the dinosaurs, we are still discovering interesting evidence of their existence and lives. Bones and the surrounding or nearby sediments can offer important clues about life in the distant past. I’m looking forward to future discoveries about Triceratops. The study of dinosaurs is intriguing.
- Information about Triceratops from the Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Facts about the dinosaur from the Natural History Museum in the UK
- Information about Sara the Triceratops from the McGill University Redpath Museum
- Laramidia facts from The Royal Society Publishing
- End of the Cretaceous Period from the University of Kansas
- Derivation of the animal’s name from the Merriam-Webster dictionary