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Triceratops: An A+ Dinosaur

Paleontologists have recently learned how these three-horned dinosaurs fought, grew up and socialized

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A line-drawing of the Triceratops known as "Raymond." From Fujiwara, 2009.

If you asked me right now what my favorite dinosaur is, I wouldn’t have an answer for you. There are so many fascinating species that I wouldn’t be able to pick just one. If you asked me the same question when I was about 10 years old, though, I would have immediately shot back “Triceratops!” Ol’ three-horned-face was the dinosaur I loved most—not least because you have to respect a dinosaur capable of skewering a Tyrannosaurus. Actually, I still have a soft spot for that most iconic of Late Cretaceous herbivores, and that’s why I was frustrated by Animal Review’s recent assessment of Triceratops.

Animal Review gave Triceratops a grade of B+. That didn’t give me much to complain about. What bugged me was the fact that they perpetuated the common myth that paleontologists don’t know very much at all about this dinosaur other than the fact that it had three horns:

Little is really known about Triceratops. As always, that’s caused no hesitation in wild speculation on the part of paleontologists. For instance, it is now argued that while Triceratops was once believed to live a solitary life, they actually lived in herds. The fossil record is used here, one assumes, despite the fact that a complete Triceratops skeleton has never been found. This is why nobody has ever seen fit to consult paleontologists about anything that might actually matter.

This is what you get when “research” equals skimming Wikipedia. The Wikipedia page for Triceratops says that “a complete skeleton representing a single individual has eluded fossil hunters,” but the citation for that statement comes from 1993′s The Ultimate Dinosaur Book. Not exactly an up-to-date resource, especially since an exquisite, articulated Triceratops skeleton nicknamed “Raymond” was found in 1994. Only the right side of this individual dinosaur was preserved, but since the left side of a dinosaur was the mirror image of the right, Raymond has provided paleontologists with a near-complete look at Triceratops. It’s also worth noting that paleontologist Shin-Ichi Fujiwara recently studied this specimen to get a better idea of how all the bones of the Triceratops forelimb actually fit together.

Raymond is one of the more complete Triceratops, but partial skeletons of this horned dinosaur have been known to paleontologists for a very long time. In 1904 the institution that would become the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History mounted the first skeleton of Triceratops anywhere. This skeleton was created from the remains of several individuals excavated in Wyoming, paleontologist Charles Schuchert explained in an American Journal of Science notice, and the specimens had previously been used by Othniel Charles Marsh’s scientific team to create an illustrated reconstruction of the dinosaur’s skeleton.

The American Museum of Natural History followed suit with its own Triceratops in 1933. Like the Smithsonian dinosaur, the AMNH mount was also a composite of real fossils and plaster casts, and part of the basis for the reconstruction was an incomplete skeleton recovered from Montana by fossil hunter Barnum Brown in 1902. Even though both the Smithsonian and the AMNH skeletons were composites, paleontologists were still able to assemble a complete view of the Triceratops skeleton on the basis of various partial skeletons found in the American West.

I asked horned-dinosaur expert Andy Farke about other complete or near-complete Triceratops to make sure I was not missing any significant finds. In addition to mentioning the composite skeleton at the Science Museum of Minnesota, Farke noted, “The skeleton with ‘Kelsey‘ at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum is also quite nice, and just of a single individual.” He also said that the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles “will also have a nice skeleton on display at its upcoming opening this summer—and I think it’s only a composite of two or three individuals (including a nearly complete leg).”

But a complete skeleton isn’t everything. Paleontologists rejoice when they find near-complete dinosaur skeletons, but partial skeletons and isolated bones make up most of what we know about many dinosaurs. In the case of Triceratops, especially, the skull is arguably the most informative part of the skeleton in terms of the animal’s biology and behavior, and paleontologists have recently been turning to the imposing heads of these dinosaurs to learn more about their lives. In 2009, for example, Farke published a paper on the evidence for Triceratops vs. Triceratops combat with co-authors Ewan Wolff and Darren Tanke. Tell-tale patterns of damage on the skulls of the dinosaurs indicated that they truly were locking horns. Then there’s the recentToroceratopscontroversy over whether the horned dinosaur called Torosaurus represents the adult growth stage of Triceratops. This debate relies upon the skulls of these dinosaurs and the significant changes the animals underwent as they grew up, and is a representative case of how paleontologists are using multiple lines of evidence to investigate the paleobiology of dinosaurs.

Collections of incomplete skeletons can tell us more about Triceratops lives. Another 2009 paper reported on the discovery of several young Triceratops preserved in the same bonebed. This discovery threw support to the idea that juvenile dinosaurs might have hung out together during a vulnerable time in their lives.

Complete, reconstructed skeletons in museums are very impressive, but partial skeletons and isolated bones are the bread-and-butter of dinosaur research. That’s because a collection of skulls or partial skeletons can act as a fossil database that allows paleontologists to investigate questions that cannot be approached by studying a single, complete skeleton. In this respect, Triceratops is an excellent study animal due to the sheer number of specimens that have been collected, and I have no doubt that future investigations will continue to flesh out what this dinosaur was like in life. To me, Triceratops is still an A+ dinosaur.

References:

Brown, B. 1906. New notes on the osteology of Triceratops. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 22 (17), 297-300

Farke AA, Wolff ED, & Tanke DH (2009). Evidence of combat in triceratops. PloS one, 4 (1) PMID: 19172995

Fujiwara, S. (2009). A reevaluation of the manus structure in Triceratops (Ceratopsia: Ceratopsidae) Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 29 (4), 1136-1147 DOI: 10.1671/039.029.0406

Osborn, H.F. 1933. Mounted skeleton of Triceratops elatus. American Museum Novitates, 654, 1-14

Schuchert, C. 1904. The mounted skeleton of Triceratops prorsus in the U.S. National Museum. The American Journal of Science, 4 (20), 458-459

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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