Dinosaurs never fail to spark interest and enthusiasm in the modern world. The gigantic creatures which once walked the face of the earth millions of years ago have fascinated the human race for centuries. This does not come as a surprise; the existence of such amazing, larger than life beings evokes an unparalleled sense of wonder in people. One of the most well-known dinosaurs is the Triceratops. This term paper aims to discuss the essential details behind the existence of the three-horned creature, from its evolution to its extinction.
The Triceratops belonged to the group of four-legged, herbivore dinosaurs (Russell, 2008). The name of the dinosaur was derived from three Greek terms: “treis”, “kerat” and “ops” (Russell, 2008). These words mean “three,” “horn” and “face,” respectively. Hence, the name of the dinosaur literally means “three horn face” (Ostrom, 1992).
This name was apt because Triceratops has three horns found on their skull. One horn was located on the snout, while one horn each was situated over each eye. They also had a bony shield that extended from the creature’s shoulders to its back, which was called the frill. The Triceratops was not only one of the biggest horned dinosaurs which existed on earth, these were also the last of their kind (Ostrom, 1992; Russell, 2008). Triceratops was included under the category of ceratopsians, or “horn-face” dinosaurs (Russell, 2008).
The ceratopsians were similar to modern day rhinoceroses; most of these creatures had large and heavy bodies, as well as thickset legs (Ostrom, 1992). These dinosaurs were distinctly characterized with frills and horns. Some have shorter frills with longer horns, while others have longer frills and shorter horns. Examples of other ceratopsians include the Brachyceratops, Anchiceratops, Styracosaurus, Protoceratops and Microceratops. The Triceratops was the biggest and stockiest of the dinosaurs with long frills.
The frill was a unique feature found in all dinosaurs with horns. It was said that the main purpose of the frills was to provide protection in the neck area when the dinosaur was under attack. The frill also served as the link for the neck muscles which were responsible for moving the head during a fight (Ostrom, 1992). The ceratopsians were part of another group of dinosaurs known as ornithiscians, a name which meant “bird-hipped” (Russell, 2008).
The Triceratops existed during the Cretaceous Period, a phase which has occurred over 65 million years ago (Russell, 2008). The time when dinosaurs ruled the earth was identified as the Mesozoic Era (Ostrom, 1992). The duration of this period was estimated to have begun 250 million years ago. The era was divided into three parts, the Cretaceous Period being the last phase; the first two were the Triassic and the Jurassic Periods. The ceratopsians initially appeared during the Jurassic Period, but the Triceratops only came into existence in the period that came after it (Ostrom, 1992).
The massive terrain changes during the Cretaceous Period contributed to the diverse terrain which the Triceratops occupied while in existence (“Cretaceous Period,” 2009). During that period, the super continent Pangaea was slowly disintegrating. This resulted in separated, smaller continents to be formed. As oceans filled the spaces in between the newly formed continents, the landscape was transformed completely. It was noted that dinosaurs such as the Triceratops traveled the plains and forests, even roaming along coastlines. The flora and fauna were also remarkably changed.
Flowering plants such as Magnolias became dominant, while other plants like ferns and conifers continued to thrive. The abundance of plants proved beneficial for the Triceratops, for they were a plant-eating species (“Cretaceous Period,” 2009). The enormous size of such creatures insinuated that their habitat had ample food supply.
Triceratops had “strong, turtlelike beaks” which these dinosaurs used to pull off plants, while they have long rows of teeth were used to chop the food into pieces (Ostrom, 1992, p. 296). Their jaws were said to have had the capacity to harvest plants such as palmettos and cattails (Russell, 2008). Such system of nourishment was rather unique among all other plant-eating species (Ostrom, 1992).
The information modern society has acquired of the Triceratops were solely dependent on the studies based on the found fossils. It was in 1889 when the first fossil from the Triceratops was found (South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks [SDDGFP], n.d.). The fossil was one fragment of a Triceratops horn, which was labeled as Bison alticornis. Soon after, John Bell Hatcher has discovered that the origins of the fossil could be traced to eastern Wyoming.
Triceratops fossils were spread out in various places in the United States of America. Fossils can be found in the following areas: “eastern and western Wyoming, eastern Montana, southwestern North Dakota and central Colorado” (SDDGFP, n.d.). In South Dakota, Triceratops fossils were concentrated in the following counties: Butte, Corson, Dewey, Harding, Meade, Perkins and Ziebach. It was in 1927 when an almost complete skull of the Triceratops horridus was located in Harding County.
This fossil remains on display in Rapid City, at the Museum of Geology in the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota also carried Triceratops fossils. The remains of the Triceratops were not limited to the U.S. mainland alone; specimens were also gathered in Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada (SDDGFP, n.d.).
Paleontologists have gathered numerous Triceratops fossils throughout the years. The fossils were dated to be at least 68 million years old. The collection consisted of an estimated 50 Triceratops skulls, both partial and complete, as well as fragmented skeletons (SDDGFP, n.d.). Due to the unique horns and the frills, Triceratops skulls became one of the most distinguished dinosaur fossils. The study of these skulls could be used to provide necessary information about these dinosaurs, such as difference in sex and genetics. The fossils have presented an opportunity for researchers to learn other things about this extinct creature.
According to fossil findings, the sense of sight could have been crucial to the Triceratops as evident in the size of its eye socket. The eyes of this dinosaur were found to be tilted to the sides with the purpose of increasing the width of the view (SDDGFP, n.d.). The fossils found also revealed the bone structure of the Triceratops. There were as much as 50 vertebrae in the tail, while the distance between the neck and the pelvis consisted of 12 vertebrae.
Both the neck and sacral vertebrae has ten each. As for the feet of the Triceratops, the creatures were found to be quadrupeds; all legs were needed for walking. On one hand, the two legs in front have 5 toes per feet. On the other hand, the two hind legs are longer that those in the front, and each foot only had four toes (SDDGFP, n.d.).
Archaeologists also determined animal behavior through the fossils. The young and adult Triceratops were known to have lived in herds (Dodson, 1998). Living in herds seemed ideal to these herbivore dinosaurs, as this arrangement is most useful in scaring off predators and protecting the young.
The Tyrannosaurus rex was carnivorous, which is the primary reason why it considers Triceratops as its prey. When faced with an attack, the adult Triceratops would situate the young behind them and form a circle behind them. The herd would travel together in search of food. It would be more difficult for the Tyrannosaurus rex to attack a herd instead of an individual Triceratops. Such strategy not only allowed the older dinosaurs to protect themselves, but it also assured the safety of their young. The herd system also guaranteed the safety of the Triceratops when looking for food (Dodson, 1998).
Further studies proved that the horns and frill of the Triceratops had multiple uses. For instance, the Triceratops had to defend themselves from the aforementioned attacks of the Tyrannosaurus rex, as well as other predators (Dodson, 1998). However, there are two other uses for these creatures’ defensive mechanism.
Because of a recent discovery, it was established that Triceratops participated in fights using their horns, making them similar to modern day animals such as antelope, deer, sheep and goats (Reilly, 2009; Russell, 2008). The horn locking habits of the Triceratops were revealed when paleontologists Andrew Farke and his team studied a sample of 400 skull bones from 50 skeletons of the Triceratops. This sample was assessed based on the evident injuries and was compared to the skull injuries of the Centrosaurus (Reilly, 2009).
It was later found that the Triceratops had about ten times more injuries than the Centrosaurus, proof that the former dinosaurs were more prone to battles. It was the male Triceratops that engaged in battle with another one of his kind (Ostrom, 1992). Horn locking proved to be the measure of one’s strength; whoever emerges victorious in combat is deemed as the strongest and worthy to mate with the female Triceratops and lead their herd (Ostrom, 1992).
The fossils were not the only thing which provided researchers with valuable information about Triceratops. The deposits in which the fossils were found also revealed significant findings about the said dinosaurs (SDDGFP, n.d.). The rocks in which Triceratops bones were found to be similar to those located in lowlands near the coast. Rocks of this kind were present in the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast of the United States. In these coasts, the surrounding plants included cycads, palms, conifers, ferns and other flowering plants. Experts suggested that plants like ferns could have been choice of food of the Triceratops (SDDGFP, n.d.).
The Triceratops was believed to have evolved from smaller dinosaurs. In 2002, Peter Makovicky, PhD, of The Field Museum discovered the fossils of the Liaoceratops yanzigouensis, a neoceratops as small as a hare (Field Museum, 2002). This specimen was named after the Chinese province Liaoning and village Yanzigou, where the fossils were found. According to Dr. Makovicky’s findings, the Triceratops and its cousins evolved from the newly revealed ceratopsian species.
Just like the Triceratops, the Liaoceratops also had horns, but each was located underneath the eyes. Liaoceratops were speculated to have eaten plants such as conifers, gingko and horsetails. The teeth of the said dinosaur appeared to have been created for “slicing and shearing rather than grinding,” a similar feeding mechanism found in Triceratops (Field Museum, 2002). Nonetheless, the same findings on the Liaoceratops have suggested that the horns may have not evolved for self-defense (Field Museum, 2002).