Triceratops Fossils Allow a Look into the Past

Full Grown Triceratops DinosaurTriceratops is a very well known dinosaur today.  Most people can create an image of this extinct dinosaur in their minds but Triceratops confused scientists when it was first discovered.  Triceratops was discovered in Denver, Colorado, in 1887. At first, those who discovered it and were involved thought that the fossils belonged to a rare and unique species of bison, a theory at first developed by O.C. Marsh, a paleontologist we’ve spoken about before. Soon, those involved did conclude that the remains belonged to a dinosaur. Triceratops fossils have been found all across North America since the first discovery many years ago.


Triceratops probably ate tough and fibrous plant material, as their teeth were quite large. Scientists currently believe that, as the tough foliage wore down the Triceratops’ teeth, new teeth formed. At the rate this likely happened, the dinosaur would have gone through hundreds of teeth in their lifetime.


Fossil of Triceratop's HeadThe name Triceratops means “three horned face” in Greek, from “tri-” meaning three and “keratops” meaning horn face. In actuality, they only had two real horns, made of bone. The third was made of muscle, like the horn of a rhinoceros, and have to be determined to exist through formations in the skull since muscle is not preserved. Scientists are still unsure as to why this third horn exists, and are also still questioning what purpose any of the horns served, for that matter. Some think that it was used to defend against predators, most namely Tyrannosaurus rex. Triceratops may have put their head down and charged like a rhino or a bull to injure and drive away such threats. Some scientists think that the horns were purely a way of displaying and attracting mates, like the horns on a deer or gazelle.


Triceratops is also distinctive for the large frill at the back of their head. Many believe that it played a crucial role in regulating the body temperature of the dinosaur, perhaps even as an umbrella or parasol.  Some have theorized that the large head frill could protect this dinosaur’s neck while defending itself.

Complete Skeleton of Triceratops

Triceratops lived during the Cretaceous Period, 65 million years ago. This was in fact at the very end of the Cretaceous Period and was one of the last dinosaurs to go extinct.

There have been many theories pertaining to sub-species of Triceratops, but there are only two recognized today, one evolving into the other over the course of a few million years. Most of this knowledge comes from dig sites in Montana, most notably the Hell Creek formation. There has also been some debate about the classifications of Diceratops and Triceratops, and whether they might not be the same species, yet at different stages in life. This theory is supported by the discovery that the frill actually doesn’t grow in fully until later in life.


Full Grown Triceratops DinosaurTriceratops was gigantic, reaching a length of 30 feet, and standing 10 feet high. Their skull was nearly a third of the length of their entire skeleton. They weighed over 11,000 pounds, too, about the weight of two full-grown elephants. Once fully grown, the two brow horns (the “real” horns) grew to 3 feet long, as well.




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2 thoughts on “Triceratops Fossils Allow a Look into the Past”

  1. Triceratops has always been one of my favorite dinosaurs, but I admit that I have never heard of the Diceratops sub-species theory until reading your blog today.
    I wonder about a couple things:
    If the 3rd horn is made of muscle, how do scientists know it existed, since it isn’t fossilized?
    Have scientists discovered lots of scattered, fossilized Triceratops teeth, to support the theory they would’ve lost hundreds of them in their lifetime?
    Fascinating, thanks for another great blog!

    1. Similar to the Rhinoceros, the third horn has a skeletal base and so scientists have concluded that the horn was made of tissue because the skull look prepared to support it. We know that they lost teeth throughout their lifetime because fossils have been found of individuals who hadn’t lost all of their teeth yet and so had several more stacked beneath each tooth, like human baby teeth and adult teeth.
      Thank you for reading and thanks for your comment! 🙂

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