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Triceratops

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Marginocephalia/Ceratopsidae
Karen Carr. Copyright 2007

Field Notes

Name Means: "Three-horned head"
Length: 30 feet (9 m)
Diet: Herbivore (Plant-Eater)
Time: Late Cretaceous
Location: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Canada, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, USA

Triceratops is one of the best known of all dinosaurs and was the largest of the ceratopsians. Its massive head bore a short frill of solid bone along with the three large horns for which it is named-one above each eye and a smaller one on the snout. Traces of blood vessels found in the frill and horn have suggested to some paleontologists that the frill may have served as a means of regulating the animal's body temperature. As with other ceratopsians, the frill would have been covered with skin and may also have been used during courtship display.

Triceratops, which moved on all fours, had a heavy, robust body-this was necessary to support the weight of its head-and a short tail. Its solidly built forelimbs were shorter than the hindlimbs and do not seem to have been made for fast movement.

Fragmentary remains of large horned dinosaurs had been found in North America since 1855, but it was not until 1889 that John Bell Hatcher, who was searching the area around Niobrara County, Wyoming, happened upon the first complete skull. Othniel Charles Marsh studied the discovery and in 1899 bestowed upon it the evocative name Triceratops horridus. Over the next three years, Hatcher collected about 30 neoceratopsian skulls, most of them identified as belonging to Triceratops. Barnum Brown is also credited with collecting many Triceratops skulls between 10 and 20 years later.

Some 16 different species were eventually named, about half of them by Marsh. Many of these species identifications were based on isolated horns and variable features of the skull. However, recent research by Dr. Catherine Forster, from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has reduced the number of Triceratops species to just two-T. prorsus, which had straight horns above the eyes and a well-developed nose horn; and Marsh's original T. horridus, which was considerably larger but had a much smaller nose horn and slightly curved eye horns.

Triceratops's lifestyle was probably quite similar to that of that lumbering present-day herbivore, the rhinoceros. Its many rows of closely packed grinding teeth suggest that it was a feeder on a range of coarse vegetation, such as conifers, ferns, and cycads, as well as on some of the flowering plants that first appeared in the late Cretaceous. It cropped this plant matter with its long, powerful, pointed, horny beak. Its jaws mechanism was adapted primarily for cutting. Large jaw muscles attached from the lower jaw up onto the frill and powered the shearing action of the jaws.

Triceratops was one of the last known dinosaurs. Isolated horn cores belonging to this dinosaur show that, along with its main predator, Tyrannosaurus, it persisted right to the end of the Cretaceous. Triceratops may have charged at potential predators such as Tyrannosaurus, stabbing them with its three horns and using its thick, bony frill to protect its vulnerable neck. The great abundance of Triceratops fossils from the latest part of the Cretaceous provides convincing evidence of this dinosaur's ability to survive despite the numerous predatory theropods that shared its territory.

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