Amazing Facts about the Triceratops

One of the world’s most iconic dinosaurs, the triceratops roamed the lands of what is now North America towards the end of the Late Cretaceous epoch, between 68- and 66-million years ago. Known for its enormous size and its signature horns and frill, the herbivore grew up to twice the size of an elephant and was likely preyed up by its equally famous contemporary, the tyrannosaurus rex. It’s been depicted countless times in popular culture, and it’s even the state fossil of South Dakota yet, despite its fame, there’s a lot about this prehistoric beast that remains a mystery.

#1. Triceratops Babies

Moulded casts of a mature triceratops horridus and a juvenile specimen.

Fossils of young dinosaurs are extremely rare, making the discovery of the skull of a baby triceratops in 1997 a particularly special find. The smallest triceratops skull ever found likely belonged to a year-old animal, which wasn’t much bigger than a sheep. By contrast, the skull of a mature triceratops is up to 7 feet (213 cm) long, dwarfing its young. The juvenile specimen had a one-foot-long (30 cm) skull, adorned with two short, stubby horns, enormous eyes and a shortened face.

#2. Courtship Rituals

An artist’s impression of the type species, triceratops horridus.

The triceratops’ characteristic horns may have been used for multiple purposes, but palaeontologists are divided on the matter. The most popular theory, however, points to the horns and frills being primarily used for competing over a mate rather than self-defence, similarly to many modern horned animals. Distinctive wounds found in many triceratops skulls suggest that males would do battle in competition for a mate.

#3. Triceratops Remains

An artist’s impression of some of the many fossil animals found in the Hell Creek Formation.

Triceratops was first discovered in Colorado in 1887, making it one of the first dinosaur fossils to be confirmed. Since then, dozens more fossils have been found across the United States, particularly in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. However, while there’s no shortage of triceratops remains, no complete specimen has ever been found, as is the case with all dinosaur species. Nonetheless, at over quarter of a million dollars, triceratops skulls are worth more than ever before.

#4. Tiny Ancestors

An artist’s impression of protoceratops andrewsi, one of the earliest direct ancestors of the triceratops.

Like most dinosaur species, the triceratops had much smaller ancestors before it evolved to enormous sizes, likely as a mechanism for self-defence and the fact that food was plentiful throughout the Late Cretaceous. The direct ancestors to the famous triceratops belonged to a genus called protoceratops, which were little bigger than a sheep and probably weighed under 400 pounds (180 kg). This critter lived between 75- and 71-million years ago.

#5. Toothy Creature

Triceratops teethChaoborus

A cast of a triceratops skull showing the characteristic beak-like mouth and teeth.

Triceratops was an herbivorous dinosaur as evidenced by its beak-like mouth for plucking and gasping at foliage and blunt teeth for grinding. Although it may have used its horns to knock down higher plants, it probably fed mostly on undergrowth. Most impressively, however, the animal had between 400 and 800 teeth arranged in columns known as batteries. Evidence also suggests that it continued to grow new teeth throughout its lifetime.

#6. A Bison or a Dinosaur?

Definitely not a bison. A remarkably intact triceratops skull in London’s Natural History Museum.

When the first triceratops fossil was discovered in 1887, it was assumed to be the remains of a giant prehistoric bison. The animal was originally named bison alticornis and assumed to date from the Pliocene epoch some five-million years ago. It wasn’t until 1889 that the type species was redefined as triceratops horridus and, one year later, another species, named triceratops prorsus, was defined in 1890. By the end of the nineteenth century, both species had been reconstructed with an exceptional degree of accuracy.

#7. Species Diversification


An artist’s impression of nine of the many distinct ceratopsian species.

Triceratops belonged to a family of ornithischian dinosaurs called ceratopsidae, one of the biggest and most diverse families of the Late Cretaceous between 84- and 66-million years ago. All genera sported the characteristic beaked mouths and elaborate frills, though they came in many different shapes and sizes. Styracosaurus, for example, had an elaborate spiked frill and a particularly elongated front horn while some of the earlier ceratopsians only had vestigial horns if any at all.

#8. Introducing Lane


A cast of the most complete triceratops specimen ever found, nicknamed Lane, now in the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

The overwhelming majority of dinosaur species are only known from fragmented remains put together over years of study and a no small amount of educated guessing. For example, we’ll likely never know what colour the dinosaurs were, and skin impressions are also extremely hard to come by. However, the most complete triceratops specimen ever known features about 85% of its original skeleton. Nicknamed Lane, a cast of the 25-foot-long (7.6 m) dinosaur is now on display in the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

#9. The Last Dinosaur

Although a great deal of mystery still surrounds the extinction of the dinosaurs, evidence suggests that the triceratops survived right up to the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event when an impact event spelled the end of the highly successful group of animals that had thrived for over 130-million years. However, while the last known non-avian dinosaur was indeed a triceratops, it’s likely that, owing to their enormous size and equally enormous dietary requirements, the triceratops would not have survived for long after the catastrophic impact and resultant decades-long impact winter.

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