Triceratops was a large, powerful ceratopsian, having one horn on its nose, which was small and stumpy, and one above each eye, which were up to a metre long. Triceratops probably used these long horns as weapons. It walked on all fours and had sturdy pillar-like legs. Its front legs were especially strong because they had to support the weight of its extremely heavy head.
Although Triceratops was the biggest of the long-frilled chasmosaurine ceratopsians (the living animal weighed something like 4.5 tonnes), its frill wasn’t as long as that of its relatives. It was more in the proportion of its short-frilled cousins, the centrosaurines. When it was discovered, it was only known from a pair of horn cores. However, the whole skulls were so solid that they began to turn up quite regularly as complete fossils. Over the years, so many different skulls of Triceratops have been unearthed that at one time there were 16 species attributed to the genus. These have now been combined, so that only the two given here are acknowledged, the common T. horridus and the bigger, but rarer, T. prorsus. Some authorities regard these as male and female T. horridus.
Name: Triceratops, meaning ‘three-horned face’
Size: up to 9m long and 3m high
Food: all types of plants
Lived: 70-66 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous in North America
Triceratops is the biggest and best-known of all ceratopsians. Its three magnificent horns give it its name. The horns on the fossilised skulls are only cores – they would have been covered in horny sheaths that made them much bigger. The neck shield is massive, with no holes in it, and is bordered by little knobs of bone. The teeth are arranged to work as shears, and powered by strong jaw muscles.
Around Triceratops’ neck was a huge, bony frill which protected its shoulders and could withstand shattering blows from other dinosaurs. Although nobody really knows what colour dinosaurs were, some scientists think that Triceratops’ neck frill was brightly coloured. They believe that Triceratops was so well armed, it didn’t need to be a green or brown colour for camouflage, but had a brightly coloured frill to attract females.
Triceratops was a herbivore. It nipped off shoots and leaves with its bony parrot-like beak. It ground them up with rows of teeth at the back of its mouth. As the teeth wore down, new ones grew in their place.
On its massive head, Triceratops had three horns: above each eye and another on the end of its nose. It used the horns to defend itself from hunting dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus. It also used the horns to fight other male Triceratops for the females, before mating.
The males probably fought each other to become leader of a herd and to attract females. They did not use their horns to wound. Instead, two males shoved and butted each other with their massive heads, locking horns in a bruising battle to prove which was the strongest. A Triceratops’ neck frill would protect its shoulders and body from a head-on attack by another male. Scientists have found damaged neck frills, which show that these fights between males were fierce enough to cause injuries.
Even dinosaurs as large as Tyrannosaurus would have thought twice about attacking Triceratops, because it could cause serious wounds by stabbing the enemy with its sharp horns. Triceratops was well-protected against attacking dinosaurs. Its bony neck frill was a good defence against sharp teeth and claws and it had tough skin with occasional hard knobs along its back.
Triceratops could charge at its enemies by sprinting at a top speed of 35km/h. A charge from this rhinoceros-like dinosaur would probably have been enough to scare off many predators.