Protoceratops: a Frill, a Beak… and an Attitude
Protoceratops was hungry. A stocky plant-eater the size of a sheep with wide, strong feet, and a frill on the back of its head, it used its parrot-like beak to shear tough plants in a wash between sand dunes. It was not alone. Another dinosaur was hungry too–a meat-eating feathered dinosaur who bore wickedly sharp, curved claws on its back feet. Although it was smaller than Protoceratops, Velociraptor planned to take its prey by surprise. It charged. An electric crack of thunder filled the air. Left claw pierced neck, sharp beak gripped a feathered arm in self-defense, and as the rain began to pour, both animals struggled for their lives, each locked in a deadly grip of claw, beak, frill, and feathers. Neither noticed as the wash began to fill with thick wet sand from a collapsing dune upstream.
Both animals lay buried, their bones still locked in mortal combat, until 45 years ago, when scientists from the Mongolian-Polish Expedition found them embedded in sandstone cliffs in the Gobi Desert. Today, the incredible specimen known as the Fighting Dinosaurs resides in the collections of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences in Ulaanbaatar, a few hundred miles and roughly 75 million years from the place and time of their death.
Although both Velociraptor and Protoceratops are stars of Mongolian paleontology, this week we’re focusing on Protoceratops, which thrived in a region now known as Bayanzag, in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. During the Late Cretaceous, 75 to 70 million years ago, this was a different desert – one with many towering sand dunes and abundant plant life. This tough little dinosaur grazed, hatched eggs, and gathered in herds for protection. They are among the most abundant fossils found in the Gobi. For thousands of years, people who lived and traveled through the desert surely noticed these strange animal skulls with frills and beaks. In 1922, an expedition from the American Museum of Natural History traveled to Bayanzag and began studying the fossils scientifically. In 1923, the first scientific paper about this dinosaur was published, giving it the formal name Protoceratops andrewsi. Today we know that Protoceratops was one of the earliest types of frilled, horned dinosaurs called ceratopsids. It is one of the dinosaurs that has been most studied by paleontologists due to the sheer number of exceptional fossil examples. Large samples are critical to science and statistical analysis, but most dinosaur species, unlike Protoceratops, are known from just one or two specimens.
Seven Facts about Protoceratops
Protoceratops lived around 75 to 71 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period.
Protoceratops means “first horn face” in Latin. Scientists gave it that name because when it was discovered, it was believed to be the ancestor of dinosaurs like Triceratops that had huge horns on their faces.
They were not very big. Adult males were only about 6 feet/1.8 meters from head to tail. Many grown Protoceratops were only about as big as a sheep! Some baby Protoceratops that have been discovered were only 4-6 inches/10-15 cm long when they were buried.
Protoceratops had a big frill of bone that grew from the back of the head. The frill may have been used for impressing other dinosaurs, recognizing each other from a distance, or defense against lethal neck bites.
Like all ceratopsians (frilled-head dinosaurs), Protoceratops had pointy cheek bones called epijugals. The epijugals of Protoceratops were more cone-shaped than most ceratopsians.
Protoceratops babies liked to huddle together in a nest – possibly to help protect each other from strong winds and sandstorms.
They only ate plants, using their sharp beaks to cut and their molars to chew.
A. D. Fitzgerald is a technical communicator, life-long paleontology enthusiast, and ISMD volunteer.
Prehistoric Life: the Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth, Dorling Kindersley 2009
The Complete Dinosaur, 2nd Edition, Indiana University Press, 2012
Smithsonian magazine, “At Last, a True Protoceratops Nest,” Switek, Nov. 3, 2011
“Life and Death in a 70 million-year-old Sand Sea,” Fastovsky, 2000