Horned dinosaurs, known as ceratopsians by scientists, have a long and illustrious history, and if you ask anybody about horned dinosaurs, the mighty Triceratops immediately comes to mind as people recall a variety of Hollywood films showing the “Trike”, as it became colloquially known in Jurassic Park, fighting to the death with the voracious Tyrannosaurus Rex.
What is interesting to know is that Triceratops was one of the last species of dinosaurs to evolve, and may very well have been the ultimate example of the ceratopsian kind. To search out its history, it’s necessary to go back about 85 milion years to a creature which lived in Mongolia. It was called Protoceratops and was around seven feet long, quite a difference with Triceratops, whose skull alone was about seven feet in length. In 1922, an expedition in the Gobi Desert found the first fossils of Protoceratops, a find that was hailed as the ancestor of Triceratops. This small creature had the beginnings of the well-known neck frill all ceratopsians carried, as well as a rudimentary nose horn. That expedition also claimed to have found a nest of the animal’s eggs, but these prehistoric omelette starters were revealed to be Oviraptor eggs. The parrot-like beak was also present on Protoceratops, and is credited as a source for the mythological griffin, an animal said to have a lion’s body and an eagle’s head. The beak is formed by a type of growth known as a rostral bone and isn’t found in any other animal.
The first ceratopsian fossils were found in 1872 in Wyoming, and although the skull was missing, enough bones were found to show that this creature was unlike anything unearthed before, and it was named by Edward Drinker Cope with a name that was changed soon after, notably by the further research of Cope’s dreaded enemy Othniel Charles Marsh, who eventually suggested the overall name ceratopsian, which is Greek for “horned face”. In the late 19th century, Cope and Marsh led a virtual war on each other as they and their teams sought to unearth the most new fossils in the American West, with occasional deadly results. These two men created a fossil frenzy in America but unfortunately probably destroyed as many fossils as they found with their use of dynamite on each others’ finds when they couldn’t outright steal them.
Over the years, many forms of horn-faced dinos were discovered, but the last decade or so led paleontologists to a new conclusion: the huge amount of variety in the horn and frill forms of these animals means that ceratopsians evolved extremely fast, with many species fading out within a million years to make room for the next version. Although all had the requisite beaked skull and horns, there were wild developments in the shape and size of these body parts.
Monoclonius and Centrosaurus were unique in that they only had one large horn, although Centrosaurus also had a number of small horns along the edge of its skull frill. Centrosaurus lived about 76 million years ago and developed way before Triceratops. Torosaurus, which came after Centrosaurus, roughly 66 million years ago, had a huge skull, over eight feet long, and measured around thirty feet in length, making it one of the largest ceratopsians ever. It had two huge horns over its eyes yet had several smaller horns along the edge of its frill.
Many horn-faced dinosaurs developed that multiple small horn feature in the ten million or so years before Triceratops, and they sported extremely diversified skull frills, although they never got rid of that parrot beak. Perhaps the oldest of the larger ceratopsians was Judiceratops tigris, known mostly from skull fossils and lived some 80 million years ago. It was known as a chasmasaurine dinosaur due to the rectangular shape of its frill for which Chasmasaurus is named. Judiceratops had humongous horns bending forward over its eyes, a rudimentary nose horn, and a frill surrounded by tooth-like horns. Like so many other horn-faces, it was found in Montana.
The latest identified ceratopsian is called Nasutoceratops , which literally means “large-nosed horned face”. This Jimmy Durante of the horned dinosaurs came out of Utah in 2006 but was not officially identified until this year. Like Judiceratops it had a small growth on its bulbous nose and large forward-pitching horns over its eyes. In addition to the tooth-like edge-of-frill growths, it also sported small backward-facing horns near the rear edges of its mouth. It lived about 76 million years ago, which means it was also a blueprint for Triceratops. Its large nose apparently had no relation to its sense of smell since organs related to smell in ceratopsians occurred by the brain near the back of the head.
In conclusion, although nearly everyone knows what a Triceratops is, it appears that it was far from the primary version of the ceratopsian dinosaur since, like most others of its kind, it probably had an extended existence of only about a million years, and the more spectacular, lesser-known varieties covered a larger area in the world of evolution.