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What is Triceratops?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
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The Triceratops (meaning "three-horned face") is a dinosaur that lived between 68 and 65 million years ago. It was one of the last dinosaur genera to emerge before all non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out in the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, thought to have been caused by the impact of a massive (6-10 mi diameter) asteroid on the modern-day Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Triceratops was contemporaneous with the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex. It is not known whether Triceratops and the T. Rex had epic battles like those portrayed in children's coloring books about dinosaurs, although is is known that T. Rex preyed upon Triceratops, as determined by the presence of teeth lacerations on the bones of some Triceratops fossils.

Triceratops has been described by some as the dinosaur analog of a rhinoceros. It walked on four legs and had large frills to accompany its three huge horns. Although sometimes the horns are described as defensive weapons, it is more likely they were merely used in courtship displays, as are the horns of modern reindeer, mountain goats, or rhinoceros beetles.

Triceratops dimensions were between 7.9 to 9.0 m (26.0–29.5 ft) in length, 2.9 to 3.0 m (9.5–9.8 ft) in height, and 6.1–12.0 tonnes (13,000-26,000 lb) in weight. The most distinctive feature of Triceratops was its huge skull, which could be as as long as 2 m (7 ft), and be as long as a third of the entire animal. Triceratops' head is the largest of any land animal, living or dead.

Triceratops has been used as a reference point in phylogenetics. "Dinosaurs" have been formally defined as all animals descending from the most recent common ancestor of Triceratops and modern birds.

No complete Triceratops fossil has ever been found, although many fragments have. The first Triceratops bones were found in Denver, Colorado in the spring of 1887, consisting of two large horns connected to the skull roof. At first, it was thought that these belonged to an extraordinarily large and extinct bison. After several other skulls were found, it was realized that horned dinosaurs did exist, and the genera of Triceratops was founded to classify the fossils. Due to the extremely sturdy nature of the Triceratops skull, many have been found, allowing for comparisons between Triceratops of different ages and regions.

Although Triceratops had a huge head, it had a very tiny brain, just about the size of a man's fist. From this, we can make an educated guess that the Triceratops was not very intelligent.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By matthewc23 — On Oct 16, 2011

When I was a kid the triceratops was my favorite dinosaur. I do not know what it was about that dinosaur, but I always thought it looked unique, unlike the other dinosaurs that looked relatively the same to me.

I remember going to see Jurassic Park as a kid and was very excited when they pulled the car over and saw a sick triceratops and tended to it. To me that was an unbelievable experience to see my favorite dinosaur right there on the big screen with people standing next to it.

By Sara007 — On Oct 16, 2011

When I was a kid we went to a museum with a triceratops skeleton, which was one of the many on display. Now my kids like the Playskool triceratops that makes electronic sounds, blinks and moves its head and tail, and can be climbed up on.

What I found interesting was that the horns on the triceratops may not have actually been used in combat. I always pictured them battling it out. I'm not sure if I should tell my kids that the way they are using their dinosaur figures are perhaps not totally accurate. I guess it is just fun to imagine playing with something that is long gone from this world.

By popcorn — On Oct 16, 2011

The triceratops was my favorite dinosaur as a kid, ever since I got a plastic triceratops toy in a package of cereal. They were also pretty easy to draw, which didn't hurt either. The triceratops and tyrannosaurus were actually both easy to draw so I liked to depict them fighting each other, and I'm rather delighted to read that this was actually historically accurate.

Unlike a stegosaurus with all those bony plates on its back, it looked like you could ride a triceratops. So I am going to go with the triceratops as the best dinosaur to this day, because I would like one if I could bring one dinosaur to life.

By anon31105 — On Apr 29, 2009

What is the difference between a T-Rex and a triceratops? -polar Girl

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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