Sunday, February 16, 2014

Protoceratops: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week we will be looking at a well known ceratopsian dinosaur.  Say hello to Protoceratops!  This little dinosaur measured about six feet long when fully grown and lived in what is now Monglolia during the Late Cretaceous, roughly 80 to 75 million years ago.  Like all ceratopsians, Protoceratops was likely a plant-eater.  The genus name, Protoceratops, literally translates to "first horned face".  Nowadays we know that Protoceratops was far from the earliest of the ceratopsians but at the time of its discovery back in the 1920s it was the oldest known.  The discovery of Protoceratops also proved to scientists that the ceratopsian family line originated in Asia, not North America, where its later-living relative, Triceratops, was unearthed. 

Protoceratops andrewsi by Christopher sex.

Protoceratops was likely a tough little dinosaur.  It had to be since its habitat would have been a pretty arid desert-like landscape.  Protoceratops' small size in this environment is no coincidence since desert animals tend to evolve smaller.  The smaller your body is, the less food and water you require to stay alive, and the easier it is to get shelter.  The few large desert animals out there have highly specialized adaptations to compensate for living in such harsh environments.

Articulated Protoceratops skeleton on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

More evidence of Protoceratops' toughness is illustrated in a few fossils that actually illustrate it interacting with other dinosaurs.  A crushed Oviraptor skull was discovered nearby what were originally believed to be Protoceratops eggs.  Scientists thought that the ceratopsian defended its brood by pulverizing the poor theropod's head.  As it turns out, the eggs actually belonged to Oviraptor, not ProtoceratopsOviraptor's skull was still crushed though... Since that discovery scientists have actually found young Protoceratops in nests of their own.  This suggests that Protoceratops, like many other dinosaurs, cared for its young for a time after they hatched. 

Protoceratops beby to adult skulls.

An even more spectacular fossil was found during the early 70s of a Protoceratops with a Velociraptor's arm clamped in its beak.  Many say that the Velociraptor's toe claw was embedded in the ceratopsian's neck and that the two were locked in dramatic mortal combat when they perished in a sandstorm.  Whether or not this is actually how they died is truly uncertain.  One thing that is for sure, however, is that these two dinosaurs were getting very close when they died and I'm pretty confident it wasn't to cuddle.  One of the reasons why I love Protoceratops so much is because despite it having been a plant-eater, it actually proves to have been a force to be respected.  Plant-eaters always get this "gentle" label which is just plain false.  Just take a look at animals today like Buffalo and Hippos to see what I mean.  Extinct dinosaurs would have been much the same.


Protoceratops is a great dinosaur to study because there are just so many specimens on the fossil record.  Scientists have found tiny babies, fully grown adults, and many life stages in between.  There is even a three-dimensional articulated skeleton on display at the Museum on Natural History in New York.  There is also strong evidence for sexual dimorphism in Protoceratops.  The males appear to be the ones with taller snouts and wider frills.

The happy couple!  Female in front, male in back.

Protoceratops is likely the original inspiration for the mythical creature, the griffin.  Griffins, eagle/lion composites, are common in many cultures around the world but the oldest depictions of them are from not far from where Protoceratops used to live.  The ancient Greeks first started writing about griffins in their stories around the exact same time that they made contact with nomads from Monglolia.  It is likely that they were discovering Protoceratops bones and the griffin was, in a way, one of the earliest attempts at paleo-art!

Griffin statue from Ancient Greece.

 That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!


Carpenter, Ken. (1998). "Evidence of predatory behavior by theropod dinosaurs.". Gaia 15: 135–144. [not printed until 2000]

Choi, Charles. "15 Infant Dinosaurs Discovered Crowded in Nest". November 17, 2011.

"Protoceratops." In: Dodson, Peter & Britt, Brooks & Carpenter, Kenneth & Forster, Catherine A. & Gillette, David D. & Norell, Mark A. & Olshevsky, George & Parrish, J. Michael & Weishampel, David B. The Age of Dinosaurs. Publications International, LTD. p. 118-119. ISBN 0-7853-0443-6.

Dodson, P. (1996). The Horned Dinosaurs. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. pp. 200–234. ISBN 0-691-05900-4.

 Mayor, A. (2000). The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. ISBN 0-691-05863-6.


  1. I have a Question regarding the crushed Oviraptor Skull.

    Do you think that the Oviraptors injury may still have been the result of a Protoceratops Encounter? Like maybe the Oviraptor was protecting its brood and tried to attack the proto?

    1. It's totally possible. I'm not sure if anyone ever came to a definite conclusion on the cause of the crushed skull. It may have been an incident unrelated to Protoceratops.