A reconstruction of Triceratops at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
Read Caption
Photo by Allie Caulfield, image from Wikipedia.
A reconstruction of Triceratops at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Chipping Away at Triceratops Hype

Triceratops is an A+ dinosaur. Ol’ three-horned face was named during the days of the great 19th century Bone Wars and has had a place in the public’s imagination ever since – a Hell Creek Formation herbivore so impressive that only Tyrannosaurus, often cast as the mortal enemy of Triceratops, is more famous. And given our long and abiding love of Triceratops, it’s not surprising that a recently-discovered bonebed of the ponderous and pointy Cretaceous herbivore has received a good deal of overhyped press.

Found on a Wyoming ranch, and excavated by the commercial outfit the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research with the Netherlands-based Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the smattering of 67 million year old bones comprised the remains of three Triceratops. Even though the bones are barely out of the ground, excavators from the BHI are already playing up details of the find.

The largest of the Triceratops at the site, says BHI president Peter Larson, is represented by most of the skeleton and appears to be as intact as a handful of other previously-uncovered specimens. More than that, Larson has highlighted the fact that at least three Triceratops were buried together. He expects that this was a family group, which he (wrongly) claims is the first evidence of Triceratops social behavior ever found. Most sensational of all, Larson speculates that the site was a feeding ground for the dreaded Tyrannosaurus. The evidence? In Larson’s preliminary interpretation, two limb bones from the largest Triceratops seem to have been cleft by a formidable bite.

There is no research to talk about. No paper, or even abstract, exists to detail the components of the site and how three Triceratops were entombed so close together. The field crew has yet to even complete their excavation of the deposit. Yet the find is being presented as a spectacular site that is already spilling secrets about dinosaur lives. The petrified aggregation may very well yield new details about our favorite three-horned dinosaur, but that’s a matter of future investigation. Discovering and excavating bones is only an initial step in paleontology – no one can simply gaze at a field site and immediately reconstruct what happened in the way Larson is claiming to do. And we already know that this Triceratops bonebed is not quite so singular as tabloid reports suggest.

Triceratops isn’t especially hard to find. During a brief field stint near Ekalaka, Montana in the summer of 2011, I regularly encountered the broken remnants of Triceratops skulls as I followed the Burpee Museum and Carthage College paleontology crews over the profuse Hell Creek Formation exposures. And beyond my qualitative experience, a census of Hell Creek dinosaurs published that same year by Jack Horner and colleagues found that Triceratops is actually the most commonly-found genus in the famous formation. The beaked, horned dinosaur is so abundant, in fact, that paleontologists past have head-hunted Triceratops – taking skulls but leaving the rest, thus creating the relative dearth of skeletons.

Bonebeds are a bit rarer than isolated skulls and skeletal scraps. But, while the discovery of a new multi-Triceratops site is welcome news, such a find is hardly unprecedented. In 2009, paleontologist Josh Matthews and coauthors described a tangled mass of bone found in eastern Montana containing at least three young Triceratops. Of course, the fact that these animals were preserved together doesn’t automatically mean that they lived together – the conglomeration of bones tells us more about death than life – but the site raised the possibility that Triceratops were social during the days of their youth, at least. The BHI site is certainly not the first to contain multiple Triceratops or possibly contain clues about the social lives of these dinosaurs.

As for Tyrannosaurus, there’s almost nothing to be said. Tooth marks on Cretaceous bones – particularly skulls – indicate that the carnivorous tyrant often peeled flesh off dead Triceratops, but the postmortem details of the recently-uncovered dinosaurs awaits rigorous analysis. The suggestion that the deposit was a blood-spattered tyrannosaur buffet is unsubstantiated bombast.

I’m not averse to hearing about, or even reporting on, field discoveries, but the real science of paleontology starts after the careful recovery of prehistoric remains. Setting the scene as a graveyard where a rogue tyrannosaur ripped a family of Triceratops to shreds is sensationalism based on only the barest threads of superficial evidence. And since none of the news reports mention a museum where the bones are supposed to be reposited for proper storage and research, we may have to wait a long time to find out the real story behind the skeletons. (I most certainly hope that the dinosaurs are not going up for sale, as the BHI is in a business that sells dinosaurs, too.)

Fieldwork is one of the most romantic parts of paleontology. The frustrated, but hopeful, search for vestiges of monstrous, gloriously-bizarre life. But too often we see paleontologists as field workers who scrabble bones from the dirt and can magically divine everything about that animal from a single disinterred bone. In truth, many field identifications are wrong, and drawing out the secrets of dinosaur biology takes a great deal of expertise and a concentrated effort to ask the right questions of prehistoric remains. There’s much to learn about Triceratops – aspects of the magnificent dinosaur’s biology that the new site could inform – but let’s be patient enough to let the gradual unfolding of fossil interrogation and discovery take place.

[Top image by Allie Caulfield, from Wikipedia.]