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10 Frilled Facts About Protoceratops

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Emily Willoughby

Scarcity attracts people. What’s common is often ignored, overshadowed by the exotic and unusual. But sometimes—as this week’s featured dinosaur demonstrates—familiar things can teach us far more than the rarest of the rare. 

1. Protoceratops  Was a Desert Dino.

Seventy million years ago (during the late Cretaceous period), much of central Asia was covered in a vast prehistoric desert inhabited by such reptilian residents as the plant-shearing Protoceratops, the bird-like Shuvuuia, and the sickle-clawed Velociraptor.

2. An Unusual Protoceratops Skeleton May Have Literally Stopped Dead in Its Tracks.  

Fossilized footprints reveal a lot about how extinct creatures behaved, but paleontologists can’t say for certain which species left which track. However, in 2011, one very special footprint was found directly underneath a Protoceratops skeleton, and it’s entirely possible that the two specimens are directly connected.

3. A Nest Full of Adorable Protoceratops Toddlers Has Turned Up.

Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez

In November 2011, scientists announced the discovery of a nest containing 15 youngsters. Cooler still is the fact that the wee beasties weren’t newborn hatchlings: They seem to have been growing up a bit before striking out on their own, probably with a little help from their folks. “These animals definitely grew at the nest,” says the University of Rhode Island’s Dr. David Fastovsky, “…the implication is there [was] some kind of parental care involved.” 

4. Protoceratops Was So Common That It’s Been Dubbed “The Sheep of the Cretaceous.”

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The Gobi Desert has yielded hundreds of specimens over the past century, making Protoceratops an unusually well-represented dinosaur. And while we’re on the subject of livestock references, paleontologist Anthony J. Martin once called Protoceratops “Mesozoic Mutton.”

5. It’s Been Argued that Protoceratops Was Built for Tunneling. 

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This might explain the superabundance of Protoceratops bones. After all, a dead animal resting in an underground burrow is much less likely to get picked apart by scavengers or demolished by the elements than an exposed corpse on the surface. So, what’s the evidence? Paleontologist Nicholas Longrich notes that these dinos are often found buried in a strange “upright” position, indicating that they might’ve been standing in cavernous tunnels when they died. 

6. One Protoceratops Species was Named in Honor of a Real-Life Indiana Jones.

Karen

Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960) was an explorer who carried a bullwhip, wore a broad-brimmed hat, regularly cheated death, and traveled the world searching for age-old treasures. Heck, the man even hated snakes! Protoceratops andrewsi—a dino discovered on an expedition he spearheaded—was named after him in 1923. 

7. In 1971, a Protoceratops and a Velociraptor Were Found Locked in Combat.

Yuya Tamai

A carnivorous Velociraptor sinks one of its curved toe claws into your neck. What do you do? Well, if you’re a Protoceratops, try chomping down on its arm. The beaked herbivore had some powerful jaws built to slice through sturdy vegetation. As this incredible discovery—unearthed by a Polish-Mongolian crew—demonstrates, they could also help it take a bite out of predators.

How did such an astonishing duel get frozen in time to begin with? One hypothesis claims that the fighters were slugging it out at the base of a waterlogged dune when a sudden mudslide instantly smothered them in fossil-friendly sediment. 

8. Protoceratops “Eye Rings” Have Been Uncovered.

The “sclerotic ring” is a bony circle found within the eyeballs of many vertebrates (including numerous dinosaurs), which helps these sight organs retain their shape. 

9. Protoceratops Noggins Were Fairly Diverse.

Thanks to a wealth of material, scientists have found that some Protoceratops have broader frills and steeper arches above the nose than their neighbors. Do these groups represent the two different sexes? Two different sub-species? Nobody knows.    

10. There’s a Decent Chance that the Griffins of Ancient Folklore were Inspired by Protoceratops.

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In The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, historian Adrienne Mayor suggests that the mythical griffin—rumored to stalk the Gobi—was born when ancient travelers stumbled across Protoceratops remains. Like the legendary monster, she observes, this local dinosaur had four strong legs and a bird-like beak. 

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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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In the early 2000s, a team of paleontologists inadvertently set the stage for a years-long scientific saga after they excavated a well-preserved partial Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from Montana's Hell Creek formation. While transporting the bones, the scientists were forced to break a femur. Pieces from inside the thigh bone fell out, and these fragments were sent to Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University, for dissection and analysis.

Under a microscope, Schweitzer thought she could make out what appeared to be cells and tiny blood vessels inside the pieces, similar to those commonly discovered inside fresh bone. Further analysis revealed what appeared to be animal proteins, which sent Schweitzer reeling. Could she have just discovered soft tissue inside dinosaur leg bone many millions of years old, found in ancient sediments laid down during the Cretaceous period? Or was the soft stuff simply a substance known as biofilm, which would have been formed by microbes after the bone had already fossilized?

Following a seemingly endless series of debates, studies, and papers, Schweitzer's hunch was proven correct. That said, this contentious conclusion wasn't made overnight. To hear the whole saga—and learn what it means for science—watch the recent episode of Stated Clearly below, which was first spotted by website Earth Archives.

[h/t Earth Archives]

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Fossilized Poop Shows Some Herbivorous Dinosaurs Loved a Good Crab Dinner
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Lead author Karen Chin of the University of Colorado Boulder
Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder

Scientists can learn a lot about the prehistoric world through very, very old poop. Just recently, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Kent State University studying fossilized dinosaur poop discovered that some herbivores weren't as picky about their diets as we thought. Though they mostly ate plants, large dinosaurs living in Utah 75 million years ago also seem to have eaten prehistoric crustaceans, as Nature News reports.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, finds that large dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period seem to have eaten crabs, along with rotting wood, based on the content of their coprolites (the more scientific term for prehistoric No. 2). The fossilized remains of dinos' bathroom activities were found in the Kaiparowits rock formation in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a known hotspot for pristine Late Cretaceous fossils.

"The large size and woody contents" of the poop suggest that they were created by dinosaurs that were well-equipped to process fiber in their diets, as the study puts it, leading the researchers to suggest that the poop came from big herbivores like hadrosaurs, whose remains have been found in the area before.

Close up scientific images of evidence of crustaceans in fossilized poop.
Chin et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

While scientists previously thought that plant-eating dinosaurs like hadrosaurs only ate vegetation, these findings suggest otherwise. "The diet represented by the Kaiparowits coprolites would have provided a woody stew of plant, fungal, and invertebrate tissues," the researchers write, including crabs (Yum). These crustaceans would have provided a big source of calcium for the dinosaurs, and the other invertebrates that no doubt lived in the rotting logs would have provided a good source of protein.

But they probably didn't eat the rotting wood all year, instead munching on dead trees seasonally or during times when other food sources weren’t available. Another hypothesis is that these "ancient fecal producers," as the researchers call them, might have eaten the rotting wood, with its calcium-rich crustaceans and protein-laden invertebrates, during egg production, similar to the feeding patterns of modern birds during breeding season.

Regardless of the reason, these findings could change how we think about what big dinosaurs ate.

[h/t Nature News]

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