28 May 2018

An Unusual Delivery - The Day Birmingham Received a Dinosaur

Excitement has been growing leading up to the arrival of The Natural History Museum’s famous Diplodocus, who has taken a road trip to Birmingham. However, back in 1955 it was the arrival of the skull of another dinosaur to Birmingham which was making the news. This was a Triceratops skull which had been acquired from the American Museum of Natural History, and was discovered in 1908 in the Badlands of centre Montana.

Triceratops text

The site of its excavation was later covered, in the 1930s, by the Fort Peck lake which formed after the construction of the Fort Peck Dam. Millions of years before the formation of the Missouri River in Montana, dinosaurs made this once lush wetland their home. Today the river has forged its way through a variety of geological formations, including the Judith River and Hell Creek Formations. North-eastern Montana has provided a wealth of world class fossil discoveries.

The Tyrannosaurus rex finds are among the most outstanding. The first scientifically described T. rex was excavated in Montana in 1902. More T. rex skeletons have been found in Montana than anywhere else. Other fossils found there include pterosaurs, crocodiles, champsosaurs, lizards, snakes, turtles, frogs, salamanders, fishes and mammals. Still, by far the two most famous creatures identified there are the Tyrannosaurs Rex and the Triceratops. From fossils such as the skull that belongs to Birmingham, we have learnt a lot about how Triceratops would have lived in the Late Cretaceous Period 68 to 66 million years ago.

Thinktank Triceratops skull

With its 3 horns, a parrot-like beak and a large frill that could reach nearly 1 metre (3 feet) across, the Triceratops skull is one of the largest and most striking of any land animal. The function of the horns and head shield is still being debated. The horns could have been used to fend off attacks from Tyrannosaurus. A partial Triceratops fossil collected in 1997 has a horn that was bitten off, with bite marks that match Tyrannosaurus. The fossil shows that the horn healed after being bitten, so at least some Triceratops must have survived these encounters.

The Triceratops frill might have helped to protect its neck, but some specimens show Tyrannosaurus bite marks puncturing the frill, so it wasn't always enough. The frills could also have been used to attract mates, as a way for members of the same species to recognise each other, or to regulate body temperature. Puncture marks on fossil frills show that male Triceratops also used their horns to fight each other, probably to impress females.

Triceratops horridus, a ceratopsian from the Late Cretaceous of North America. Pencil drawing, 4 August 2007, Nobu Tamura. wiki commons

Triceratops more than likely spent large amounts of time eating plant matter. They had powerful jaws and a beak-like mouth for ripping vegetation, the jaws were lined with sharp cheek teeth that ground and mashed cycads, ferns and other low vegetation. The teeth of Triceratops grew continually and were replaced over its lifetime to cope with this huge demand to crush tough vegetation. Triceratops could have had up to 800 teeth in its lifetime. You can see the Triceratops skull today in the Wildlife Gallery at Thinktank.