60-Second Science

Horning In on Triceratops

In a study published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers conjecture that the three horns of Triceratops were often used for fighting--because museum specimens show much more scarring than in the horns of a related species. Cynthia Graber reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Triceratops, as the name suggests, were huge dinosaurs adorned with three horns on their heads. Scientists now say those horns may have been a sort of battle bludgeon. Andrew Farke is a curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in California. He became curious about that headgear. Farke and colleagues wanted to investigate whether Triceratops fought each other with their horns. Which posed a problem: obviously, we can’t go back in time to watch the animals interact. So the researchers resorted to some techniques out of a Cretaceous CSI.

They examined more than 400 museums specimens of Triceratops and another closely related one-horned dinosaur called Centrosaurus. They scanned the skulls for injuries around where Triceratops might have locked horns and wrestled. Their assumption was that if the horns were just for display, both species would show few scars.

But the Triceratops had 10 times more skull injuries than their Centrosaurus cousins. The most likely explanation is that they probably jabbed each other in the head while fighting. The researchers published their findings in the journal Public Library of Science ONE. They also caution that the horns could have served more than one purpose—perhaps fighting and flaunting.

—Cynthia Graber 

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