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Triceratops used horns to fight, research shows

The dinosaurs' headgear wasn't just ornamentation, says a Claremont researcher. Probably the creatures battled for mating supremacy the way modern horned mammals do.

January 31, 2009|Thomas H. Maugh II

Many types of dinosaurs had elaborate sets of horns and frills, and scientists have argued for decades about whether such features were strictly ornamental or meant for fighting. A Claremont researcher has now found firm evidence that they were meant for internecine warfare.

Andrew A. Farke, curator of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology on the campus of the Webb Schools, and his colleagues studied fossilized bones from Triceratops specimens in museums throughout North America. Triceratops had a pair of massive horns on its head and a shorter horn on its snout, as well as a shield-like frill around its neck.

They compared the bones with those from Centrosaurus, a related species with smaller, less imposing horns on its head and a larger horn on its snout, looking especially at the squamosal bone, which forms part of the frill.

They reported Wednesday in the online journal PloS One:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0004252 that the squamosal bone in Triceratops -- which protects the neck and body -- had 10 times as many combat scars as that from Centrosaurus, while the other bones on their heads had similar numbers.

That, says Farke, is clear evidence that Triceratops used its horn to battle others of its ilk in the same manner that elk and other modern horned animals battle for mating supremacy. But they may have also used the horns as a mating display, with bigger, heavier ornaments indicating increased fitness for reproduction.

"I like to think of the headgear on Triceratops as a Swiss Army knife," he said in a statement. "They probably used their skulls however they wanted, whether it was for combat, defense or display."

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thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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