Article image

Triceratops dinosaurs seem to have developed complex social structures

Fans of Jurassic Park might remember the iconic scene where Dr. Alan Grant and the kids encounter a sick Triceratops — a gentle, social giant of the prehistoric world.

These herbivorous dinosaurs, with their massive three-horned heads and protective frills, have long captured our imaginations.

But did these impressive creatures roam the earth alone, or did Triceratops have a complex social structure, as Spielberg seemed to suggest?

New research from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands provides tantalizing clues that these titans of the Cretaceous period might have been more than solitary wanderers.

Social behaviour from Triceratops fossils

The discovery begins with a team of paleontologists led by Jimmy de Rooij. Back in 2013, the team ventured to Wyoming with hopes of unearthing a Tyrannosaurus. Instead, they hit the paleontological jackpot — stumbling across a treasure trove of Triceratops fossils.

What began as a routine expedition transformed into a decade-long project. Over 1200 bones and fragments emerged from the dig site, meticulously removed and analyzed.

This wasn’t just about finding cool fossils — it was about reconstructing the lives (and deaths) of these magnificent creatures.

Triceratops characteristics

The key discoveries that led de Rooij and his team to this herd hypothesis includes:

Slow and steady growth

“The material is of very good quality. This enabled us to show that these triceratops grew really slowly, for instance,” noted de Rooij.

Similar to tree rings, the growth patterns trapped in the fossilized bones reveal that Triceratops likely didn’t reach full size for many years.

This extended growing period hints at social structures where adults potentially cared for and protected younger members.

The swamp of doom

The fossils were clustered within a thin layer of rock with no other species present. It’s possible that these unlucky Triceratops became bogged down in a swamp — a tragic but revealing mass death that preserved their remains together.

Teeth and tales of travel

“Research into the physical and chemical properties of the hundreds of triceratops teeth tells of a migratory existence – one that was the same for all five of the dinos,” de Rooij explained.

Like tiny time capsules, the chemical makeup of their teeth suggests that the entire group roamed together, seeking out food or perhaps seasonally moving to better grounds.

Social behavior of Triceratops

While not conclusive proof, the evidence strongly suggests that Triceratops formed groups for various reasons. Maybe strength in numbers provided protection from predators.

Perhaps they banded together for long migrations, relying on collective knowledge of routes and resources. Some experts even speculate that there might have been complex social structures within the herd.

“And that of course leads to all kinds of new questions. How complex was this social behavior, exactly?” de Rooij wondered. It’s an exciting new chapter in our understanding of dinosaur behavior.

Did they share parenting duties? Engage in play-fighting like young elephants? Did they have leaders to guide them? The possibilities are thrilling and inspire a whole new range of research.

A landmark discovery

The impact of this research is undeniable. Prof. Anne Schulp, de Rooij’s supervisor, declares: “Naturalis, the national natural history museum of the Netherlands, now has the biggest triceratops find in the world, and Utrecht University has the first Dr Triceratops in the Netherlands.”

But the story doesn’t end in the lab. This October, the Naturalis Museum will unveil an exhibition showcasing the Triceratops herd in all its glory.

The exhibit aims to recreate their lives and ill-fated end, giving visitors a glimpse into the social world of these ancient giants before they embark on a world tour.

Beyond social characteristics of Triceratops

As discussed above, Triceratops is a name that stirs images of ancient forests and the thunderous roar of dinosaurs. They have fascinated scientists and enthusiasts alike for over a century.

This magnificent creature, whose name means “three-horned face,” roamed the Earth around 68 to 66 million years ago, during the Late Cretaceous period.

Its most striking features were its large skull, adorned with two impressive horns above the eyes and a smaller one on the nose, and its massive neck frill.

First discovery

First discovered in the late 19th century, Triceratops quickly became a subject of intrigue and study. Paleontologists have unearthed numerous fossils, primarily in North America, where this dinosaur once thrived. Over the years, these discoveries have shed light on the life and habits of Triceratops.

Interestingly, Triceratops was a herbivore. It used its beaked mouth to clip off leaves and plants. Its teeth, arranged in groups called batteries, were perfectly adapted for shredding tough plant material.

Scientists believe this diet played a crucial role in its large size, with some adults reaching over 9 meters in length and weighing up to 12 tons.

Moreover, the structure of its horns and frill suggests they were not just for show. They likely served multiple purposes, including defense against predators like the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex.

Additionally, these features may have been used in mating rituals or to establish dominance within their herds, indicating a complex social structure.

Implications of Triceratops as a social creature

This research adds a fascinating wrinkle to the way we view the prehistoric world. Finally, the continuous discovery and study of Triceratops fossils are not just about piecing together the past.

They inspire questions and curiosity about life on Earth, its diversity, and evolution. Each bone, each fragment tells a story of a world long gone but still deeply connected to our own.

Our understanding of dinosaurs is constantly evolving, and discoveries like this hint at far more intricate behaviors and relationships than we once imagined.

Who knows, those classic images of dinosaurs we grew up with might someday feature entire herds thundering across the landscape.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day