Protoceratops – A Favourite Dinosaur amongst Palaeontologists

A few years ago whilst relaxing after a hard day’s work on a fossil site in Alberta, Canada, the topic of conversation moved away from the merits of the Hadrosaur log jam that we had been mapping to a discussion of what were the most important vertebrate fossil finds of all time.

Each team member was given the opportunity to choose a particular specimen and then to put forward a coherent argument as to why their choice should be awarded the accolade of being designated an important vertebrate fossil.  A number of candidates were put forward, fossils such as both the London and Berlin Archaeopteryx fossils, for example.  Another contender was the Ichthyostega fossils (evidence of a late Devonian tetrapod) described by the Swedish palaeontologist Gunnar Säve-Söderberg.

After much discussion and lively debate, eventually a consensus amongst us was reached.  It was decided that although the nominations were all valid candidates for the accolade as important vertebrate fossils; one particular suggestion stood out when compared to the others.  One of our group had not put forward a single fossil specimen as their nomination but instead had suggested an entire genus, or at least one dinosaur species as a representative of that genus.  The genus suggested was Protoceratops and the particular species was Protoceratops andrewsi.   They argued that Protoceratops, as one of the best known of all dinosaurs, deserved to be considered as an important part of the vertebrate fossil record.

Many hundreds of fossil skeletons of Protoceratops have been found, in China and Mongolia, so many specimens that palaeontologists have nick-named this little dinosaur as “the sheep of the Cretaceous”.  The first fossils of this member of the horned dinosaur family were found in 1922, on one of the many American Museum of Natural History backed expeditions to Mongolia, led by the famous American adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews.

It was Protoceratops that finally provided definitive proof that dinosaurs laid eggs, with the discover of Protoceratops nests.  A number of nests were discovered at the bottom of a cliff and this provided evidence that these dinosaurs may have nested in colonies.

An Illustration of Protoceratops

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Protoceratops was a herbivore, living in the late Cretaceous of China and Mongolia.  The large number of vertebrate fossils found have enabled scientists to build up a detailed knowledge of the ecosystem, an ecosystem dominated by dinosaurs but one that shows the rise and diversity of mammals as well.  The herds of Protoceratops shared their world with the Ornithomimid Gallimimus, as well as Maniraptorans such as Velociraptor and Oviraptor.  The top predator was the Tyrannosaur – Tarbosaurus baatar.  Living in the shadow of the dinosaurs were many types of early mammal, not only placental mammals such as Kennalestes but the ancient mammal group of the multituberculates were also represented.  The habitat seems to have been quite dry and arid, but the fauna and flora of the area was diverse.  However, in some sediments 75% of all the vertebrate fossils found are fossils of Protoceratops, such is the abundance of the particular dinosaur’s remains.

As well as providing evidence of nesting, a Protoceratops has been preserved in a battle with a Velociraptor, the only example of dinosaurs fighting in the fossil record to date.  This fossil, comprising a tangle of bones showing the two animals in their duel to the death was unearthed in Mongolia in 1971.  Perhaps more importantly from a palaeontological perspective is that scientists have fossils of this dinosaur from embryos to mature fully grown adults so they have been able to obtain some understanding of how these animals grew and developed.  Not only has an appreciation of the ontogeny of Protoceratops been possible but the different sizes and shapes of the head crest has also helped provide information on sexual dimorphism in dinosaurs.

After considering all these factors, our group decided that the humble “sheep of the Cretaceous”  should be considered in the same august company as the other more spectacular finds such as the Solnhofen Archaeopteryx fossils.

Unfortunately, there are not many models of Protoceratops around at the moment, although the American Museum of Natural History included a model of a Protoceratops within their Feathered Dinosaur range, presumably as Protoceratops would have known feathered dinosaurs as many feathered Dromaeosaurs shared its world.  Also the set of models in this series includes a Psittacosaurus, a dinosaur often associated with Protoceratops.  Indeed, many dinosaur books illustrate Psittacosaurus and Protoceratops together however, although they are both associated with the evolution of the later Ceratopsians such as Styracosaurus and Chasmosaurus, Psittacosaurs lived millions of years before Protoceratops.

The Protoceratops Model alongside a Psittacosaurus

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

To view the Feathered Dinosaur tube: Dinosaur Toys for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Models

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