fossils

Triceratops and its toothy bite

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Nick
Garland

Founder and Editor
Triceratops, the three-horned frilled plant-eating dinosaur that everyone knows and loves, may have had a secret weapon in its 800 teeth. New research shows there was a lot more to Triceratops’ bite than meets the eyes.

Triceratops is one of the most iconic dinosaurs of all time. First found in the late 1800s by famous fossil hunter Othniel Charles Marsh, it is one of the most numerous and most studied dinosaurs ever. There is seemingly always more to learn about this interesting creature.


Back in 2010, some researchers made quite a shocking claim: that a dinosaur called Torosaurus was actually elderly Triceratops. A lot of media outlets sensationalized this story with incorrect information about Triceratops never having existed. The jury’s still out on this one, but it’s Torosaurus and not Triceratops that may never have existed.


Triceratops fossils are very common in Montana’s Hell Creek Formation. This rock bed from the Late Cretaceous Period is well-known for its abundance of different plants and animals, including perhaps the most famous dinosaur of all time, Tyrannosaurus rex. T. rex very likely dined on Triceratops. But Triceratops was an exclusive plant eater, feasting on palms, cycads and maybe even ferns. These plants were not very nutritious. New research suggests that our frilled friend had secret weapons—their teeth.


Most reptiles have very simple teeth. Their straight, conical chompers are used to grab prey and then crush it. Mammals have complex teeth that occlude, meaning the top and bottom surfaces when placed against each other actually fit together nicely. People with overbites and other problems of malocclusion can fully appreciate the importance of having tooth surfaces that occlude properly. When you can’t chew properly, you run into health problems.


Triceratops teeth grow in what are called batteries of 36 to 40 tooth columns with each column having 3-5 teeth vertically stacked. A given Triceratops could have had as many as 800 teeth with new teeth constantly growing into the top of the column in the batteries, pushing the more worn teeth out.


Mechanical engineer Brandon Krick and Biology professor Gregory Erickson never expected to find that Triceratops teeth are perhaps even more advanced than the most complex mammal teeth. Individual bison and horse teeth have four layers. Reptiles have two layers. Astonishingly, Triceratops teeth have five layers.


The researchers used three-dimensional models to discover that these layers were instrumental in helping Triceratops keep sharp, healthy teeth. As the dinosaur chewed an interior groove called a “fuller” formed. This probably reduced friction as the dinosaur ate, making snacking on tough leafy greens more efficient and also more nutritious.


Some secrets probably remain to be unlocked about the eating habits of other similar herbivorous dinosaurs. And good ole Triceratops undoubtedly has a few more tales to tell.


Read the original research in Science Advances.

Image Credit: Chris Masnaghetti

5c3e0c5dff4b84c2d89b8da7be5adf3e

Nick
Garland

Founder and Editor


http://sulc.us/ujh0r
http://www.eartharchives.org/articles/triceratops-and-its-toothy-bite/