Upper Cretaceous Dinosaurs are actually pretty uncommon in the world. The most common and most well known being the browsing Triceratops. Triceratops was a giant of a fellow. Much like the animal shown in Jurassic Park (the movie). They were the cows of their time being herbivores in contrast to their carnivorous arch enemy Tyrannosaurus rex. Every ecosystem needs a grazing animal to facilitate the energy conversion from sunlight to plant matter, from plant matter to meat, from meat to upper level carnivore. The end of the Cretaceous period was no exception. The amount of vegetation must have been staggering to behold. Cycads, ginkos, deciduous trees of all kinds, numerous flowing plant were abundant but there was NO grass yet. It hadn’t evolved by the time the dinosaurs died out at the end of the Cretaceous. Triceratops were the cows of their day, but they didn’t eat grass like our cows do today. Their diet consisted of any luckless leaf they could reach, their cobble filled stomach could grind up probably anything they could pass through their system. They did have teeth but not front teeth, only rows of teeth along each side top and bottom. The front of their jaws were terminated in a beak of material similar to a birds beak which effectively scissored off any thing they could get between the edges. Anyone who has been bitten by a parrot can identify with that.
The Cretaceous version of Triceratops was well along their evolutionary ladder being bigger (more robust), and well defended with three large horns and a bony shield back over their necks. Earlier animals were much smaller, less armored and poorly adapted to face the evolving predators that appeared late in the Cretaceous. It was an arms race to the level that the “Cold War” never reached. Predators got faster and bigger, prey got better defended and just plain harder to get. Horns, armor, tails with clubs, and various other defensive weapons were developed by prey to defend their lives. (The mammals just hid down in the weeds and tried not to be seen.) So what is dinosaur science really about?
Preserved Triceratops footprints can be upwards of 20 inches wide which illustrates a leg bigger than an african rhinoceros. They were not rhinos though. Falling into the pit of modern analogy is useful but the pit is full of problems. Comparing modern large animals with ancient dinosaurs will prevent an unbiased observation from occurring. So such analogies are only useful to the public and are widely ignored in the scientific literature. Remember that science is a detective story. Observations of the fossils records provide insight to what went on in the past. My favorite tidbit of outcrop wisdom is: “Things are what they actually are, not what they seem, or what you have been told they are.” I try to make my students realize that the story told in the rocks is one that has many possibilities but only one right answer. Paleontology is the search for the way things actually are (were).
I am currently slowly digging out a Triceratops (named Doug) that has already provided 5 complete ribs, a dozen partial ribs , a lower left jaw, a dozen vertebra in large blocks, several isolated vertebra, and a beautiful partial horn. Much more remains in the outcrop. He is a fair sized animal with one of his big ribs only being 6 feet long. What magnificent creatures they must have been. It will take years to get him out of the hill side he is in since he would probably dwarfs a F350 Superduty pickup and his pelvis will weigh over a ton. Paleontology is the study of biological process over time. The act of Paleontology is the practice of patience over time.