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There is arguably no dinosaur on dinosaur conflict that is more depicted and sensationalized then Tyrannosaurus vs Triceratops. Now, dinosaur fights occur in fiction and depictions all the time, and often between two dinosaurs who would have never met in real life. We love arguing among ourselves over which dinosaurs we think can beat up the other dinosaur. While other people may argue over whether Superman can beat Goku….
Which he can, of course.
…dinosaur fans wager whether T. Rex can defeat Giganotosaurus, or whether a Stegosaurus can hold it’s own against a pack of raptors, or even…
I am so tired of this one.
Yet, T. rex vs Triceratops is the one that is always popping up. Why is that? Well, probably the biggest reason that the general public may not even consider is that a fight between a T. rex and a Triceratops could have happened. They both lived in the same place at the same time (Western North America, about 66 Million Years Ago), and are both generally considered tough dinosaurs. A fight between two dinosaur powerhouses that actually lived together is just to alluring of an image to pass up.
One of the earliest and most famous depictions of this is the iconic illustration by Charles R. Knight.
Now, I’m not sure if Charles was the person who put this confrontation on the map, but if he wasn’t he sure as heck helped. Since then fights between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops have been depicted countless times in art and media. But this has lead some to wonder; could this battle have actually happened?
Of course, some may immediately go on the defense to this question and answer that they must have obviously fought, as they must have had a predator/prey relationship. But the question I bring up concerns more about how these battles are often portrayed; as violent, dramatized clashes between equally matched foes. As a rule of thumb, nature is almost never as exciting as media would have you believe, and predator and prey confrontations are usually never nearly as spectacular as you would see in the movies. Unfortunately, we can’t go back in time to see the ecological relationship these two creatures had, so we have to rely on context clues.
Triceratops is often depicted as a power house of a dinosaur, like a modern day rhino but three times as big. It is often depicted using it’s horns offensively, goring into the sides of large predators. However, some scientists have considered an alternate theory.
It is theorized instead by some that the head of the Triceratops was brightly colored and used for display, and the horns merely aided that function. It has been inferred through several specimens of different age groups that the size and shape of the horns changed as they grew, so it may have also been a sign of sexual maturity or dominance. Some who propose this theory disregard the popular image of the horns being used as weapons, saying the horns were too delicate for offensive purposes and would break in battle.
However, nature is frugal, and will often adopt multiple uses for any given asset. Let’s take a look at a modern example. Deer use their antlers for display purposes and as a sign of sexual maturity, but they also use them to fight amongst themselves…
…as well as against predators.
Yet, objectively, the deer antler would seem pretty weak. It’s made of keratin, not bone, and is susceptible to damage and even complete loss. But this supposed weakness doesn’t keep deer from using their antlers offensively.
Triceratops may have had multiple uses for it’s horns, with one of them possibly being for fighting off Tyrannosaurus rex. However, how would a fight go down?
Well, most depictions in media show the two going into an epic grudge match, depicting both on an equal playing field. Blood gets spilled, the landscape get’s trampled, and usually a lot of roaring and hissing is involved. This is how it goes down in Jurassic Park: The Game.
Speaking of which, why hasn’t this happened in the movies yet? Get on that Jurassic World!
Other times, however, the battle is a little more abrupt, with one of the dinosaurs getting a lucky shot in (the Triceratops goring the Rex or the Rex biting into the neck of the Triceratops before it could respond).
Either way, the creatures are usually depicted as evenly matched, and one or the other had to make a mistake for the battle to end. It usually ended in the death of one of the opponents.
But this does beg the question, is there any physical evidence of a confrontation between these two animals?
There does exist a fossil of a Triceratops horn and frill that shows bite marks from a Tyrannosaurus. A part of the horn was actually bitten off, signifying a major confrontation between the two. This is the best evidence to date we have that these two creatures actually engaged in battle. However, it is also apparent that the wounds on the frill healed over, indicating that the Triceratops survived the fight. So, does this mean the Triceratops may have killed the T. rex?
The documentary special The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs sets out to depict a battle between these two creatures based on the fossil evidence noted above. I don’t want to spoil too much of what happens because I do plan to talk more in depth about this special in the future, but the basic premise is that scientist take into account the things we know about the two creatures and the fossilized bite marks to create a possible scenario of how that particular battle may have played out. In the end, after suffering some damage to the horns and frill, the Triceratops manages to gore the T. rex in the belly, killing it. The battle, although exciting, isn’t nearly as drawn out and dramatized as most media depictions like to go for, which I like (the special is far from perfect, however).
In the end, I like the idea that these two dinosaurs may have had epic battles to the death, and the idea is all the more alluring because these creatures actually lived in the same place and time. however, we can’t say for absolute certainty how these fights played out, or how often they even happened. Who knows, maybe T. rex preferred not to hunt Triceratops and more often hunted the less heavily armed hadrosaurs. Maybe T. rex only hunted Triceratops out of necessity, when no other prey options were available. Or perhaps Triceratops was a major part of a growing T. rex’s diet. We really can’t know for sure. But still, the image is to alluring to ignore, and the two have gone down in history as being the most famous of dinosaur arch nemeses. At that note, I think I’ll end with a quote from famed paleontologist Robert Bakker:
“No matchup between predator and prey has ever been more dramatic. It’s somehow fitting that those two massive antagonists lived out their co-evolutionary belligerence through the very last days of the very last epoch of the Age of Dinosaurs.”
Join me next time as I put on my tin foil hat and discuss Dinosaur Cryptozoology and Conspiracies.