So you’re a peaceful herbivore who loves to nosh on the juicy low-lying vegetation of what, in 65 million years, will become the Midwest of North America. The bad news is that you happen to share a continent with Tyrannosaurus rex, who would like nothing better than to sink its teeth into your flesh and devour you.
Luckily, you’re Triceratops, and you’re not having a bar of it.
Here comes T. rex, 8 tonnes of muscle barrelling in at 30km/h. For any other prey, things would be looking bad. But Triceratops has evolved a bony shield around its head, protruding from which are two bony spikes up to a metre in length. T. rex has to get past this bit first, somehow avoiding doing unto itself what Henry V’s wooden stakes did unto the French knights at Agincourt.
Mount all of this onto a skull that’s one of the largest to ever walk the Earth. It made up about a third of Triceratops’ body length; the fossil “record” stands at around 2.5m.
If you were betting on this clash of titans, a bob each way would be the way to go. There’s evidence of both sides winning the fight: if the bones of a fossil Triceratops had T. rex gnaw marks on them, it lost the battle; if they had healed-up tooth holes, it survived to fight another day – but whether this was simply an escape or an actual victory is unknown.
When Triceratops wasn’t fighting off one of history’s deadliest predators, it loved to snack on the plants of the Cretaceous undergrowth. It used its beak to snap branches and strip them of leaves, and its batteries of teeth to grind them into paste. Triceratops didn’t need a dentist: its eight hundred teeth were, like a shark’s, being constantly replaced.
Triceratops did suffer one misfortune – one of taxonomy. When its bones first came to light in the Rocky Mountains, 130 years ago, they were misclassified as belonging to a bison, an easy mistake to make since the skeleton was missing its distinctive head. Luckily the embarrassment was short-lived, with another, complete skeleton being found a year later.
Meet Triceratops at Dinosaur Encounter, open at Te Manawa until 26 February.
Rob Mildon survived T. rex to write for Te Manawa