New Study Sheds Light on Triceratops Behavior and Living Habits

Friday, January 10, 2020

An artist's reconstruction of "Larry" the Triceratops. "Larry's" uniquely kinked tail has given researchers clues into the animal's lifestyle in a new study published, Jan 7. Reconstruction by Andrey Atuchin.

A new study published by paleontologists Matthew M. Canoy Illies and Denver Fowler, examines the kinked tail of “Larry” the Triceratops, a fossilized dinosaur on display in a new exhibit at the Badlands Dinosaur Museum in Dickinson. The investigation sheds light on the animal’s behavior and answers crucial questions about its overall ecology and habits.

“Larry” the Triceratops was first unearthed in the 67 million year old Hell Creek Formation of the U.S. Forest Service lands in southwest North Dakota in 1988 by former museum curator, Larry League. With over 70% of the skeleton preserved, the unusually complete specimen was placed on public display at Dickinson’s dinosaur museum in 1993.

A little over two decades later, Fowler, while cleaning the skeleton with his staff, noticed a peculiar feature near the end of the dinosaur’s tail: an angled crimp showing evidence of an injury sustained while the animal was still alive.

“We were in there dusting everything and it just jumped out at me,” Fowler told The Press, detailing the experience of his discovery. “It was a really cool thing to see. We all have a bit of injury that we’re reminded of when bad weather occurs or we move wrong; The idea that dinosaurs were exactly the same is really cool.”

Fowler held on to the project until he was approached by Illies who also took an interest in the animal’s life as a living creature. Together, the pair set to analyzing the crooked vertebrae in the hopes of determining the injury’s possible cause.

“The study proposes a few different hypotheses that might explain how the injury occured,” a press release issued by the Dickinson Museum Center. “Perhaps the tail was clumsily struck against a tree or rock. Maybe the injury could have been caused during an attack, being bitten by a Tyrannosaurus rex.”

However, considering the fairly frequent appearance of these kinds of malformations in Triceratops, the likelihood of a T. rex attack seems quite low to Fowler. What seems more likely to the investigators is that the tail was accidentally stamped on by another of its kind in a herd-like setting.

The skeleton of "Larry" the Triceratops. "Larry's" uniquely kinked tail has given researchers clues into the animal's lifestyle in a new study published, Jan 7. Photo c/o the Badlands Dinosaur Museum

“It’s a real example of some sort of behavior — an event that happened in this animal’s life,” Fowler said as he described the dinosaur’s environment and behavior on the prehistoric Western Edge. “It was really flat and a bit swampy. Things like Triceratops are actually more common in these swampy environments; They seem to like it more swampy.”

Only within the last decade have researchers truly begun to understand the living habits of this supposedly social creature.

“We’ve started to find groups, preserved together, now, so we think they may have been in small groups,” Fowler said. “we’re not talking hundreds and hundreds like you might see in bison, but we are talking about small groups of maybe five to ten individuals.”

No matter the findings, Fowler and his staff are admittedly happy to breathe life into the area’s Cretaceous history with the new study and its accompanying exhibit.

“It gives character to something that’s been at the museum for quite some time, but it tells us a story about ‘Larry’ the Triceratops,” the researcher said. “It also shows the new direction for the museum: we’re looking at researching the specimens we’ve had here for a long time, finding out new things about them and also finding new specimens.”

Fowler had this to say of his institution’s overall objectives: “We had a nice picture done and hopefully it will show that Dickinson, as an institution, is growing — we’re starting to produce research and hopefully it will get noted. Rather than being dusty old bones, these were animals that had events happen in their lives.”