Scarcity attracts people. What’s common is often ignored, overshadowed by the exotic and unusual. But sometimes—as this week’s featured dinosaur demonstrates—familiar things can teach us far more than the rarest of the rare.
1. Protoceratops Was a Desert Dino.
Seventy million years ago (during the late Cretaceous period), much of central Asia was covered in a vast prehistoric desert inhabited by such reptilian residents as the plant-shearing Protoceratops, the bird-like Shuvuuia, and the sickle-clawed Velociraptor.
2. An Unusual Protoceratops Skeleton May Have Literally Stopped Dead in Its Tracks.
Fossilized footprints reveal a lot about how extinct creatures behaved, but paleontologists can’t say for certain which species left which track. However, in 2011, one very special footprint was found directly underneath a Protoceratops skeleton, and it’s entirely possible that the two specimens are directly connected.
3. A Nest Full of Adorable Protoceratops Toddlers Has Turned Up.
In November 2011, scientists announced the discovery of a nest containing 15 youngsters. Cooler still is the fact that the wee beasties weren’t newborn hatchlings: They seem to have been growing up a bit before striking out on their own, probably with a little help from their folks. “These animals definitely grew at the nest,” says the University of Rhode Island’s Dr. David Fastovsky, “…the implication is there [was] some kind of parental care involved.”
4. Protoceratops Was So Common That It’s Been Dubbed “The Sheep of the Cretaceous.”
The Gobi Desert has yielded hundreds of specimens over the past century, making Protoceratops an unusually well-represented dinosaur. And while we’re on the subject of livestock references, paleontologist Anthony J. Martin once called Protoceratops “Mesozoic Mutton.”
5. It’s Been Argued that Protoceratops Was Built for Tunneling.
This might explain the superabundance of Protoceratops bones. After all, a dead animal resting in an underground burrow is much less likely to get picked apart by scavengers or demolished by the elements than an exposed corpse on the surface. So, what’s the evidence? Paleontologist Nicholas Longrich notes that these dinos are often found buried in a strange “upright” position, indicating that they might’ve been standing in cavernous tunnels when they died.
6. One Protoceratops Species was Named in Honor of a Real-Life Indiana Jones.
Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960) was an explorer who carried a bullwhip, wore a broad-brimmed hat, regularly cheated death, and traveled the world searching for age-old treasures. Heck, the man even hated snakes! Protoceratops andrewsi—a dino discovered on an expedition he spearheaded—was named after him in 1923.
7. In 1971, a Protoceratops and a Velociraptor Were Found Locked in Combat.
A carnivorous Velociraptor sinks one of its curved toe claws into your neck. What do you do? Well, if you’re a Protoceratops, try chomping down on its arm. The beaked herbivore had some powerful jaws built to slice through sturdy vegetation. As this incredible discovery—unearthed by a Polish-Mongolian crew—demonstrates, they could also help it take a bite out of predators.
How did such an astonishing duel get frozen in time to begin with? One hypothesis claims that the fighters were slugging it out at the base of a waterlogged dune when a sudden mudslide instantly smothered them in fossil-friendly sediment.
8. Protoceratops “Eye Rings” Have Been Uncovered.
The “sclerotic ring” is a bony circle found within the eyeballs of many vertebrates (including numerous dinosaurs), which helps these sight organs retain their shape.
9. Protoceratops Noggins Were Fairly Diverse.
Thanks to a wealth of material, scientists have found that some Protoceratops have broader frills and steeper arches above the nose than their neighbors. Do these groups represent the two different sexes? Two different sub-species? Nobody knows.
10. There’s a Decent Chance that the Griffins of Ancient Folklore were Inspired by Protoceratops.
In The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, historian Adrienne Mayor suggests that the mythical griffin—rumored to stalk the Gobi—was born when ancient travelers stumbled across Protoceratops remains. Like the legendary monster, she observes, this local dinosaur had four strong legs and a bird-like beak.