Triceratops vs Tyrannosaurus

Perhaps the most obvious mainstay of dinosaurs in art and culture is the stand-off between the giant, fanged Tyrannosaurs and the horned and frilled Triceratops. It’s pretty much a cliché for dinosaurs that these two will fight each other when together and that the predator is always after his well-defended prey.

Obviously, I generally don’t think that tyrannosaurs (or most theropods for that matter) tackled healthy adult prey when there was a great selection of tasty, small, largely defenseless and naïve juveniles around. Now that makes sense at the best of times (and is borne out by what modern predators do, not to mention the inferences about dinosaurs) but a photo like this really makes you wonder.

OK, rexy is lying down (and it’s not the biggest specimen), but the difference in size is quite obvious. Triceratops is really, really big. Even in comparison to the ‘king’ it’s a huge animal with a massive skull, long horns, and a big body and a lot of weight behind it. There’s reason lions don’t generally tackle adult buffalo and won’t go near rhinos and that’s because they are too likely to get stompted, gored, or generally injured. This is a big and intimidating animal, and while eyeballing skeletons is not the best way of assessing complex behaviours, I do find it hard to believe that this was a normal prey choice for a tyrannosaur.

16 Responses to “Triceratops vs Tyrannosaurus”


  1. 1 kattato Garu 25/08/2011 at 8:45 am

    Am I right in thinking that Triceratops was one the most common, if not the most common large herbivores available for T. rex to feed on? In which case, juvenile triceratops might indeed have been the prey of choice. Single lions don’t often take on an adult buffalo, but they’re very happy to pick off the kids.

  2. 2 Tim Donovan 25/08/2011 at 11:32 am

    Of course a predator would prefer to go after easy juvenile prey. But there were still battles between T. rex and adult quarry. Look at the Happ study. Confrontations depicted since Knight really did happen. Btw lions sometimes go after ELEPHANTS.

    • 3 David Hone 25/08/2011 at 11:38 am

      Yeah which is why I said and emphasised the word “normal”.

    • 4 Mark Robinson 26/08/2011 at 5:29 am

      “Btw lions sometimes go after ELEPHANTS”.

      Not by themselves they don’t and anyway, I would characterise this as aberrant behaviour. I presume that you’re referring to the Savuti River lions. This change in hunting strategy is emergent and does not appear to have been reported on before 1990. It commenced during a time of extreme scarcity of other prey animals (the elephants themselves having being driven to travelling long distances in search of food and water).

      The lions started with young elephants and worked their way up to adolescents as they became more successful. They still don’t tackle fully-grown males unless they’re sick or injured, and they don’t hunt rhinos (which are a better analog for Triceratops) even though they’re smaller than elephants.

      I think it’s a bit of a stretch to try to establish an ecology of Tyrannosaurus attacking fully-grown Triceratops on the basis of a single possible T. rex bite mark that apparently healed.

      • 5 Tim Donovan 26/08/2011 at 1:14 pm

        “Not by themselves…”

        P. Currie has noted evidence for group hunting in tyrannosaurids.

        “..single possible T. rex bite mark…”

        I don’t think anyone disputes Happ’s conclusion that T. rex broke off part of a Triceratops’s horn and raked its frill. Prior to that study, T. rex bite marks were observed on Triceratops pelvic bones–probably the basis for GSP’s well-known illustration, and suggestion that the hunters first stampeded the quarry. Presumably, T. rex went after juveniles, or hadrosaurs, which weren’t as dangerous, more often than adult ceratopsids or ankylosaurs. But it did go after dangerous prey occasionally; it it almost never did, it’s doubtful we’d have the SUP etc evidence.

      • 6 David Hone 28/08/2011 at 8:56 am

        “P. Currie has noted evidence for group hunting in tyrannosaurids.’

        Suggested yes, but not in Tyrannosaurus.

      • 7 Bryan Riolo 16/03/2013 at 5:17 am

        Frankly, comparing what those lions who hunt elephants do and what Tyrannosaurus might have done is silly. Elephants are a bit, a tiny bit, bigger than lions. Triceratops would not have been bigger than adult Tyrannosaurs. So, while we know lions can and will attack elephants…. water buffalo…hippos…and so on, why assume Tyrannosaurs would not have had Triceratops steaks on its mind a lot? “Hadrosaurs would be easier!” True, but when the size disparity is not great, predators will attack even well defended healthy prey. If Nile crocodiles averaged big enough, they would attack and kill adult hippos. Hell, normal crocs have attacked adult elephants. Maybe the poor croc was going after the young calf, but it did follow through on its attack.. It lost, but its behavior-known, observed, and recorded behavior-makes the idea that a Tyrannosaurus would seldom attack even adult Triceratops kind of hard to support.

      • 8 David Hone 16/03/2013 at 10:05 am

        “It lost, but its behavior-known, observed, and recorded behavior-makes the idea that a Tyrannosaurus would seldom attack even adult Triceratops kind of hard to support.”

        But it is not common behaviour. For every one of these examples, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of attacks on much smaller prey. The vast majority of predators tackle prey significantly smaller than themselves the vast majority of the time, and generally avoid prey that can fight back effectively. For every adult Triceratops dripping with horns there were numerous hadrosaurs with none, and maybe quite a few juvenile trics. It’s not that it wouldn’t or didn’t happen, but I find it very hard to countenance the idea that these would ever be the primary prey of choice not least when Jacobsen recorded bite marks as being 3 times as common on hadrosaurs as ceratopsians in the Dinosaur Park Formation.

  3. 9 AM 25/08/2011 at 2:08 pm

    The size difference doesn’t look as extreme as that between a lion and a buffalo, more like a lion and a wildebeest but I only have this one picture to go on. They look pretty evenly matched and the tyrannosaurus obviously is a lot taller.

  4. 11 Tayo 26/08/2011 at 6:46 pm

    If adult large theropods preferred to go after juvenile herbivores, how did they get to be so large to begin with?

    • 12 David Hone 28/08/2011 at 8:52 am

      Well don’t forget that a young hadrosaur can still be a sizeable meal, and it’s simply a question of numbers. Eating 5 small ones will give you the same amount of energy as 1 big one. Plus there are likely (I think) some energetic things behind this too.

  5. 13 Tim Donovan 28/08/2011 at 11:38 am

    “If adult large theropods preferred to go after juvenile herbivores, how did they get to be so large to begin with?”

    Years ago, Starkov noted a correlation between big sauropods and the rise of big theropods. Sauropods may even have been an evolutionary stimulus for T. rex. Naturally, they didn’t have to be anywhere near adult size to make a satisfactory meal, especially in light of new evidence of the size of A. sanjuanensis.

  6. 14 Bryan Riolo 02/09/2011 at 5:57 pm

    Rex vs Trike…I have not the slightest problem believing a T-rex would accost an adult Triceratops. Lions will attack tough, full-grown prey (Botswana) and wolves will too. Not the norm, but it happens often enough.
    Also, I’ve seen a video of a crocodile attacking a full-grown elephant, a female, and he almost pulled her down. Mama elephant eventually won, as expected, but it was close for a few seconds.

    The average Triceratops is smaller than a Tyrannosaurus, shorter, with a vulnerable zone behind the frill. An ambush might well have been the method of choice, rather than a face-to-face confrontation.

    • 15 Tim Donovan 02/09/2011 at 6:15 pm

      We may have evidence for ambush, or at least an attack in the vulnerable posterior, in addition to proof of a head on encounter.


  1. 1 Blog Carnival #34: Dino Petting Zoo, Tyrannosaurus v. Triceratops and More | Dinosaur Tracking Trackback on 01/09/2011 at 4:33 pm

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