Buried Protoceratops

So you might be getting a bit sick of Protoceratops specimens at the moment, but this one is a bit special. Based on the first picture you can see that like some of the others, it’s nearly complete, well articulated and in good condition. The pose might look a little odd, but this is because of how it has been left to facilitate preparation. When orientated as found in the field (and as originally preserved) we see something rather more dramatic.

Yep, it looks rather like this animal was buried and tried, and failed, to get out. The formation is apparently made up of aeolian (wind deposited) sediments, so this is not something that drowned or was buried in a river channel etc., but was trapped in a sandstorm, collapsing sand dune or something similar. The head is up and the body down, implying that it survived long enough to try and make an escape but never succeeded. There are, apparently (I’ve not seen them) a number of specimens like this in other collections, and I’d love to see if there are any studies on how often this thing happens now, though I dare say it’s an incredibly hard thing to find out.

8 Responses to “Buried Protoceratops”

  1. 1 Darren Tanke 21/07/2011 at 5:35 am

    Have long thought that they lived in tunnels or some sort of subterrenean burrow they made that has collapsed downward. The animal is struggling to rise up out of the sand head first, but the back and limbs are pressed down by the weight of the sand. There would be a lot of weight on the crest also. The burrow and surrounding host sand, once the former had collapsed would be very hard to see millions of years later. They do seem the wrong shape for a burrower, but have good claw/hooves and if memory serves, the Gobi Desert area today is not much changed from long ago- lots of dry desert with patches of vegetation. Possibly they would burrow to escape daytime heat and drought conditions??

    • 2 David Hone 21/07/2011 at 5:47 am

      Well I can give you a very good reason why not, but I can’t reveal it right now! 😉

      However, with the size of the head, that’d need a damned big burrow to get down (maybe 3 feet across?) that would be very hard to make in even compacted sand. The feet aren’t that big and they certainly don’t have shovel-like claws or anything that look like classic burrowers or diggers.

      I would be surprised if they did dig into sand a little for coolness in the day or heat at night, but I think burrowing is pretty unlikely.

  2. 3 Jim Kirkland 21/07/2011 at 6:30 am

    Here is a pre-print of my paper focused on a tail-standing proto. We had one we referred to as the proto in a tube (siderite cemented sandstone; ie burrow?), but the editor did not want us to include it in the paper as I think Nick Longrich was following up on burrowing protos. I see them making large burrows under stabilized dunes just like Coyote in our desert. They always point nose up suggesting the frill and beak discouraged visitors. An interesting taphonomic signature; Ankies lay belly down and theropods on their sides.


    • 4 David Hone 21/07/2011 at 6:36 am

      Thanks Jim, obviously I didn’t know about this (i don’t have a copy of that volume and have only had the opportunity to flick through one). I’ll give it a good read. Even so, they really don’t look well suited to burrowing (though of course nor do things like foxes to be fair) and as noted, I am currently working on something that is strongly related to this and certainly not burrowing.

  3. 5 Heinrich Mallison 21/07/2011 at 9:19 am

    Jim, awesome!
    Dave, thanks for showing us all this, it is really great.

    There is, btw, a “trying to get up” Protoceratops in the Museum of Ancient Life (or whatever it is called) at THanksgiving Point, Utah.

  4. 6 Dave Howlett 21/07/2011 at 10:48 am

    As regards the fossil evidence for specific behaviours in a species, it has long been my opinion that, considering the abundance of fossil material for both Protoceratops and Psittacosaurus, they are our best chance for a comprehensive case study of the biology and maybe even possible behaviours of a single dinosaurian genus. Don’t think anything of this magnitude has been undertaken though – but it will doubtless only be a matter of time.

    • 7 David Hone 21/07/2011 at 11:49 am

      Well the problem there is that these specimens are all osteological and we actually get most of our behavioural inferences from trackways – something that definately happened when the animals concerned were alive and are not likely affected by the circumstanes surround their death and burial. I think in general we’re better off with things that have good skeletons and good tracks.

  5. 8 Bryan Riolo 27/07/2011 at 7:58 pm

    Ever since someone suggested Scythian gryphons were inspired by Protoceratops fossils, I’ve found the animal to be fascinating. I also find the theory to be utterly ludicrous. Scythians most likely used living animals as models; eagles, big cats, and dogs. If fossils were part of it, Protoceratops was the least likely candidate I can think of, short of a worm.

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