Protoceratops, meaning “first horned face,” is a genus of herbivorous ceratopsian dinosaur from the Campanian stage of the Late Cretaceous Period (83 to 70 million years ago) in what is now Mongolia. The first specimen was discovered by photographer JB Shackelford in 1922 in the Gobi desert while working with an expedition looking for human ancestors. The photographer did not uncover any human remains but did find many specimens of fossilized Protoceratops, along with other dinosaurs of the time period, including Velociraptor, Oviraptor, and Psittacosaurus.
The type species, P. andrewsi, was formally described in 1923, and honors discovery expedition leader, Roy Chapman Andrews. The fossils come from the Djadochta Formation. The findings were noted by researchers as important finds, and the genus was hailed as the “long-sought ancestor of Triceratops.”
The fossils were well preserved, with even the sclerotic rings preserved in many of the specimens.
In 1971, a fossil was found of a Velociraptor clutched onto a Protoceratops in Mongolia. It is believed the two died simultaneously during battle, when they were either surprised by a sandstorm or buried when a sand dune collapsed on top of them.
A second species was described in 1975 by Polish paleontologists, which they named P. kozlowski. However, the fossils consisted of incomplete juvenile remains, and are now considered synonymous with Bagaceratops rozhdestvenskyi.
A second valid species, P. hellenikorhinus, was named in 2001. It was found in the Bayan Mandahu Formation in Inner Mongolia, China and also dates from the Campanian stage of the Late Cretaceous. It was notably larger than the type species, had a slightly different frill, and had more robust jugal horns. The arch of bone over its nostrils had two small nasal horns, and there were no teeth at the front of the snout.
Protoceratops had a large neck frill, which may have served to protect the neck, to anchor the jaw muscles, to impress other members of the species, or combinations of these functions. Protoceratops was initially believed to be an ancestor of the North American ceratopsians. There are two unique species of Protoceratops known.
Protoceratops was approximately 6 feet in length and stood 2 feet high at the shoulder. A fully grown adult could have weighed as much as 400 pounds. The large numbers of specimens found in high concentration suggest Protoceratops lived in herds.
This was a relatively small dinosaur with a proportionately large skull. Although it was a herbivore, Protoceratops appears to have had muscular jaws capable of a powerful bite. The jaws were packed with dozens of teeth well suited for chewing tough vegetation. The skull consisted of a massive frontal beak and four pairs of skull openings. The foremost hole, called the naris, was considerably smaller than the nostrils seen in later genera. It has large orbital sockets, which measured around 2 inches in diameter each. Behind the eye was a slightly smaller skull opening.
Protoceratops had a neck frill at the back of its skull. The frill contained two large frill holes. The exact size and shape of the neck frill varied by individual, with some having short, compact frills, and others having longer frills — nearly half the length of the skull. Some researchers attribute the different sizes and shapes of the frills to sexual dimorphism and the age of the individual.
Andrews also discovered the first known fossilized dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert of Mongolia. Each egg was about 8 inches long, with newborns being about a foot in length. Due to the proximity and abundance of Protoceratops, these eggs are believed to be members of the Protoceratops genus.
Folklorist and historian of science Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University suggested in the past that the exquisitely preserved fossils of Protoceratops and other beaked dinosaurs, discovered by ancient Scythian nomads who were mining for gold, may have been at the root of the image of the mythical creature known as the griffin. Griffins were described as lion-sized quadrupeds with large claws and a raptor-bird-like beak.
The griffin began appearing in Greek literature around 675 B.C., at about the same time the Greeks first made contact with Scythian nomads. Griffins were described as guarding the gold deposits in the arid hills and red sandstone formations of the wilderness. The region of Mongolia and China where many Protoceratops fossils are found is also rich in gold runoff from neighboring mountains, lending some credibility to the theory that these fossils were the basis of griffin myths.
However, as evidence given in counter-argument, images of the griffin had appeared as early as 1200 B.C. in the Throne Room of the Knossos Palace, suggesting that the Minoans at least were familiar with the idea long before contact with the Scythian nomads.