How to eat a Triceratops

triceratopsFirst, you tear off its head. The Triceratops was a herbivorous dinosaur that was about 30 feet long, 10 feet high that weighed 6- to 12 tons. Its head sported a long bony shield which served to protect its neck. It inhabited marshes and forests of western North American during the Cretaceous period.

Triceratops was preyed upon by Tyrannosaurus rex,(T-rex) a carnivorous dinosaur measuring up to 40 feet long, 13 feet tall at the hips, and weighing up to 8 tons.

So how did T-rex get past Triceratops’ bony neck shield? Paleontologist Denver Fowler and colleagues, working in the Hell Creek Formation of Montana studied fossils of 18 individual Triceratops that showed tooth marks on the neck shield. “Specimens exhibit a suite of puncture, score, gouge, and puncture-pull marks, which in combination with tooth-spacing patterns are similar to traces previously attributed to tyrannosaurid theropods.” Fowler et al. surmise that T-rex latched on to the neck shield of the Triceratops and tore its head off to get to the meaty neck muscles.

An article in Nature by Mark Kaplan presents a series of graphics showing how this may have occurred.

Fowler and colleges also found tooth marks on Triceratops’ occipital condyle, the ball-and-socket head to neck joint. The tooth marks could occur there only if the Triceratops had been decapitated.


Fowler, D.W., Scannella, J.B., Goodwin, M.G., & Horner, J.R. (2012) How to eat a Triceratops: large sample of toothmarks provides new insight into the feeding behavior of Tyrannosaurus. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32(5, abstracts vol): 96

See also:

Where the Glyptodonts Roamed

Cold Case: What Killed the Mammoths

Arizona Geologic History: Chapter 1, Precambrian Time When Arizona was at the South Pole

Arizona Geological History: Chapter 2, Cambrian and Ordovician Time

Arizona Geological History: Chapter 3: Devonian to Permian Time

Arizona Geological History Chapter 4: Triassic Period

Arizona Geological History Chapter 5: Jurassic Time

Arizona Geological History 6, The Cretaceous Period

Arizona Geological History 7: The Cenozoic Era


Flatulent Fauna Fables and climate

A story making the rounds is creating headlines such as the one in the ever credulous Arizona Daily Star: “Flatulent dinosaurs helped warm Earth, study says.” British researchers posit that the flatulence of herbivorous dinosaurs produced so much methane that it warmed the climate. The paper, published in Current Biology is summarized by the authors as follows:

Mesozoic sauropods, like many modern herbivores, are likely to have hosted microbial methanogenic symbionts for the fermentative digestion of their plant food. Today methane from livestock is a significant component of the global methane budget. Sauropod methane emission would probably also have been considerable. Here, we use a simple quantitative approach to estimate the magnitude of such methane production and show that the production of the greenhouse gas methane by sauropods could have been an important factor in warm Mesozoic climates.

If you read the story (full text here) you will find that the contention depends on many assumptions and rather extravagant extrapolation. The gassiest dinosaurs were the Sauropods which became abundant during the Jurassic Period about 150 million years ago. Global temperatures are estimated to have been 18 F warmer than today, but that warmth began in the preceding Triassic Period about 250 million years ago. There seems to be a timing problem. Also, the researchers estimate that the amount of methane produced by dinosaurs was similar to the amount produced today by livestock farming and industry, so why aren’t we warmer?

At the end of the paper, the researchers note as an attempted justification for their speculation:

 “Although dinosaurs are unique in the large body sizes they achieved, there may have been other occasions in the past where animal-produced methane contributed substantially to global environmental gas composition: for example, it has been speculated that the extinction of megafauna coincident with human colonization of the Americas may be related to a reduction of atmospheric methane levels.”

That references a 2010 paper in which the researchers estimated the amount of methane produced by mammoths and other large herbivores. They speculate that the arrival of humans in North America and the subsequent disappearance of these animals reduced methane emissions and led to an abrupt cooling period, the Younger Dryas, about 12,800 years ago.

At the end of the Younger Dryas, the global temperatures and atmospheric methane both rose rapidly. So where did the methane come from since those flatulent mammoths were no more? The mammoth fart theory fails to explain previous similar abrupt cooling and warming in the Older Dryas period and the Oldest Dryas period, nor a subsequent similar event about 8,200 years ago.

Both of these papers present interesting stories, but they both fail upon close inspection. Still, science is speculative and the stories make headlines and get the authors published.

See also(links updated):

Arizona Geological History Chapter 5: Jurassic Time

Ice Ages and Glacial Epochs

Research Review 3 Climate cycles and a Mammoth Mystery

Arizona Geological History Chapter 6, The Cretaceous Period

The Cretaceous Period (145- to 65 million years ago) was hot and steamy. There was no ice at the poles. Global temperature is estimated to have been about 18 F warmer than today. Atmospheric carbon dioxide began a 145-million-year decline from about 2,000 ppm to the 380 ppm of today, in part, due to carbon sequestration by formation of coal deposits. Flowering plants appeared.

Paleomap 94

The North American continent was split by a sea connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the Arctic Ocean. Transgressions and regressions of this sea formed conditions ripe for coal formation similar to those in the Paleozoic Era In Southern Arizona, the lower Cretaceous Bisbee Group, consisting of the basal Glance conglomerate, the Morita formation sandstones and mudstones, the distinctive Mural Limestone (which forms the cliffs just east of Bisbee), and the sandstones and mudstones of the Cintura Formation record the changes in sea level. Upper Cretaceous rocks, the Fort Crittenden Formation lie unconformably (representing erosion or structural change) upon the Bisbee Group. The lower Fort Crittenden is dominated by marginal wetland to deep-water lake deposits, whereas the upper Fort Crittenden is characterized by wetland to deltaic deposits. These rocks contain organic geochemical evidence of wildfires which suggest that seasonal aridity and wildfires were common occurrences.

There are no early Cretaceous rocks recognized in northern Arizona. Thick sequences of upper Cretaceous rocks were deposited on what is now the Colorado Plateau. These represent near-shore marine, coastal, and river-deposited sands, mudstone, and coal. Coal is mined from the Dakota sandstone at Black Mesa in Navajo County, AZ. This is overlain by the Mancos Shale, and several other sedimentary formations.

The Laramide orogeny of late Cretaceous to early Tertiary time (80- to 40 million years ago) built the Rocky Mountains and closed the inland Cretaceous sea. Subduction of oceanic crust under continental rocks along the west coast caused compression and uplift of the continent.

This was the time of emplacement of most of the porphyry copper deposits in the western U.S. Volcanism was extensive, and included the volcano that produced the rocks of the Tucson Mountains.

sonorasaurusDinosaurs roamed the land, including Arizona’s Sonorasaurus thompsoni, a new species of brachiosaurid dinosaur whose remains were first discovered in the Whetstone mountains by UofA graduate geology student Richard Thompson in 1994. Sonorasaurus is estimated to have been about 50 feet long and 27 feet tall, about one third of the size of other brachiosaurus. It may have been a juvenile or just a small dinosaur species. Sonorasaurus was an herbivore. Tooth gouges on its bones suggest it was killed and eaten by a larger dinosaur. A single blade-like tooth of a huge meat eater called Acrocanthosaurus was found near the bones and suggests that this was the predator that killed Sonorasaurus. You can see an exhibit dedicated to Sonorasaurus at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

The end of the Cretaceous Period saw another major extinction of life. Dinosaurs, pterosaurs, many marine reptiles, some marine invertebrates, some groups of mammals, and a few plant groups became extinct. The reasons are still controversial. We know that an asteroid impacted near Yucatan, Mexico and formed the Chicxulub crater about 65 million years ago. The impact is said to have vaporized rock into clouds of dust, that cooled temperatures, and created clouds of sulfurous gas, which may have killed plants with acid rain. The impact is also said to have deposited a thin clay layer containing iridium and strained quartz. However, the extinction occurred during an 800,000-year eruption of basalts that form the Deccan Traps in India. Volcanic eruptions can also product dust and sulfur dioxide emissions (and layers of iridium which characterize the K/T boundary). More precise dating shows that the Chicxulub impact occurred 300,000 years before the mass extinction. Evidence suggests that the extinctions occurred over a period of several million years.

Cretaceous Trivia:

The white cliffs of Dover, England are Cretaceous age chalk deposits.

Paul Spur, a rail stop between Bisbee and Douglas exists because Mural limestone was mined for smelter flux.

Mural Hill Bisbee 1902

Hills carved from Cretaceous beds east of Bisbee. View is northward across Mule Gulch. The prominent white band is the upper member of the Mural limestone, forming the top of Mural Hill on the left and showing the dislocation due to the Mexican Canyon fault. Cochise County, Arizona. December 1, 1902. Plate 9-B in U.S. Geological Survey. Professional paper 21. 1904, figure 7 in U.S. Geological Survey Folio 112. 1904.


Dickinson, W.R., et al., 1989, Cretaceous Strata of Southern Arizona, in Geologic Evolution of Arizona, Arizona Geological Society Digest 17.

Finkelstein, D.B, et al., 2005, Wildfires and seasonal aridity recorded in Late Cretaceous strata from south-eastern Arizona, USA, Sedimentology, Volume 52, Issue 3 , Pages587 – 599, International Association of Sedimentologists

Krantz, R.W., 1989, Laramide Structures of Arizona, in Geologic Evolution of Arizona, Arizona Geological Society Digest 17.

Nations, J.D., 1989, Cretaceous History of Northeastern and East-Central Arizona, in Geologic Evolution of Arizona, Arizona Geological Society Digest 17.

Arizona Geological History Chapter 5: Jurassic Time

Jurassic Time, the age of dinosaurs, was from 241- to 145 million years ago. See geologic time chart. The super-continent of Pangea was breaking up and the Atlantic Ocean was born along a spreading axis.

Paleomap 152

During the Jurassic there were no Rocky Mountains. The ancestral Rockies of the Paleozoic had eroded away and the current Rocky Mountains were yet to be born. Northern Arizona, and all of what is now the Colorado Plateau was a featureless desert of blowing sand, much like the Sahara Desert today. These sands became the Wingate Sandstone, Kayenta formation, Navajo Sandstone, and Entrada Sandstone that form the arches and cliffs of parks in southern Utah such as Arches National Monument, and Zion National Park. The cartoon below shows the paleogeography.

The real action was in southern Arizona. Magmatism begun in the Triassic Periodcontinued and moved inland, so that southern Arizona and California contained a magmatic arch and subduction zone with development of many volcanoes on the western edge of the continent. (See the hatched line in the global map, first figure above.) This subduction zone still exists along the west coast of North and South America. The figure below shows a cross-section of a subduction zone, magmatic arc, and spreading axis. To be in proper orientation for our purposes, consider that you are looking toward the south, with the Pacific Ocean on the right and the incipient Atlantic Ocean labeled “back-arc basin” in the figure.

Subduction zone 1

In Jurassic time, southern Arizona was a volcanic field, and some of the volcanoes collapsed into calderas. Remnants of these calderas are recognized in the dragoon mountains near Courtland-Gleeson, in Tombstone, at the southern end of the Huachuca mountains, in the Canelo Hills, and in the Santa Rita mountains. Gold, silver, and copper is associated with the subvolcanic intrusions of these calderas. Many of the historic mining camps of southern Arizona were founded on these deposits. The Juniper Flat granite just north of Bisbee has been dated at about 180 million years and the copper deposit at Bisbee is presumed to be about the same age.**

The Jurassic was also a time of other structural complications. According to Tosdal et al. “In southeastern Arizona, movement along northwest-striking fault systems broke the area into elongate structural blocks, forming topographic highs and basins in which terrigenous clastic* and volcanic rocks accumulated.” The Canelo Hills volcanics are some of the rocks deposited at this time. Tosdal continues: ” In northwestern Sonora, southern Arizona, and southeastern California, a system of sinistral strike-slip faults, The Mojave-Sonora megashear, cut obliquely across the magmatic arc, as much as 800 km of aggregate displacement along these faults may have occurred in Jurassic time.”

At the end of Jurassic time, and extending into the following Cretaceous period, the style of tectonism changed from strike-slip shearing to normal faulting (one side down relative to the other side). This formed basins which received sediments and volcanic deposits, and eventually formed the basin which held the Cretaceous-age Bisbee Sea.

Glance Conglomerate, up to 2,000 meters thick, is the youngest Jurassic deposit in southern Arizona and forms the base of the Cretaceous Bisbee group of rocks. The Glance represents high-energy deposition of alluvial fans by debris flows and rivers along a mountain front.

For most of Jurassic time, global temperatures are estimated to have been 15 -to 20 F warmer than today, the same as in the preceding Triassic Period. Most of the land area was hot and steamy, but in southwestern North America, it was arid. Plant life consisted mainly of conifers and palm-like cycadeoids. Flowering plants had not yet evolved. On land, this was the age of dinosaurs, including flying reptiles. There were some primitive mammals, and abundant insects.

Mid-Jurassic volcanism caused atmospheric carbon dioxide to rise from about 1,500 ppm to about 2,500 ppm (vs. 390 currently) by late Jurassic time. But while carbon dioxide remained high, Jurassic time ended with an ice age. There is evidence of glaciation on some continents, but apparently temperatures did not get as cold as in the previous ice age in late Paleozoic time nor as cold as the glacial epochs of the current ice age.

Next time, the Cretaceous Period: bad news for dinosaurs.

* Geologic Terms

Clastic: Of or belonging to or being a rock composed of fragments of older rocks (e.g., conglomerates or sandstone)

Sinistral strike-slip: If standing on one side of a fault, the other side would appear to move left. The San Andreas fault is a dextral (right) strike-slip fault.

Subduction: A geological process in which one edge of a crustal plate is forced sideways and downward into the mantle below another plate

Terrigenous: deposited on the earth’s crust.

**Age dating of the Juniper Flat granite yielded an age of 171 mya by potassium-argon method and an age of 182-184 mya by rubidium-strontium method.


Lipman, P.W., and Hagstrum, J.T., 1992, Jurassic ash-flow sheets, calderas, and related instrusions of the Cordilleran volcanic arc in southeastern Arizona, GSA Bulletin, v.104.

Tosdal, R.M., Haxel, G.B., and Wright, J.E., 1989, Jurassic Geology of the Sonoran Desert Region, Southern Arizona, Southeastern California, and Northernmost Sonora, in Arizona Geological Society Digest 17.

Arizona Geological History Chapter 4: Triassic Period

With this chapter we begin the Mesozoic (middle life) Era which extended from 251 million years ago to 65 million years ago. The Mesozoic is divided into three Periods: the Triassic (251- to 202 million years ago), the Jurassic (202- to 145 mya), and the Cretaceous (145- to 65 mya).

The preceding Paleozoic Era (542- to 251 mya) ended with a mass extinction and with most of the landmass forming a massive continent called Pangea. Arizona was just barely north of the equator, and once again, emerging from the sea which still existed in California and Nevada.

Paleomap 237

By Triassic time, dinosaurs, pterosaurs (flying reptiles), lizards, mammals, and possibly even the earliest birds, had all evolved from Permian stock. In Arizona, there were Phytosaurs, crocodile-like animals (2- to 12 meters long) which inhabited streams and ponds.

Triassic sedimentary rocks, well-exposed on the Colorado Plateau, are represented by the Moenkopi Formation and the Chinle Formation. The Moenkopi consists of continental redbeds (sandstones, shales, and conglomerates) in the northeastern part of the plateau, and minor mixed carbonates of fluvial (river), tidal flats, and shallow marine origin in the west. After a period of erosion, continental sandstones, mudstones, and lake-formed carbonates of the Chinle Formation were deposited. Most Triassic sediments represent deposition well-inland from the sea. The climate was semi-arid in the interior and wet and swampy in the lowlands. Temperatures were 15 -to 20 F warmer than today.


Southern Arizona was a major volcanic province. Many of the mountain ranges contain Triassic volcanic rocks. In the Santa Rita Mountains, for instance, almost 10,000 feet of volcanics were deposited. The Recreation Redbeds in the Tucson Mountains represent an inter-volcanic period of erosion in upper Triassic time.

Volcanism and the high-energy continental deposits made poor hosts for fossils of terrestrial animals and plants. However, the Chinle Formation contains the silicified trunks of large trees preserved and exposed in the Petrified Forest of Arizona, and colorful Chinle rocks are exposed in the Painted Desert.

In mid-Triassic time, the mega-continent of Pangea began splitting into two parts: Gondwana (South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia) in the south and Laurasia (North America and Eurasia) in the north. This split caused massive volcanism along a rift that would become the Atlantic Ocean.

The Triassic Period ended with another mass extinction of about 76% of marine species and some terrestrial species. Again, the reason is not known, but speculative theories attribute it to comet impacts and volcanism. According to The Resilient Earth: ” At least two impact craters have been found from around the time of this extinction. One is in Western Australia, where scientists have discovered the faint remains of a 75 mile (120 km) wide crater. The other is a 212 million year old crater in Quebec, Canada, forming part of the Manicouagan Reservoir. The Manicouagan impact structure is one of the largest impact craters still visible on the Earth’s surface, with an original rim diameter of approximately 62 miles. Others have suggested that a sudden, gigantic overturning of ocean water created anoxic conditions causing the massive die-off of marine species.”


Blakey, R.C., 1989, Triassic and Jurassic Geology of the Southern Colorado Plateau, in Geologic Evolution of Arizona, J.P. Jenney and S. J. Reynolds, eds. Arizona Geological Society Digest 17.

Hayes, P.T. and Drewes, Harald, 1978, Mesozoic Depositional History of Southeastern Arizona, in Land of Cochise, New Mexico Geological Society Guidbook 29.

Moore, R. C., 1958, Introduction to Historical Geology, McGraw-Hill.