Old Earth Ministries Online Dinosaur Curriculum

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Lesson 65 - Ceratopsia Overview

Ceratopsia or Ceratopia (Greek: "horned faces") is a group of herbivorous, beaked dinosaurs which thrived in what are now North America and Asia, during the Cretaceous Period, although ancestral forms lived earlier, in the Jurassic. Early members such as Psittacosaurus were small and bipedal. Later members, including ceratopsids like Centrosaurus and Triceratops, became very large quadrupeds and developed elaborate facial horns and a neck frill. While the frill might have served to protect the vulnerable neck from predators, it may also have been used for display, thermoregulation, the attachment of large neck and chewing muscles or some combination of the above. Ceratopsians ranged in size from 1 meter (3 ft) and 23 kilograms (50 lb) to over 9 meters (30 ft) and 5,400 kg (12,000 lb).

Triceratops is by far the best-known ceratopsian to the general public. It is traditional for ceratopsian genus names to end in "-ceratops", although this is not always the case. One of the first named genera was Ceratops itself, which lent its name to the group, although it is considered a nomen dubium today as its fossil remains have no distinguishing characteristics that are not also found in other ceratopsians.



Lesson 66 Psittacosaurus
Lesson 67 Protoceratops
Lesson 68 Styracosaurus
Lesson 69 Triceratops, Part 1
Lesson 70 Triceratops, Part 2



Triceratops skeleton, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History  (Picture Source)



Ceratopsians are easily recognized by features of the skull. On the tip of a ceratopsian upper jaw is the rostral bone, a unique bone found nowhere else in the animal kingdom. Along with the predentary bone, which forms the tip of the lower jaw in all ornithischians, the rostral forms a superficially parrot-like beak. Also, the jugal bones below the eye are very tall and flare out sideways, making the skull appear somewhat triangular when viewed from above. This triangular appearance is accentuated, in later ceratopsians, by the rearwards extension of the parietal and squamosal bones of the skull roof, to form the neck frill.

History of study

The first ceratopsian remains known to science were discovered by Fielding Bradford Meek during the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories led by the American geologist F.V. Hayden. In 1872, Meek found several giant bones protruding from a hillside in southwestern Wyoming. He alerted paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, who led a dig to recover the partial skeleton. Cope recognized the remains as a dinosaur, but noted that even though the fossil lacked a skull, it was different from any type of dinosaur then known. He named the new species Agathaumas sylvestris, meaning "marvellous forest-dweller."


Ceratopsia was coined by Othniel Charles Marsh in 1890 to include dinosaurs possessing certain characteristic features, including horns, a rostral bone, teeth with two roots, fused neck vertebrae, and a forward-oriented pubis. Marsh considered the group distinct enough to warrant its own suborder within Ornithischia. As early as the 1960s, it was noted that the name Ceratopsia is actually incorrect linguistically and that it should be Ceratopia. However, this spelling, while technically correct, has been used only rarely in the scientific literature, and the vast majority of paleontologists continue to use Ceratopsia. As the ICZN does not govern taxa above the level of superfamily, this is unlikely to change.


Following Marsh, Ceratopsia has usually been classified as a suborder within the order Ornithischia. While ranked taxonomy has largely fallen out of favor among dinosaur paleontologists, some researchers have continued to employ such a classification, though sources have differed on what its rank should be. Most who still employ the use of ranks have retained its traditional ranking of suborder, though some have reduced to the level of infraorder.

Possible ceratopsians from the Southern Hemisphere include the Australian Serendipaceratops, known from an ulna, and Notoceratops from Argentina is known from a single toothless jaw (which has been lost).



Ceratopsia appears to have originated in Asia, as all of the earliest members are found there. Fragmentary remains, including teeth, which appear to be neoceratopsian, are found in North America from the Albian stage (112 to 100 million years ago), indicating that the group had dispersed across what is now the Bering Strait by the middle of the Cretaceous Period. Almost all leptoceratopsids are North American, aside from Udanoceratops, which may represent a separate dispersal event, back into Asia. Ceratopsids and their immediate ancestors, such as Zuniceratops, were unknown outside of western North America, and were presumed endemic to that continent. The traditional view that ceratopsoids originated in North America was called into question by the 2009 discovery of better specimens of the dubious Asian form Turanoceratops, which confirmed it as a ceratopsid. It is unknown whether this indicates ceratopsids actually originated in Asia, or if the Turanoceratops immigrated from North America.

Individual variation

Unlike almost all other dinosaur groups, skulls are the most commonly preserved elements of ceratopsian skeletons and many species are known only from skulls. There is a great deal of variation between and even within ceratopsian species. Complete growth series from embryo to adult are known for Psittacosaurus and Protoceratops, allowing the study of ontogenetic variation in these species. Significant sexual dimorphism has been noted in Protoceratops and several ceratopsids.

Ecological role

Psittacosaurus and Protoceratops are the most common dinosaurs in the different Mongolian sediments where they are found. Triceratops fossils are far and away the most common dinosaur remains found in the latest Cretaceous rocks in the western United States, making up as much as 5/6ths of the large dinosaur fauna in some areas. These facts indicate that some ceratopsians were the dominant herbivores in their environments.

Some species of ceratopsians, especially Centrosaurus and its relatives, appear to have been gregarious, living in herds. This is suggested by bonebed finds with the remains of many individuals of different ages. Like modern migratory herds, they would have had a significant effect on their environment, as well as serving as a major food source for predators.

Although ceratopsians are generally considered herbivorous, a few paleontologists have speculated online that at least some ceratopsians may have been opportunistically omnivorous.

Posture and locomotion

Most restorations of ceratopsians show them with erect hindlimbs but semi-sprawling forelimbs, which suggest they were not fast movers. But recently some paleontologists have argued that at least the later ceratopsians had upright forelimbs and the larger species may have been as fast as rhinos, which can run at up to 56 km or 35 miles per hour.

Daily activity patterns

A nocturnal lifestyle has been suggested for the primitive ceratopsian Protoceratops. However, comparisons between the scleral rings of Protoceratops and Psittacosaurus and modern birds and reptiles indicate that they may have been cathemeral, active throughout the day at short intervals.


Activity-related bone fractures have been documented in ceratopsians.

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