The Horned Dinosaurs

Part of the Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries exhibition.

All of the dinosaurs displayed on this wall are "ceratopsian," or "horned-face," dinosaurs. The most famous ceratopsian is Triceratops, with its three horns. But Triceratops is just one member of this large family of dinosaurs, each with its own unique appearance.

A wide variety of reptiles, mammals and insects have horns or similar features. And in the vast majority of cases, these animals use their horns to recognize their species and compete for mates, not to fight off predators. Ceratopsian horns probably served the same purpose, with adult males locking horns in battles for females. The horns might have also been used to attract females.

© Mark Hallett

A Triceratops horn is the fossilized remains of what was once living bone. When this animal lived more than 65 million years ago, the bone was covered in a material very similar to that in human fingernails. Technically, the term "horn" refers to the hard, thick covering around the bone; the horn was roughly 40 percent larger than the bone. The bone inside the horn is called a horn core.

© J. Sibbick

Making the Point

Although known for their horns, many ceratopsians have other unusual features on their skulls. Styracosaurus has huge spikes sticking out from its frill, the bony collar that projects rearward from the skull.

Hodgepodge of Horns

African antelope like the waterbuck, gemsbok, kudu and topi are related species but their horns look very different. Such dramatic visual differences likely help animals identify members of their own species. Male antelope also use their horns in battles for females.