Protoceratops vs. Velociraptor - Who Wins?

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Protoceratops vs. Velociraptor

protoceratops velociraptor
Protoceratops and Velociraptor, mixing it up (Keiji Terakoshi).

Most descriptions of dinosaur encounters are based on sheer speculation and wishful thinking. In the case of Protoceratops and Velociraptor, though, we're in possession of hard physical evidence: the fossilized remains of two individuals locked in desperate combat, right before they were both buried by a sudden sandstorm. Clearly, Protoceratops and Velociraptor regularly tussled with each other on the vast, dusty plains of late Cretaceous central Asia; the question is, which of these dinosaurs was more likely to come out on top? (See more dinosaur death duels.)

In the Near Corner - Protoceratops, the Hog-Sized Herbivore

Perhaps because it's often mistaken for its close relative Triceratops, most people think Protoceratops was much bigger than it actually was. In fact, though, this horned, frilled dinosaur measured only three feet high at the shoulder and weighed in the neighborhood of 300 or 400 pounds, making it roughly the size of a healthy modern pig.

Advantages. Aside from its rudimentary frill, Protoceratops didn't possess much in the way of natural defenses, lacking horns, body armor or even a Stegosaurus-like "thagomizer" at the end of its tail. What this dinosaur did have going for it was its presumed herding behavior. As with modern wildebeest, a vast herd of Protoceratops worked to the advantage of its strongest, healthiest members, leaving predators like Velociraptor to cull out weak individuals or slower babies and juveniles.

Disadvantages. As a general rule, herbivorous dinosaurs didn't have the biggest brains, and being smaller than most ceratopsians, Protoceratops must have been endowed with a mere teaspoonful of gray matter. As noted above, too, this dinosaur lacked all but the most rudimentary defenses, and living in herds offered only limited protection. Just as modern wildebeest make relatively easy prey for Africa's big cats, so a herd of Protoceratops could stand to lose a few members to predation each and every day, without putting the survival of the species at risk.

In the Far Corner - Velociraptor, the Feathered Fighter

Thanks to Jurassic Park, most of what people know about Velociraptor is dead wrong. This wasn't the clever, reptilian, human-sized killing machine depicted in the movie franchise, but a beaked, feathered, vaguely ridiculous-looking theropod about the size and weight of a large turkey (full-grown adults weighed no more than 30 or 40 pounds, max).

Advantages. Like other raptors, Velociraptor was equipped with a single, curved claw on each of its hind feet, which it probably used to slash repeatedly at prey in sudden, surprise attacks--and it also sported a set of relatively small, but still extremely sharp, teeth. Also, this dinosaur's feathers attest to its presumed warm-blooded metabolism, which would have given it the energetic advantage over the cold-blooded (and therefore comparatively pokey) Protoceratops.

Disadvantages. Despite what you saw in Jurassic Park, there's no evidence that Velociraptor hunted in packs, or that this dinosaur was anywhere near smart enough to turn doorknobs (assuming any doors had existed way back in the Mesozoic Era). Also, as you no doubt inferred from its specs, Velociraptor was far from the biggest theropod of the Cretaceous period, and was thus limited in its ambitions to comparably sized dinosaurs like Protoceratops (which still outweighed it by a factor of ten or so).

Fight!

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that a healthy, hungry Velociraptor has glimpsed, from afar, an equally healthy, full-grown Protoceratops that has strayed foolishly from the herd. As stealthily as it can, the Velociraptor creeps up on its prey, then leaps onto Protoceratops' exposed flank and flails wildly with its hind claws, inflicting numerous gashes onto the plant-eater's ample belly. None of the gashes, by themselves, are life-threatening, but they do produce copious amounts of blood, a valuable resource that the ectothermic Protoceratops can scarcely afford to lose. Protoceratops makes a half-hearted effort to nip at Velociraptor's head with its tough, horny beak, but its attempts at defense grow increasingly sluggish.

And the Winner Is...

Velociraptor! The results aren't pretty, but Velociraptor's strategy has paid off: the weakened Protoceratops bellows piteously, wobbles on its feet, and collapses onto its side, the dusty ground beneath stained with its oozing blood. Without waiting for its prey to expire, Velociraptor tears a chunk out of Protoceratops' belly, eager to get its fill before other predators converge on the carcass. Soon enough, three or four other Velociraptors poke their heads over a nearby sand dune and rush to the scene of the kill. Quicker than you can say "lunchtime!", all that's left of the unfortunate Protoceratops is a pile of bones and sinew.