Dinosaur Fight Club

Article by: J. D. Dixon and Adam Manning
Edited by:
Lewis Haller and Jack Wood

A photograph of the infamous fossil, a Velociraptor and Protoceratops forever stuck together in a vicious struggle. Available at: https://twitter.com/tetzoo/status/832591216470528000.

Two animals locked in endless combat, both in a desperate bid for survival, but neither would walk away victorious. This is arguably one of the most famous fossils in the world, and is even considered a national treasure of Mongolia. This spectacular fossil shows the remains of two species of dinosaurs, Velociraptor mongoliensis and Protoceratops andrewsi in an all-out battle for existence.

Velociraptor was a small dromaeosaurid, part of the group more commonly known as raptors. Adults only measured up at 1.8 m long, 0.62 m high at the hip, and weighed 20 kg, roughly the size of a turkey. They were likely covered in feathers, and there is evidence of quill knobs on their forearms, indicating the presence of large wings, though they couldn’t fly. Protoceratops was a ceratopsian, a smaller, hornless relative of the more famous Triceratops. They were around 1.8 m long, about the size of a sheep, and weighed 400 kg. Velociraptor was a carnivore, and likely preyed upon the herbivorous Protoceratops.
The fossil was located in white sandstone cliffs of the Djadokhta Formation, Mongolia. The discovery was made when the southern Gobi Desert was explored by a Polish-Mongolian team in 1971. The fossil has been aged at ~ 74 – 84 million years old, putting it in the Campanian stage of the Late Cretaceous.

It is debated how exactly these fossils were preserved so amazingly. It was thought the animals may have fallen into a swamp during their duel, but the sediments are aeolian (wind-carried) in origin, making this unlikely. It could have been a sandstorm which caused their demise, or the herbivore may have died from the attack and the struggling predator may have remained trapped under its victim. This is evidenced by the Velociraptor’s right leg seen stuck under the Protoceratops.

Velociraptor mongoliensis illustration by Jack Wood.
Protoceratops andrewsi illustration by Jack Wood.

Another more likely suggestion is that increased rains caused the collapse of a nearby sand dune, and so both animals were killed and buried instantaneously and in life position. In any case, rapid sedimentation caused by an environmental disturbance must be the cause, as scavengers had no chance to disarticulate the skeletons.

This fossil is an extraordinary find because it is quite rare to find direct fossil evidence of interaction between two taxa. Predator-prey relationships are more often inferred based on proximity of remains and distinctive marks, like tooth marks on bones, left on one by the other. The remains of these two different taxa found locked in combat gives unique and direct evidence of a predator-prey relationship. This also provides an exceptional insight into the anatomy and behaviour of these dinosaurs. For example, it gave insight into the killing method of Velociraptor, as the specimen shows the Velociraptor using the claw of the second digit on its foot to attack the Protoceratops’ neck. However, the fossil also shows the ferocious defence of the Protoceratops, who has seemingly broken the right arm of the attacking Velociraptor with a strong bite. Although a herbivore, it was definitely not one to be messed with.
All-in-all, finds like this are truly special. Whilst it is rare to find perfectly preserved dinosaurs, it is moreover a once in a lifetime discovery to find two at once in such remarkable circumstances, and provides a deeper insight into the lives of these two animals.

Image References
[1] A photograph of the infamous fossil, a Velociraptor and Protoceratops forever stuck together in a vicious struggle. Available at: https://twitter.com/tetzoo/status/832591216470528000.
[2] Velociraptor mongoliensis illustration by Jack Wood.
[3] Protoceratops andrewsi illustration by Jack Wood.

Information References and Further Sources:
[1] American Museum of Natural History (2000). Fossil Preservation in the Gobi. Available at: https://www.amnh.org/index.php/exhibitions/fighting-dinos/fossil-preservation-in-the-gobi. Accessed 26th September 2019.
[2] American Museum of Natural History (2000). The Fighting Dinosaurs. Available at: https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/fighting-dinos/the-fighting-dinosaurs. Accessed 26th September 2019.
[3] Carpenter, K. (1998). Evidence of Predatory Behaviour by Carnivorous Dinosaurs, Gaia, 15, pp.135-144. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kenneth_Carpenter3/publication/40661585_Evidence_of_predatory_behavior_by_carnivorous_dinosaurs/links/58c6e5edaca272bcc1ecd01a/Evidence-of-predatory-behavior-by-carnivorous-dinosaurs.pdf. Accessed 26th September 2019.
[4] Hone, D., Choiniere, J., Sullivan, C., Xu, X., Pittman, M., and Tan, Q. (2010). New evidence for a trophic relationship between the dinosaurs Velociraptor and Protoceratops, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 291 (3-4), pp. 488-492. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2010.03.028. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018210001562. Accessed 18th October 2019.
[5] Natural History Museum. (Unknown). Protoceratops. Available at: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/dino-directory/protoceratops.html. Accessed 26th September 2019.
[6] New Scientist. (2015). Stunning fossils: Dinosaur death match. Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530090-800-stunning-fossils-dinosaur-death-match/. Accessed 26th September 2019.
[7] Norell, M. A., and Makovicky, P. J. (1999). Important Features of the Dromaeosaurid Skeleton II: Information from Newly Collected Specimens of Velociraptor mongoliensisAmerican Museum Novitates, 3282. Available at: http://digitallibrary.amnh.org/handle/2246/3025. Accessed 18th October 2019.
[8] Turner, A. H., Makovicky, P. J., and Norell, M. A. (2007). Feather Quill Knobs in the Dinosaur Velociraptor, Science, 317 (5845), pp. 1721. doi: 10.1126/science.1145076. Available at: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/317/5845/1721. Accessed 26th September 2019.