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Ceratosaurus is an iconic dinosaur due to numerous physical attributes that distinguish it from other theropod species: the horn on the end of its nose, the massive teeth, the tiny hands with the four fingers, the wide tail, etc. However, the main focus of this article are its osteoderms – the bony bumps that were on its back. What were they, where exactly on the body were they, and what did they look like?
Despite its instantly recognizeable profile, Ceratosaurus fossils are surprisingly rare. Only a handful of skeletons have been found, and all of them are incomplete. Of these specimens the things which are especially unlikely to be preserved are its osteoderms. These small bony lumps (there’s really no other way to describe them) occured in a row running down the middle of its back, and it is one of this animal’s more distinctive features. It is one of only two theropod species (the other being Carnotaurus) which are known to have possessed body armor. Yet “armor” is hardly the word that I would use to describe this anatomical attribute, as we shall see later.
In order to make an accurate picture of Ceratosaurus, I needed to get as much information as I could about its osteoderms. So far, nobody has done a comprehensive study of Ceratosaurus osteoderm morphology – there’s a paleontology Master’s thesis that’s just begging to be picked up by someone. There wasn’t much information to go on because written descriptions of the osteoderms are rather scant. Only a few mounted specimens of Ceratosaurus include the osteoderms as part of the display, and I’m not aware of any museum having Ceratosaurus osteoderms housed in its collections departments.
Charles W. Gilmore says the following in his description of Ceratosaurus fossils:
“Several dermal ossifications were found with the type specimen of Ceratosaurus nasicornis, and some of these were so retained in the matrix as to indicate their exact position in relation to the internal skeleton of the living animal. Reference is made here to the row of elongate, irregularly shaped, bony ossicles present above the spinous processes of caudals (fig. 1, pl. 22) 4 to 10 inclusive, and above cervicals 4 and 5 (0, pls. 29 and 30). The position of these ossicles would appear to indicate a continuous row of dermal ossifications, extending along the median line of the back from the base of the skull well down on the tail, if not the greater part of its length…The ossifications above the tail are from 25 to 38 mm above the tops of the spinous processes of the vertebrae, evidently indicating the thickness of the skin and muscles between them and the tops of the spines. Those on the neck are much closer to the vertebrae, and in one instance appears to rest on the spine (figs. 1, 2, and 3, pl. 20). That there were other dermal ossifications is shown by the presence of a small skin plate found with the bones of this skeleton. It had been freed from the matrix when it came into my hands, so there is no evidence as to its probable position in the skin. It is a relatively small subquadrangular plate of bone 58 by 70 mm., with a comparatively smooth ventral and a roughened dorsal surface. The under surface is gently concave in the direction of its shortest diameter, with a low longitudinal swelling extending through the middle of its longest diameter. The roughening of the external surface is without definite pattern” (Charles W. Gilmore, Smithsonian Institution-United States National Museum, Bulletin 110 – “Osteology of the Carnivorous Dinosauria of the United States National Museum, with a Special Reference to the genera Antrodemus (Allosaurus) and Ceratosaurus”. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920. Pages 113-114).
Unable to examine these osteoderms in person, I did the next best thing – I looked at as many pictures of Ceratosaurus osteoderms as I possibly could, and I made the following observations:
- There was only one row of osteoderms running along the middle of its back.
- The osteoderms are all fairly small.
- The osteoderms are irregularly shaped.
- From overhead, the osteoderms appear to be diamond or lozenge-shaped, elongated anteriorally-posteriorally.
- The osteoderms were smooth underneath, but they had a rugose texture on their upper surface.
- Some osteoderms seem to come to a point on their upper surface, while others come to a low ridge, and others don’t have any raised features at all. This might be due to the fossilization process.
The appearance of the osteoderms was somewhat perplexing to me. In numerous examples of paleo-art, these bony knobs were shown as pronounced features, more or less uniform in shape, often being exposed bone or bone covered with a thin scute. However, the physical evidence doesn’t look anything like the commonly-portrayed iconography. If the osteoderms themselves were used for display purposes (as they likely were, since the use of a single row of small pieces of bone as armor would only be minimally protective), then they would have been much larger, much more pronounced, more uniform in appearance, and would have had a more “finished” look to them in order to make them more visually apparent. As they are, these formless bony lumps would have made a poor sight, and they certainly would have been of little use as armor.
The rough texture of the osteoderm’s dorsal surface implies that they had a covering of keratin atop them. Due to the irregular shape of the osteoderms, it is also implied or inferred that the osteoderms themselves were not the visual focus, but rather, what was on top of the osteoderm was. It’s possible that each of these small osteoderms served as the anchor point for a large keratinous scute which extended upwards from the dorsal surface of the osteoderm, possibly for a considerable distance. The image that comes to mind is that of the spines which are seen running along the backs of some lizards like a crest, such as the iguana.
In 1990, a specimen of Diplodocus was discovered with skin impressions, and among these were a series of iguana-like keratinous spines running along the top of the animal’s vertebrae. It’s therefore possible that Ceratosaurus might have had a similar appearance.
With all of this being considered, I decided to revise my Ceratosaurus drawing that I had made in April 2012. In the original drawing, the animal has a single row of osteoderms that form a line of low semi-circular bumps, looking very much like crocodilian armored scutes. You can see that drawing below.
Now, I changed the animal’s appearance by extending the osteoderms with the addition of a keratinous scute, shaped like the spines of a lizard (although my impression was that they actually looked more like theropod teeth). I also took the time to touch up the drawing’s overall color and smoothness. You can see the updated drawing below.
When I decided to alter the shape of the osteoderms with the addition of the erect spines, I noticed two important changes to the animal’s overall appearance. Firstly, it made the animal taller. In real life, the addition of a few inches of height would have made the animal seem bigger and more imposing than it actually was. Secondly, it gave the animal a much more intimidating appearance, like a “razorback” wild boar. This might have been helpful in disputes over carcasses or competition for mates. It is unknown whether both male and female Ceratosaurus possessed this feature because so few fossils have been found that a sexual compare-and-contrast cannot yet be performed. However, it is almost certain that the males were ornamented in this way.
I hope that you found all of this interesting. Keep your pencils sharp.
Hi everybody. As many of you already know, I occasionally volunteer at the Garvies Point Museum in Nassau County, New York. One day, I decided to hash out some drawings of Late Triassic creatures when I had a few moments of spare time, and I stuck them on the wall over the bulletin board. Recently, I went back to the museum for their annual Native American Feast, and to tell you the truth, I had completely forgotten about these pictures. I decided to take some photos of them while I was there. I’m hoping that the museum staff uses them for coloring activities with the children that visit the museum every week.
Ceratosaurus nasicornis was a 20-foot theropod dinosaur which lived in western North America during the late Jurassic Period, about 155-145 million years ago. It is one of the more famous Jurassic meat-eating dinosaurs, along with Allosaurus and Ornitholestes. It is the second-most-common theropod found within the Morrison Formation.
There are several anatomical features which make this animal distinct. Firstly, and most obviously, it has a small flat horn shaped like half of a dinner plate on the end of its nose, as well as a pair of horns over the eyes. These features are almost certainly visual in nature and were not designed for combat. Many paleo-artists, notably Gregory Paul, like to show the horn as being very large and triangular. I might be wrong, but I instead decided to portray the horn as it appears on the skull – low and rounded, not tall and pointy.
This animal also has a single row of scutes or osteoderms – small knobs of bone – running down the middle of its back, extending from the back of the head all the way to the tip of the tail. Many examples of paleo-art show Ceratosaurus with multiple rows of osteoderms, like the South American abelisaurid theropod Carnotaurus. This, however, is not true – Ceratosaurus just had one row of these bony bumps.
Ceratosaurus had unusually large teeth in its upper jaw in proportion to the rest of its head. This is a clue that this particular animal engaged in what is called “hatchet-style” biting and feeding, where the animal opens its jaws as wide as it possibly can, and then forcibly slams its head downward on its prey like a guillotine.
It possessed four fingers on each hand, which indicates that it was of a much more primitive stock than contemporary theropods, which were more advanced and had only three fingers on each hand. Its primitiveness also means that Ceratosaurus was probably less intelligent than other theropods. Granted, big bad Al was no genius either.
Finally, its tail was unusually wide, and some have suggested that because of this, Ceratosaurus might have been a good swimmer.
This drawing was made with a combination of Crayola and Prismacolor colored pencils. No.2 pencil was used for shading.
Many times, paleo-artists take a feature that was found in a few species and ascribe it to entire groups. One of these trends is to portray osteoderms on the bodies of dinosaurs in their artwork. The word osteoderm literally means “skin bone”. These are small pieces of bone which are embedded in the skin, and sometimes protrude out of it so that they look like bony bumps on the dinosaur’s body. Evidence suggests that they were often covered with a keratinous scute. The most prevalent example of dinosaurs possessing osteoderms is a group called the thyreophorans, meaning “shield-bearers”, which includes the stegosaurs and ankylosaurs, but other dinosaurs have them too. At least one titanosaurid sauropod, Saltasaurus, has been found with osteoderms, and it is believed that possibly all titanosaurs had osteoderms as well.
One contentious issue regarding osteoderms is their presence in theropods, or rather, in artwork depicting theropods. There is a tendency among paleo-artists to adorn the bodies of theropod dinosaurs with rows of small osteoderms along their neck, back, and tail, and I too have been guilty of this practice. However, as far as I am aware, only two theropod dinosaurs have been found with osteoderms: Ceratosaurus (western USA and possibly Africa, Late Jurassic) and Carnotaurus (Argentina, Late Cretaceous). Both of these dinosaurs were, cladistically-speaking, primitive, and were probably closer both in appearance and genetics (and almost assuredly intelligence) to early primitive archosaurs than to later theropod groups.
In terms of appearance, Ceratosaurus was found with a single row of small osteoderms running down the middle of its back (NOT multiple parallel rows, as is often shown in some works of paleo-art), extending from the back of the skull and running all the way down to the tip of the tail. Carnotaurus was found with excellent skin impressions on portions of the body, and these showed that the body was covered in non-overlapping reptilian scales, not feathers. The scales themselves were irregular in pattern and arrangement, with some being larger and more pronounced than others. Also, on the back were arranged several parallel rows of osteoderms, spaced at regular intervals. The osteoderms became larger the closer they were to the middle of the body (medially).
In terms of cladistics, Ceratosaurus and Carnotaurus belong to the same group of theropod dinosaurs, Ceratosauria. Specifically, Ceratosaurus is a ceratosaurid and Carnotaurus is an abelisaurid, which is a slightly more advanced line. It may be possible that all theropods within Ceratosauria were adorned with osteoderms, but we cannot be 100% certain of this. However, as I said earlier, some paleo-artists have a tendency of taking a feature found in one or a few specific animals and ascribing this feature to the entire sub-group of dinosaurs. For example, a few paleontologists and paleo-artists believe that many and perhaps all sauropods had a row of keratinous spines running down the neck, back, and tail just because ONE specimen of Diplodocus was found with them. While this proves that this particular species and possibly the genus had this feature, it does not mean that all diplodocid sauropods had these keratinous spines, and it certainly doesn’t prove that all sauropods in general had this feature. The same goes for theropods. Many paleo-artists place osteoderms on their meat-eating dinosaur’s bodies simply because osteoderms have been found in association with two carnivores, and they decided to put them on virtually every theropod that they drew or sculpted.
Extrapolation is no sin. There’s nothing wrong about making an observation about something and suggesting that something else which was similar may have had identical properties. Writers and researchers do it all the time. However, I should warn people out there that there are varying degrees of extrapolation. It’s one thing to make an observation based upon the fossils of these two dinosaurs, which, as I stated before, came from the same theropod sub-division, and assume or hypothesize that other species within this particular group may have had this feature as well. It is quite another thing to take that feature and apply it to every theropod genus from Eoraptor to Velociraptor.
But what about “scutes” on dinosaurs? The term “scute” has two definitions: either it is the scale-like covering over an osteoderm, or it’s simply an unusually large thick scale. Preserved skin impressions from multiple species have shown that some dinosaurs had rows of large, thick, texturally-pronounced scutes arranged on their bodies, but these scutes did not have a bony core – therefore they can’t be classified as “osteoderms”. Examples of animals that have this feature are the stegosaur Hesperosaurus and the ceratopsian Chasmosaurus.
I may sound like I’m being self-righteous and pontificating, but I too am guilty of making wild extrapolations and assumptions when it comes to my prehistoric illustrations. A few years ago, I did an anatomical study of Tyrannosaurus rex in a running pose, and I had it with osteoderms, for no other reason other than so many other paleo-artists had pictured T. rex with osteoderms in the past. I followed the crowd and illustrated my T. rex accordingly. However, later on when I read about tyrannosaur skin impressions, I learned that these large tyrannosaurs had small pebbly skin with no osteoderms. Consequently, I revised my drawing, which you can see here.
Another example of where I might have made a mistake is in my drawing “Giganotosaurus head study”, which was showcased in an earlier post on my blog; you can see it here. The reason why I had put those rows of bony bumps on its neck and a few on its jaw was because at the time I thought that Giganotosaurus was an abelisaurid, which is a sub-division of Ceratosauria. I later learned that it wasn’t, but I didn’t want to change the picture – I think it looks nice as it is. However, I’ll be sure to learn all of the information that I can about a certain subject in the future before I draw it.
What I’m trying to do here is caution paleo-artists and aspiring paleo-artists about the dangers of making wild assumptions and extrapolations. Do your homework, do your research, and illustrate your creations as best as current science allows, and don’t do anything that you aren’t able to back up with researched facts and/or persuasive arguments.
Keep your pencils sharp.