How the herbivorous dinosaurs defended themselves

True, predators reigned supreme in the time of the dinosaurs. But herbivores were not just helpless prey. They had everything from horns to tails that could break bones. They could inflict deadly wounds on their hunters. How did herbivorous dinosaurs defend themselves?

Horns and hard heads

The most obvious defense is antlers, or horns. The ceratopsids are the family that includes all the horned dinosaurs. Their most famous member is the Triceratops. They had horns over the nose and eyes, as well as a bony collar that protected the neck. Some species were topped with protuberances or horns, such as the fearsome Styracosaurus.

How did herbivorous dinosaurs defend themselves? Some, like the triceratops, with their horns.
How did herbivorous dinosaurs defend themselves? Some, like the triceratops, with their horns.

Another type of defense is to have a cranial bone several centimeters thick. They were used in combat against their own kind to establish hierarchies, of course. But in case of need they could become a deterrent weapon against predators. They could hardly have inflicted serious injury. But herd behaviour strengthened this defence.

It is not only the weapon that matters, but also knowing how to use it. Many dinosaur species had tails topped by thick bones. And they could function as a war hammer. Among the hammer-tailed ones we have the ankylosaurs. They were real living tanks thanks to their back with bony protrusions. Then there were the stegosaurids, which with their dorsal plates and spiked tails also had formidable armour. The blow could pierce the skin and fracture the bones of their attackers.

Whips and claws

Sauropods, popularly known as “longnecks,” also used their tails as weapons. These functioned as a whip that they could hurl against their attackers at a very high speed. They would fracture bones with fatal consequences, or make sounds to intimidate them. The larger ones, like the titanosaurs, were virtually untouchable. Only larger predators like tyrannosaurids and abelisaurids could hope to hunt them down… maybe.

Some herbivores had very long claws.
Some herbivores had very long claws.

We associate claws with carnivorous dinosaurs. But a few herbivores also had claws. They were the thericinosaurids, literally “scythe lizards”. They received this name because of the long claws on their front legs. In the species that gives its name to this family, the Therizinosaurusthese appendages could grow up to half a metre long. That’s the record for any dinosaur ever found. They would have had a remarkable deterrent effect on any hunter of similar size.

Last resort

Sun Tzu said that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence”. Dinosaurs have historically been portrayed as unintelligent creatures. But they were apparently capable of elaborate hunting and escape strategies. One of the most common among herbivores seems to be to lure their predators into water or muddy areas. Large predators tended to be bipedal. And often with rickety arms compared to their weight. Sinking into the water or mud was certain death.

Now that you know how herbivorous dinosaurs defended themselves, you may no longer think they were so helpless.

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