National Geographic

“Large-Nosed Horned Face” Nasutoceratops Debuts

For over a year and a half, a mystery dinosaur has been hanging on the trophy wall of the Natural History Museum of Utah. The nameless Cretaceous herbivore isn’t quite like the neighboring horned dinosaurs arrayed in the display’s evolutionary rank and file. The deep-snouted dinosaur has a U-shaped set of long, curved brow horns and small, scalloped ornaments decorating the perforated frill – flashy headgear distinct from the short brow-horned, spiky-frilled look of the dinosaur’s close cousins Centrosaurus and Styracosaurus. Today, this bizarre 75 million year old dinosaur finally gets a name.

The head of Nasutoceratops as restored by Lukas Panzarin.

The head of Nasutoceratops as restored by Lukas Panzarin.

Dubbed Nasutoceratops titusi, the “large-nosed horned face” is described by paleontologist Scott Sampson and colleagues in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. (The dinosaur’s species name, titusi, honors Bureau of Land Management paleontologist Alan Titus.) The paper is the culmination of a 2010 master’s thesis paleontologist Eric Lund undertook at the University of Utah in which the known remains of the dinosaur were prepared, studied, described, and even named, but could not be officially counted in the Mesozoic menagerie until the new publication. Now that the formalities are out of the way, Nasutoceratops can take its place within the wildly branching pattern of horned dinosaur evolution.

About 75 million years ago, when Nasutoceratops roamed, southern Utah was practically shorefront property. Instead of being a landlocked four corners state, Cretaceous Utah abutted the edge of the long-vanished Western Interior Seaway that split North America into two continents – Appalachia to the east and Laramidia to the west. The part of Laramidia that Nasutoceratops inhabited is preserved in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s Kaiparowits Formation, recording an era when strange species of dinosaurs trod through lush coastal swamps.

Species by species, paleontologists have been naming the unusual dinosaurs of the Kaiparowits Formation. In 2010, for example, some of the same researchers behind the Nasutoceratops paper described Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops from the same slice of geologic time. Nasutoceratops is the third horned dinosaur to have browsed the same humid habitats, but was a different sort of herbivore than those previously known.

The skull of Nasutoceratops as prepared by Eric Lund. Photo courtesy Mark Loewen.

The skull of Nasutoceratops as prepared by Eric Lund. Photo courtesy Mark Loewen.

In technical parlance, large horned dinosaurs are called ceratopsids. There are two ceratopsid subgroups which split from each other between 90 and 80 million years ago. There were the chasmosaurines – such as Utahceratops, Kosmoceratops, and the famous Triceratops – and the centrosaurines, of which Nasutoceratops is the latest member to be described.

Known from a mostly-complete skull, forelimb and neck elements, as well as several other disarticulated skull pieces, Nasutoceratops seems to retain an archaic centrosaurine skull type. Whereas early centrosaurines had long brow horns and short nasal horns, later forms – such as Centrosaurus and Styracosaurus – had short brow horns, long nasal horns or bosses, and extravagant frill decorations that were much more prominent than the little nubs on Nasutoceratops. While Nasutoceratops lived at about the same time as Centrosaurus and Styracosaurus, the newly-named dinosaur represents an early, persistent offshoot of the same subgroup that kept the long-brow-horns, short-nasal-horns style going.

Nasutoceratops in the swamps of Cretaceous Utah. Art by Raul Martin.

Nasutoceratops in the swamps of Cretaceous Utah. Art by Raul Martin.

That such a strange centrosaurine existed in the southern ranges of Laramidia adds to the growing body of evidence that some sort of barrier caused dinosaurian evolution to diverge on the lost continent shortly before 75 million years ago. The genera and species of dinosaurs found in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and other southern sites are distinct from those previously discovered in Canada and other northern locales. The great, unresolved question is what this barrier was. The dinosaurs – hadrosaurs, tyrannosaurs, ankylosaurs, ceratopsids, and more – give away the pattern of a great evolutionary split, but the reasons and mechanics of that event have not yet come into focus.

Not that there aren’t further mysteries within Nasutoceratops itself. Naming a dinosaur is just an initial step in understanding the animal. Nasutoceratops is found in the same formation as two other large ceratopsids, for example, not to mention several other heavy herbivores. Were all these dinosaurs neighbors that preferred different sorts of vegetation to circumvent competition – as megaherbivores of the same era in prehistoric Canada did – or did these dinosaurs occupy similar habitats at different times? The ecology of Nasutoceratops is an open question.

And then there’s the dinosaur’s nose. Within that Jimmy Durante profile, the nose of Nasutoceratops had large air spaces – or “pneumatic excavations” – that have never been seen in any other horned dinosaur.  Did these nasal spaces have a peculiar function? No one yet knows. That, and the rest of the dinosaur’s biology, is almost entirely unknown, particularly since most of the skeleton has yet to be found. Enough of the magnificent ceratopsid has been uncovered to know that Nasutoceratops was something different, but the life of the horned herbivore awaits discovery.

[Full disclosure: I volunteer in the paleontology department of the Natural History Museum of Utah, where Nasutoceratops is curated and some of the new study's research was conducted.]

Reference:

Sampson, S., Lund, E., Loewen, M., Farke, A., Clayton, K. 2013. A remarkable short-snouted horned dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous (late Campanian) of southern Laramidia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 280: 20131186

There are 14 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. BJ Nicholls
    July 17, 2013

    I’d like to add that Eric Lund found this dinosaur in the field, and prepped it himself — as well describing it in his thesis. I suspect that this level of “hunt it, skin it, and eat it” is rare in dinosaur paleontology. I’m sure that Eric would be the first to point out that it took teamwork to bring this fossil to light, and that he may never again have such a unique and intimate opportunity.

  2. Doug
    July 17, 2013

    such an awesome looking critter. I remember back in your Dinosaur Tracking days doing a post how O.C. Marsh thought the first set of Triceratops horns were from a giant bison. Since then we have found ceratopsians with a dizzying variety of horns. But i think this is the first time we have seen something truly bovid-like. Seriously, if Nasutuceratops were alive today i have little doubt someone would have mounted it’s horns on the hood of a Cadillac!

  3. Mike from Ottawa
    July 18, 2013

    Perhaps the large nasal cavity held extremely sensitive scent receptors allowing Nasutoceratops to live as an obligate trufflivore. :-)

    Hat tip to Jack Horner’s T rex as obligate scavenger meme.

  4. Jonny O
    July 19, 2013

    Interesting – but hardly merits all the media attention. This was just another oddly-horned ceratopsian – granted “odder” than most. Ammonites surviving the K-T extinction are far more interesting and intriguing.

  5. Boesse
    July 19, 2013

    Sorry for a difficult question: if this was a master’s thesis, then why isn’t he first author instead of Sampson?

  6. Brian
    July 20, 2013

    Thanks for your singular opinion, Jonny O. Totally, absolutely disagree. Dino finds are big news. Jack Horner’s scavenger hypothesis has now even mostly been dropped even by him. Tyrannosaurs were dynamic animals that could run very fast before the final adult state. Yes, this is an almost sure “once in a lifetime” event for Eric, but oh, what an event!

    Professor Holtz at Maryland says the undescribed, large tyrannosaur that lived in the area/time with this ceratopsian should be described by the end of the year, and this was probably the top predator for Nasuto – which also had to deal with some velociraptor and dromaeosaurus before they reached their adult size. Apparently this same predator fauna in different forms predominated in western N. America for some 20 million years up to the KP event.

  7. 220mya
    July 20, 2013

    Boesse – my understanding is that the agreement made before the student started the thesis was that Sampson would be first author on the short paper, and the student would be first author on the long full description.

  8. Boesse
    July 20, 2013

    That’s an… “interesting” agreement. How odd.

  9. Pete W
    July 22, 2013

    As a long time fan of ceratopsians I found this a very interesting read, and I like ammonites too!

  10. katie bryan
    July 25, 2013

    well done for picking a name i love dinosaurs so much im so excited you discovered a new type :)

  11. Andrew
    July 25, 2013

    Titusi? For Gawd’s sake, Titus is a Latin name – you don’t have to Latinise it as Titusus. What was wrong with Nasutoceratops titi?

  12. jerry
    August 10, 2013

    fascinating article and easy for even a lay person to understand. i hadn’t heard about this from the mainstream media – not even a peep!

    having said that…. andrew, you put the serious laugh-out-loud that was as much fun to read as the article. thanks for the flash of brilliantly clever humor!

  13. charles
    August 10, 2013

    great job. there is always something new in our evolution to find. thks.keep searching.

  14. mercades
    November 14, 2013

    Nasutoceratops is awesome! If you have a gmail, I have a website that’s about the top 3 most deadly dinosaurs!

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