If you’re a dinosaur fan now, you’re spoiled. There’s no denying it. Just look at the horned dinosaurs. Back when I was a young whippersnapper, Triceratops – old “three horned face” – was the main game in town. If you wanted variety you could go “Ooh” and “Aah” over the skulls of Centrosaurus, Styracosaurus, Pentaceratops, and Chasmosaurus, but that’s most of what we had to gawk at. And we were thankful. It wasn’t like today, when there are new species bristling with weird horns popping out of the rock like crazy. So make sure you fully appreciate the beauty that is Wendiceratops pinhornensis.
The new dinosaur comes to us thanks to legendary fossil hunter Wendy Sloboda. In the summer of 2010, while walking the 79 million year old rock of Canada’s Oldman Formation, when she spotted a chunk of a horned dinosaur’s skull. That was just the first piece of what ended up becoming a bonebed containing over 200 bones of several individuals that required moving tons of rock to exhume. Now, in PLOS ONE, paleontologists David Evans and Michael Ryan have dubbed the dinosaur Wendiceratops in Sloboda’s honor and given the ancient herbivore a place in the ceratopsid family tree.
Ceratopsid dinosaurs basically came in two flavors. There were the centrosaurines – like Centrosaurus itself and Styracosaurus – and the chasmosaurines, such as Chasmosaurus and Triceratops. In the past, differences in ornamentation seemed to separate the two – the chasmosaurines had long brow horns, while centrosaurines had short brow nubs and long nose horns – but in recent years those patterns have broken down. Wendiceratops continues the trend by being a centrosaurine that looks like it’s doing a rough impression of a chasmosaurine called Kosmoceratops.
Not all of the Wendiceratops skull has been found yet. But enough has turned up to allow Evans and Ryan to reconstruct this dinosaur with a thin, blade-like nasal horn and a row of short frill horns that look like evolution put this dinosaur on tight rollers for a bit. (The long brow horns are a hypothesis based on the fact that early centrosaurines had such extended ornaments, too.) This not only showed Evans and Ryan that this dinosaur was new to science, but identified Wendiceratops as the oldest ceratopsid yet found with a nasal horn. It puts a minimum date on when the centrosaurine lineage, at the very least, evolved when one of the flashiest parts of their ornamentation.
But aside from what it can tell us about horned dinosaur evolution, Wendiceratops is a testament how scientific curiosity and dedication is turning up more dinosaurs than ever before. At the dinosaur’s public unveiling earlier this year, Evans recounted how many paleontologists thought Canada’s Oldman Formation wasn’t worth prospecting because the fossils seemed few and far between. There were other places that offered a greater osteological return for the effort. This created a gap in our understanding of the Cretaceous world – a span from about 90 to 77 million years ago from which relatively few of North America’s dinosaurs have been found.
True to other researchers’ frustrated accounts, Evans explained, early fieldwork was difficult and sometimes demoralizing work. The dinosaurs did not give themselves up easily. But Evans, Ryan, Sloboda, and all the others who went out into the desert kept trying, and gradually the dinosaurs began to emerge. Persistence made the difference, and promises to yield even more strange species. The same story is being played out in other places and rock units, where explorers target the parts of the paleontological map that still whisper “Here be dragons”.
Evans, D., Ryan, M. 2015. Cranial anatomy of Wendiceratops pinhornensis gen. et. sp. nov., a centrosaurine ceratopsid (Dinosauria: Ornithischia) from the Oldman Formation (Campanian), Alberta, Canada, and the evolution of ceratopsid nasal ornamentation. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0130007