A new species of dinosaur with a horned skull was discovered in North America that is unique to more than 60 known horned dinosaur species that have been cataloged up to this point. Although the species was identified last in 2012, paleontologists have only recently given the fossils a unique name.
The specimen is classified as ceratopian, the herbivorous group of beaked dinosaurs that pre-historically flourished in North America, Europe, and Asia. The last known of this dinosaur’s kind is believed to have perished in the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago.
The dinosaur is believed to have measured roughly 20 feet long, and it is guessed that the Mercuriceratops lived somewhere in the neighborhood of 77 million years ago, during the Late Cretaceous Period. Named for the Roman god with the winged helmet, Mercury, the dinosaur’s name translates to “Mercury horned-face.”
The first ceratopsian fossil ever discovered was in 1872 by Fielding Bradford Meek in Wyoming. Led by geologist F.V. Hayden, the pair found the first remains during the Survey of the Territories by the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey. Paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope led the excavation of the fossil, and dubbed the new species Agathaumas sylvestris, or “marvelous forest dweller.”
Ceratopsids are broad-built, heavy dinosaurs that carried weight low to the ground. This species is known on sight by its decorative facial horns and spikes, as well as its large, winged head plates.
Mercuriceratops (pronounced mer-cure-E-sare-ah-tops) has thin, presumably ornamental wing-shaped protrusions on either side of its skull, which scientists speculate functioned as a sort of plumage to attract a mate. Paleontologist Michael Ryan mused that the thin bone composing the frilled protuberance seemed brittle and fragile, and was therefore most likely a garnishment and not meant to be a survival mechanism. Ryan is the lead author of a report published in the June installment of Naturwissenschaften journal, which concerns the new horned dinosaur discovery. This report can be accessed online.
Almost certainly the dinosaur was herbivorous, like other ceratopsids. Mercuriceratops had a bird-like beak, and most likely possessed two long brow horns located above the eyes. Only squamosal fragments belonging to the dinosaurs have been found at this time. Squamosals are the large, butterfly-winged broad bones that composed the side of what was the dinosaur’s large, unusually shaped frill, and which characterizes the species and served as a sort of armor for the large, plant-eating creatures.
The skulls were found in pieces, and in two separate areas so far. In 2007, paleontologists unearthed parts of the species in north-central Montana at Judith River. Some 230 miles away in 2012, another almost identical skull was found, fragmented as well, in Alberta, Canada’s Dinosaur Park Formation. Due to the unique growths on either side of the dinosaur’s skulls, scientists initially did not know for certain that this was a new dinosaur species, and did not rule out a sort of deformity in the skull’s bone structure to explain the anomalous finding, either. With the finding of this second, almost indistinguishable fossil, researchers know that this is a new species for certain.
Full fossils of the new horned dinosaur species have as of yet to be discovered. However, teams on the dig sites in Alberta, as well as in Montana, remain hopeful that this and other new species will be found soon. New dinosaur discoveries revitalize paleontologist’s efforts at dig sites, and invigorate the knowledge that there is still much to learn and unearth in the bygone age of the dinosaurs.
By Mariah Beckman