A new species of horned dinosaur has been discovered, and its never-before-seen, wing-like headgear -- which is already being compared to butterflies, 1950s cars, and helmets from mythology -- could have offered males a competitive edge in attracting females.
Paleontologists named it Mercuriceratops gemini. The beaked herbivore lived about 77 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous and was likely about 6 meters long and weighed about 2 tons -- smaller than Triceratops (but maybe a bit more fly).
The genus means “Mercury horned-face,” referring to the wing-like protrusions on its neck shield (or frill), which resembles the winged helmet of the Roman god Mercury. The species name refers to the nearly identical twin specimens found in north central Montana and Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Alberta, Canada.
“Mercuriceratops took a unique evolutionary path that shaped the large frill on the back of its skull into protruding wings like the decorative fins on classic 1950s cars,” study author Michael Ryan of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History says in a news release. “It definitively would have stood out from the herd during the Late Cretaceous.”
Horned dinosaurs (ceratopsians) in North America didn’t just used their elaborate skull ornamentation for protection from predators: The bony frill also helped to identify each other and attract females. “This animal is trying to trick itself out to attract mates," Ryan adds, "and it’s doing so in a very unusual way.”
The new species description was based on two skull fragments collected from two separate individuals. The Montana specimen was originally collected on private land in 2007 and later acquired by the Royal Ontario Museum. Scientists wondered if the oddly-shaped animal had some pathology or if the fossilization process had distorted it somehow. That is, until 2012 when Canadian scientists found theirs.
“The two fossils -- squamosal bones from the side of the frill -- have all the features you would expect, just presented in a unique shape,” says Philip Currie of the University of Alberta. Here are the skull fossils from the right side of the frill.
“We would never have predicted this from our experience with working on horned dinosaurs,” Ryan tells the Los Angeles Times. “It’s modifying an element of the skull that’s never been modified before.”
The work was published in Naturwissenschaften this month.
Images: Danielle Dufault (top) & Naturwissenschaften (middle) via CMNH