A newly discovered horned dinosaur from Canada lived 79 million years ago, making it one of the oldest known members of the Triceratops family, Ceratopsidae. It also sports the earliest evidence we’ve seen of a tall nose horn, offering hints about when this iconic feature evolved. The findings were published in PLoS One this week.
A team led by University of Toronto’s David Evans and Michael Ryan from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History puzzled together over 200 bones from at least three adults and one juvenile collected within the last five years from a ceratopsid bonebed in the lower part of the Oldman Formation of southern Alberta, near the border with Montana.
The large-bodied herbivore was about six meters (20 feet) long and weighed more than a ton. Its most striking feature is on the shield-like frill at the back of its skull: The edges had a series of forward-curling, flopped-over horns that almost look like hooks (pictured above and below). They named it Wendiceratops pinhornensis after fossil hunter Wendy Sloboda, who discovered this bonebed site in 2010. The species name refers to the Pinhorn Provincial Grazing Reserve where the specimen was located.
"Wendiceratops helps us understand the early evolution of skull ornamentation in an iconic group of dinosaurs characterized by their horned faces," Evans says in a statement. "The wide frill of Wendiceratops is ringed by numerous curled horns, the nose had a large, upright horn, and it's likely there were horns over the eyes too. The number of gnarly frill projections and horns makes it one of the most striking horned dinosaurs ever found."
Reconstruction of Wendiceratops pinhornensis skeleton shows the fossil bones that have been found to date in blue. Danielle Dufault
"The locked horns of two Wendiceratops could have been used in combat between males to gain access to territory or females," Ryan explains. And using its beak, which resembles that of a parrot, it would bite off the tops of low-lying plants, then slice them up with its dozens of leaf-shaped teeth.
Based on fragments of the nasal bone, “Wendy's horned-face” had a prominent, upright horncore – the earliest known occurrence of a tall nose horn in ceratopsians. Furthermore, that means the enlarged, conical nasal horn evolved at least twice in the horned dino family: once in the short-frilled group called Centrosaurinae (which includes Wendiceratops) and once in the long-frilled Chasmosaurinae group (which includes Triceratops).
The horn atop this new species’ nose likely represents the intermediate evolutionary development between the low, rounded forms of the earliest horned dinos and the insanely large, tall horns of Styracosaurus, for example.