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Julius T. Csostonyi 2012/Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Artist's interpretation of Xenoceratops.  The new dinosaur is introduced in the  "Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences." 

Welcome to your dinosaur family, Xenoceratops

by Meghan Leach
Nov 16, 2012


Dan Smythe/ Canadian Museum of Nature 2012

Scientists pieced together the bone fragments to reconstruct the skull of the Xenoceratops.

Heavily armored and horned, two-ton Xenoceratops finally got an ID on the dinosaur family tree. This vegetarian isn't a critter you'd want to mess with.

Paleontologists in Canada this week identified the new dinosaur just recently, though the fossils were discovered in 1958 and went unidentified for more than 50 years in Canada.

Despite all those years of silence, Xenoceratops has a flare for the dramatic.

“If you use the vision of a Triceratops in your head, the Xenoceratops is about the size of a large rhino, four-footed,” said Michael Ryan, paleontologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and co-author of the study about the new dinosaur. “It would have eaten plants.  It’s got a large shield on the back.  It has two brow horns and a very small horn over its nose.  Its mouth ends in a very turtle-like beak.”

“In the case of these horned dinosaurs, Xenoceratops is like its other kin in body size and dentition and mouth parts,” said Pete Makovicky, geologist at the Field Museum. “Where they’re really different is these set of horns and frill that separate out the species.”

“Whenever we find new things, there’s always a little heartbeat skip,” Ryan said.

The new species provides important information about the evolution of horned dinosaurs 80 million years ago when dinosaurs reigned supreme.

“These dinosaurs come in two different flavors,” Ryan said.  “The branch that includes Triceratops has these large shields on the back of the skull and giant horns over every eye but pretty small nose horns and almost no ornamentation on the back of the frill.  Our new Xenoceratops belongs to the other sub-family and is much older than the Triceratops. It shows us that many characteristics that the Xenoceratops had are shared with the other sub-family, so it filled in a missing gap in the geologic record for us.”

“It’s an interesting new discovery for specialists who work with this group of dinosaurs.  It maybe makes them a little older than we knew previously,” Makovicky said.

Paleontologists use the skeletons of modern animals to help them identify extinct skeletons.

“We spend a lot of time looking at the skeletons of living animals, and then we apply that knowledge to the skeletons of extinct animals,” Ryan said. “When something is anomalously different from everything else, like our Xenoceratops frill was from all the other horned dinosaurs, we know it’s something brand-new and different.”

Paleo-artists also use modern day animals to reconstruct creatures of the past, but they compare features instead of skeletons.

“We don’t really know what dinosaur feathers looked like, but we have research that says [for this specific dinosaur] they were probably brown and black,” said Erin Fitzgerald, paleo-artist and fossil preparator at the University of Chicago dinosaur lab.  “We have to cross-reference with modern-day animals, but we have to be careful with mammals because we deal with reptiles.”

Males in modern species are often more colorful than the females, allowing them to attract mates; paleo-artists can use that feature in their dinosaur models.

“We like to make all our dinosaurs male because they’re prettier that way.  We can be more colorful. We’ll make [a feature] a brighter color as a matter of sexual attraction but, hey, we could be wrong,” Fitzgerald said.

In fact, your Thanksgiving turkey shares many characteristics with the dinosaurs.

“Your Thanksgiving turkey is a kind of dinosaur,” Makovicky said. “As you carve it, you might look at the skeleton a little more and recognize some of the features that birds share with dinosaurs.  This would include having a wishbone and the double-jointed ribs and the vertical leg.  If you have time between the football games to look at your turkey carcass, you can get a little study of dinosaur anatomy in.”