Cleveland Natural History Museum scientist identifies new horned dinosaur
Posted June 27, 2014 in Articles
Author: James Ewinger
Luck is sometimes a good companion for the skilled eyes of paleontologists. They research life forms that lived tens of millions of years ago and must often rely on bone fragments.
Two fortunate finds -- one from Montana and the other from the Canadian province of Alberta -- have allowed scientists to identify a new species of horned dinosaur, according to a paper co-authored by Dr. Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH).
The dinosaur is called Mercuriceratops gemini because of the wing-like ornamentation on its head that reminded researchers of the Roman god Mercury, whose shallow helmet bore wings.
The first specimen was unearthed by a Montana rancher in 2007, Ryan said. It was sold to a private firm and ultimately found its way to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
The second was found in 2012 by Susan Owen-Kagen, a preparator in Dr. Philip Currie's paleontology lab at the University of Alberta.
Ryan had already seen the Montana specimen in Toronto. By itself, scientists had a difficult time gauging much because bones can be distorted as they fossilize and age.
Ryan saw what Owen-Kagen found when he visited Alberta, and instantly recognized it as the same type of dinosaur that the Royal Ontario Museum had.
That explains the designation M. gemini, because the two specimens helped corroborate and confirm the find. "We know that two is not just an anomaly," Ryan said in a phone interview.
Triceratops is the genus of horned dinosaur most familiar to the public. All species belong to the family Ceratopsidae.
Ryan said a common trait among Ceratopsidae is the shield on the back of their heads. It is composed of three bones. The one in the center is called the parietal bone, and each one on the side is a squamosal. Ryan said ceratopsid parietal usually bear most of the ornamentation.
"On Mercuriceratops the squamosal is modified like no other dinosaur has done," Ryan said. This typically triangular bone has the addition of a large wing coming off each side, like the wings on Mercury's helmet.
So what did they do? Ryan likened them to long feathers on birds of paradise "that could not possibly help them fly." The evolution of the feathers played a role in the birds identifying each other, but more importantly, the more ostentatious they are on the males, the more likely they will be chosen by females as mates.
Think of it as millinery.
And the wings on Mercuriceratops had even less to do with flight than the ornamental feathers on birds. The newly identified ceratopsid was about 20 feet long and weighed more than two tons -- too blunt and heavy for soaring through the clouds, and almost too big for the garage.
Each newly identified species is another measurement of time and space -- identifying what lived where and when -- and thus advancing knowledge of Earth's history.
Ryan said there are 10,000 species of living dinosaurs that have been named. We know them as birds.
But only 1,000 species of extinct dinosaurs have been named and they lived for hundreds of millions of years. "That means we are severely underestimating the number of dinosaurs," Ryan said.
Within days, he may have an opportunity to expand the catalog. He is about to set off for field work in Greenland and has no idea what he will find.