Thursday, 8 December 2011

A New Species Of Horned Dinosaur

The fossil skull of Spinops sternbergorum
The horned dinosaurs, such as Triceratops, are some of the most famous herbivorous reptiles ever. They evolved from small quadrupeds into heavily armored giants covered in a fantastic array of frills, spikes and horns. They were a diverse group, with around 34 different species each with its own unique set of head ornaments. Now palaeontologists have named yet another beast to add to the ranks of these fascinating dinosaurs. What makes the find more interesting it that it is a so-called 'storage room discovery.'

An artists impression of Spinops sternbergorum
In in 1916, fragments of two mysterious skulls were recovered from the Albertan badlands by the father-son team, Charles and Levi Sternberg. The duo recognized that they had discovered a new species and sent the remains to the Natural History Museum in London. However the specimens were deemed too scrappy to be exhibited and were stored away in the collections for nearly 100 years until they were rediscovered by an international team of scientists led by Andrew Farke, Augustyn Family curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Palaeontology, Alberta, Canada.

They cleaned up the specimens and realised that the bones were from an undescribed species. They promptly gave it the name of Spinops sternbergorum (Sternberg's spine face) in reference to its facial spikes and in honour of its finders. When alive, it would have been a 2 tonne plant-eater with a large neck frill adorned with two backward facing projections, two smaller ones which curved forward towards the eyes and a series of small horns on the snout and above the eyes.

The small forward facing spikes are unique to Spinops. Yet the team identified that its closest relatives were Centrosaurus and Styracosaurus. The remains have also given insight into how the ornaments of these dinosaurs evolved. Originally, scientists thought that the structures only evolved once in the horned dinosaurs (properly called the ceratopsids). Yet the positions of the spines of Spinops show that they evolved independently, implying that the ornaments underwent multiple waves of evolutionary innovation.

'My colleagues and I were pleasantly surprised to find these fossils on the museum shelf' commented Farke, 'and even more astonished when we determined that they were a previously unknown species of dinosaur....I was amazed to learn the story behind these specimens, and how they went unstudied for so long. This animal is an important addition to our understanding of horned dinosaur diversity and evolution'