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Hook ’em Horn…Faces, that is! July 20, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Science.
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A top view (“plan view” in engineering) and a side view (“elevation view” in engineering) of the top portion of the skull of Nasutoceratops, a new discovered dinosaur species in Utah. Note the curved, longhorn-like horns, and the usually large nose. (Illustration by Samantha Zimmerman)

Another new species of dinosaur has been discovered, this time a Ceratopsid (a term that means “horn face” in Greek).  What is particularly striking about this newly discovered species is twofold.  One, it was an usually large nose in a suborder/family (Ceratopsia / Ceratopsidae) whose species have large beaks that define their facial features.  Two, the horns.  The shape and direction bear a strong resemblance to those of, well, a Texas Longhorn (the type of cattle, not a football player!).

The name of this newly-discovered species is Nasutoceratops titusi, which in Greek/Latin roughly translates into “Titus’ Big-nosed Horn Face”.  The ‘titusi’ species designation seems to be an attempt at the genitive case of the name “Titus”, but ‘titusi’ sounds much better than the grammatically-accurate ‘titi’.  Indeed, the species name was fashioned in honor of Alan Titus, a paleontologist at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah*, which encompasses the area where the fossils were found.

Latin grammar aside, the name is quite fitting.  Usually, the first thing that draws the attention of the eye to most Ceratopsid species are the horns, but in this case, it’s a draw.  The horns are slightly smaller when compared to, say, Triceratops or Pentaceratops, but the nose is quite prominent, almost identical to that of a Macaw parrot in shape, though obviously much larger than the comparative bird.

The obvious use for horns was self-defense, but also, in the case of this species (if not for others, too) was to lock them with those of other males for dominance in a herd.  For years, it was postulated the the distinct frills behind the face and horns were a means of neck protection, but in recent years, that long-held idea has been subject to dispute.  As one can see in the “plan view” of the skull, there are two large ‘fenestrae’ (openings in a skull behind the eyeball socket) in the bone frill, which begs the question:  if the bone frill were a means of protecting the neck from predators, why have large holes in it?  Given that these ‘holes’ are thought to be fenestrae (‘windows’ in Latin), perhaps it might be for muscle attachments for strong jaws instead.  At least, that is an alternate idea.

The point of exploring these ideas is very germane towards the discovery of this species.  For example, the relatively smaller horns might suggest that there two distinct sets of Ceratopsids, as an interviewed paleontologist suggested in a National Geographic article.

Moreover, Nasutoceratops’ discovery was announced in a study co-authored by Scott Sampson, a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  He put the significance of this find very succinctly:  “[T]his find raises some great questions and mysteries. We’re just beginning to understand the world of dinosaurs.”  Such is a very telling acknowledgement, given that we have been studying dinosaurs for about 190 years.

*Utah is a long-time hotbed for both Jurassic dinosaur fossils as well as Cretaceous ones, including the species that is the subject of this article.  Along with its neighboring states (Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and states over such as Montana and the Dakotas), the whole badland interior of the western States has yielded new dinosaur discoveries since the 1870s, and continues to yield a wealth of new finds to this day.

Dinosaur tracks found in Australia August 24, 2011

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Australia is traditionally a relatively latecomer when it comes to dinosaur discoveries.  The first dinosaurs discovered were Iguanodon and Megalosaurus in England in the early 1820s.  We found herds of Hadrosaurs outside of Philadelphia in the 1840s (the significant finds out west started in the 1870s).  Compared to all that, the first dino finds Downunder not coming until the 1900s and 1930s seem quite recent.  It does not help things that Australia, even during the Age of Reptiles, did not have all of its land accessible to dinosaurs, as much of the present-day continent was covered by a shallow sea.  But it also was connected to both Antarctica and South America during this era, and as such, the part of Australia not covered by said shallow sea (try saying that three times fast!) was a crossroads of sorts for a number of species.

Despite the decent diversity of dinosaurs found in Australia, the actual number of species found Downunder are relatively few, for a number of geological reasons, one of which has already been mentioned.  But any dino discovery in Australia is significant because of its crossroads status, but also because it can give us clues to dinosaur migratory patterns as well as potential behavioral patterns during a unique time of when A) Australia was located further south than it is today, and B) despite the southern part of the continent’s almost polar latitudinal position during this time, a huge saving grace was that a major warming period occured at that same period, about 105 million years ago.

Hence the significance of the discovery of dino tracks along the coastline of Victoria dating to that time.  A research team led by Emory University Paleontologist Anthony Martin discovered what appear to be Therapod tracks from Australia’s polar period.  Keep in mind that dinosaurs were not discovered in Antarctica until the late 1980s — pre-dating the ground-breaking documentary on dinos hosted by Christopher Reeve in 1985.  But given that geologists surmised that the continents were at one time joined together, there were thoughts that finding dino fossils at the bottom of the world would be a matter of time.

Martin also found the first dinosaur trace fossils of a burrow in Australia back in 2006, so his track record for these finds is well-established.  This current find was in a location called Dinosaur Dreaming.  With a name like that, it sounds like Paleontologists ought to do more digging in that point on the map!