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New Apex Predator Theropod Dino Species Discovered November 29, 2013

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siats-meekerorum-dinosaurPaleontologists announced a major discovery in Paris recently, that of a new species of apex Theropod predator found in North America.   At over 30 feet long and weighing 4 tons, It was one of the greatest land predators on Earth when it lived 100 million years ago.  Scientists found the fossilized remains sticking out from a slope in the Cedar Mountain Formation of Utah in 2008.  It would take two years to slowly remove them from the rocks and cleaned, and two more to analyze the bones to see if in fact this were a new species not yet in the scientific/fossil record, etc.  Scientists named it Siats meekerorum; the genus honors the mythical, cannibalistic monster from Ute tribal lore (the genus name is pronounced “SEE-atch”).

The fact that a new 30-foot Theropod has been discovered is amazing news enough.  But what is even more amazing is that this is the first predatory dino species this size to be discovered in North America in more than six decades.

“It’s been 63 years since a predator of this size has been named from North America,” said Lindsay Zanno, of North Carolina’s State University and Museum of Natural Sciences, in a press release.

“This dinosaur was a colossal predator, second only to the great T. rex and perhaps Acrocanthosaurus in the North American fossil record,” Zanno continued.

Even more significant is that the discovery of a predatory species this size fills in a 30 million-year gap between the extinction of Allosaurs and the maturation of the evolution of the Tyrannosaurs in North America.  True, Carcharodontosaurus was a major predator at this time, too, but the current fossil record indicates it was only around from 100-93 million years ago — much more narrow span of time.  Moreover, its fossils have been found in what used to be the supercontinent Gondwana (specifically, present-day Africa and South America).  The aforementioned Acrocathosaurus was in the same taxonomical family as C. saharicus, and it was found in North America, but its known span of existence, according to current fossil records, was about 116-110 million years ago.

The discovery of this species has shed new light as to which species sat atop of the proverbial pyramid in this given ecosystem in North America some 98 million years ago.  The Tyrannosaurids that did exist at this time were much smaller.  The extinction of Acrocanthosaurus first, and later Siats meekororum dying out, eventually opened up the opportunity for Tyrannosaurids to grow larger into the T-rex that we all know and love today.

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

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nasutoceratops-stipples-by-sammantha-zimmerman

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.