Paleontologists have discovered a strange dinosaur: a relative of Triceratops with a humongous honker.
Nasutoceratops titusi, whose genus name means "big-nose horned face," roamed present-day Utah about 76 million years ago. The find sheds further light on the dinosaur communities that inhabited what is now the western part of North America.
Similar to its relative Triceratops, Nasutoceratops measured about 15 feet long and weighed roughly 2.5 tons. Its colossal 4.5-foot skull bore a single horn over the nose, a horn above each eye and an elongated, bony frill toward the rear. Its large, flat teeth were perfect for eating plant matter.
The dinosaur also possessed an array of unique features, according to a report published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
For one, the bony cavern housing Nasutoceratops' nose was remarkably large compared with those of other horned dinosaurs. But that doesn't necessarily mean the creature had a more refined sense of smell, because the olfactory receptors would have sat farther back in the skull, said Scott Sampson, a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science who co-wrote the study.
University of Utah paleontologist and study co-author Mark Loewen said he suspected prospective mates found the oversized nose attractive, because the rapid change previously observed among related species is characteristic of sexual selection — when animals select for certain physical characteristics in a mate. This selection might have then fixed the trait within the species over time.
Nasutoceratops' horns, which measured 3.5 feet long, were about twice as long as those of its relatives. They were also curved and forward-facing instead of stubby and pointed upward. However, the dinosaur probably used its horns for similar purposes: attracting mates and intimidating or fighting members of the same sex, Loewen said.
The new species also differed in its bony frill, which lacked the "bells and whistles" of its relatives', such as horns or spikes, Sampson said. Rather, the frill was relatively unadorned, with a simple, scalloped edge, although it still could have served as a mating display. Sampson added that Nasutoceratops probably moved its head back and forth, similar to how the modern-day peacock shakes its plumage to and fro.
Paleontologists unearthed the Nasutoceratops skull and other bone fragments at Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 2006 while on an excavation to understand how Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops communities had formed. The region was once part of Laramidia, an island formed when a shallow sea flooded central North America.
Study co-author Eric Lund, a University of Utah graduate student at the time, spotted the bones protruding from the ground. For the next few weeks, he and the other team members worked on excavating the remains. After encasing the fossils in protective plaster, they hauled them onto a rescue board — the type used by paramedics — and took them to Salt Lake City, where they used miniature jackhammers to chip away the plaster and remaining sediment. That process took roughly three years.
"When we saw the curved horns, we knew we had something pretty cool," Loewen said. Later, when he and his colleagues exposed the simple frill at the back of the skull, they knew that they had found a "completely new" species.
To make sure, though, the team spent three years traveling the world, comparing the fossils' physical characteristics with those of all known plant-eating specimens, some housed as far away as Sweden and China. Their analysis revealed that the behemoth did indeed represent a new branch on the dinosaur family tree.