A 2-ton, 15-foot-long dinosaur with a big nose and horns that curved over its eyes has been discovered in Utah’s canyon country, an area that’s gaining recognition as a place of bountiful species evolution.
The dinosaur is called Nasutoceratops titusi, according to a paper published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It belonged to a family called ceratopsids, which includes the Triceratops, and is at least the third new species of big-bodied horned dinosaurs found in the area in the past two years. It lived during the Late Cretaceous, a period 100 million to 66 million years ago.
Like others discovered in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Nasutoceratops lived on an island continent, called Laramidia, when North America was divided by an interior sea starting on the eastern side of the Rockies. Unlike many of its family members, the frill on the skull didn’t feature hooks or spikes. The finding suggests dinosaurs in the south were evolving differently than those in the north.
“This is an independent branch, previously unknown, inhabiting the southern part of Laramidia for millions of years,” Scott Sampson, the lead study author and vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, said in a telephone interview. “It underlines the fact that we’ll probably discover a number of new species that belong to its group.”
The area where Nasutoceratops lived was warm and swampy, and about 60 miles from the sea. Two other horned dinosaurs, the Utahceratops and the Kosmoceratops, both of which are more closely related to Triceratops, were found nearby, according to papers published in 2010 by the same group of researchers.
The diversity of the horned dinosaurs suggests that they were evolving quickly, probably due to pressure from sexual selection, and the frills served to attract mates, like peacocks’ tails, Sampson said.
“In other horned dinosaurs, if you take off the top of the skull, you can’t tell them apart. This is different,” Sampson said of Nasutoceratops. “It has an enlarged nose up front, a shorter face and its jaw is dropped. That points to the fact it was evolving on its own.”
While all the ceratopsids had enlarged noses, the new dinosaur’s was even larger than any of its relatives. It wasn’t clear what purpose the oversized snout served because the smell receptors are generally further back in the head, the researchers said. The nose may have controlled the temperature of the brain or had structures for making noise or showing off.
The team of paleontologists found bones from the spine, neck, shoulders, two front legs and a skull of the new dinosaur at the national monument in southern Utah, a site that opened only 10 years ago. The area remained unexplored for years because it’s difficult to reach and was the last major area in the lower 48 states to be formally mapped by cartographers. Helicopters are required to carry dinosaur bones out.
The first specimen of Nasutoceratops was discovered in 2006 by Eric Lund, who was a graduate student at the University of Utah. More bones from the dinosaurs have been found since then.