Newly Discovered Horned Dinosaur, Wendiceratops, on Display at the ROM
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Newly Discovered Horned Dinosaur, Wendiceratops, on Display at the ROM

The 79-million-year-old creature is the latest new species dug up by a team led by the ROM's curator of vertebrate paleontology.

The Royal Ontario Museum has announced the official name and details about a newly discovered dinosaur — one of the oldest known members of the horned-face dinosaur family Ceratopsidae. The Wendiceratops pinhornensis, which lived 79 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period, would have been roughly the size of a small rhinoceros, but with incredible ornamentation on its skull. It would have been about six metres in length from the beak to the tail, 1.5 metres in height, and weighed at least one metric tonne. A fully mounted skeleton, consisting of fossil casts and replicas of a close relative, is currently on display at the ROM, as well as about 20 original bones shown in a separate case.

The find is part of the ongoing Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project, led by Dr. David Evans, the ROM’s curator of vertebrate paleontology, and Dr. Michael Ryan, who holds the same title at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Wendiceratops is named after Albertan fossil hunter Wendy Sloboda, who actually discovered the bone site back in 2010; the team spent several summers afterward digging up more than 200 bones in the southern Alberta badlands. What added to the challenge was that the site is at the bottom of a 30-metre, almost sheer hill, so they had to dig hundreds of tonnes of rock away just to get at the bones.

According to Evans, 34, whose research paper was published today, the Wendiceratops is an important find because it’s one of the oldest members of the horned dinosaur family, including the Triceratops, and it’s by far the most ornamented. It’s also the oldest record of a nose horn within that family. “Wendiceratops really stands out as being something different and spectacular. It’s got this ring of forward-projecting gnarly hooks around the entire periphery of the frill,” says Evans.

Over the past 10 years, Evans and his team have discovered at least seven new species in the southern Alberta area. He emphasizes that Alberta has made important contributions to dinosaur research over the years — according to Evans, about 10 per cent of all known dinosaurs come from the province. That’s because more than 65 million years ago, the area was lush and rich in dinosaur life. And just as importantly, its current badlands are ideally suited to preserving those fossils. “Canada has played an immensely significant role in our understanding of dinosaur evolution and their ecosystems,” says Evans. “It’s disproportionate in terms of the contribution.”

With last month’s Jurassic World movie breaking records as the biggest global premiere in history, public interest in dinosaurs is as strong as ever. In fact, Evans says the Jurassic Park franchise — which he credits as being “without a doubt” the most accurate big-screen depiction of dinosaurs, despite some quibbles — have played a big part in the development of paleontology as a science. (However, he stresses that despite what the movie would have you believe, a T-Rex would definitely be able to see you when you’re standing still. “That is totally bunk,” he says, “but it made for a dramatic scene in the movie, right?”)

“Since the first Jurassic Park movie came out in the ‘90s, there’s been a huge upswing in popular interest in dinosaurs,” says Evans. “And that actually trickles down to the science in a very real way. That’s caused more funding for dinosaur science in universities and museums, it’s resulted in more hires of dinosaur paleontologists, and that has resulted in more discoveries.”

As for his team’s discovery of the Wendiceratops, Evans says it’s exciting to add another new species to the dinosaur dictionary. This find gives scientists new information on the early evolution of skull ornamentation in a group that’s known for their horned faces. “It really helps us fill in gaps in our knowledge of the evolution of these animals, and that’s put me in the most exciting place you can be as a paleontologist.”