New Species of Horned Dinosaur With Flashy, Butterfly-Shaped Frill Discovered in Montana

One of the most abundant and diverse families of dinosaurs from the Ancient West has a new member among its ranks.

Two new specimens of ceratopsid, or horn-faced dinosaur, have been found in separate locations in the U.S. and Canada, and their shared features are so distinctive that paleontologists say they “definitively” represent a species that’s new to science.

Both samples are of large, conspicuous skull fragments, the Montana specimen having been found in the state’s famously productive Judith River Formation, and later housed in the Royal Ontario Museum. [Learn about another ceratopsid recently discovered  in the Judith: “New Horn-Faced Dinosaurs, Triceratops’ Oldest Relatives, Found in Montana“]

Mercuriceratops gemini
An artist’s reconstruction depicts Mercuriceratops gemini, a new species of horned dinosaur found in Montana and Alberta. Note the wing-like structures on the sides of its frill. Courtesy Danielle Dufault.

Its Canadian twin was collected from the Dinosaur Park Formation of Alberta by a fossil preparator at the local university.

When a paleontologist familiar with the Montana specimen happened to see the fragments in the Alberta laboratory, he quickly made the connection.

“I instantly recognized it as being from the same type of dinosaur that the Royal Ontario Museum had from Montana,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, in a statement.

The giveaway? Both fragments included large portions of any ceratopsid’s most distinguishing feature: its face-framing frill.

Unlike the frill of Triceratops, say, which sported a sweeping bonnet of bone, or that of Chasmosaurus, which was heart-shaped, both of the new specimens had frills that were divided into four distinct lobes, two large ones on top, and two smaller ones flaring out near the ears, creating a silhouette much like a butterfly.

These wing-like features earned it the new name Mercuriceratops, in honor of the Roman god Mercury who wore wings on his helmet.

“The butterfly-shaped frill, or neck shield, of Mercuriceratops is unlike anything we have seen before,” said Dr. David Evans, curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Mercuriceratops shows that evolution gave rise to much greater variation in horned dinosaur headgear than we had previously suspected.”

Indeed, these frills were likely varied for good reason, the researchers say.

When these creatures roamed some 77 million years ago, ceratopids were so prolific in the Ancient West that  a flashy frill like that borne by Mercuriceratops would have been a useful adaptation that allowed members of the genus to simply identify each other.

Mercuriceratops … definitively would have stood out from the herd during the Late Cretaceous,” Ryan said.

“Horned dinosaurs in North America used their elaborate skull ornamentation to identify each other and to attract mates—not just for protection from predators.  The wing-like protrusions on the sides of its frill may have offered male Mercuriceratops a competitive advantage in attracting mates.”

Mercuriceratops skull bones
Fossil fragments from each specimen, both from the right side of the frill, reveal the distinctive lower lobes that were likely this species’ hallmark. ( Courtesy Naturwissenschaften)

Now, if you follow dinosaur discoveries, particularly in the West, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a new type of ceratopsid is identified every year.

In fact, last year, no fewer than three such species were found in deposits from Texas to the Canadian border. [Read about the latest: “New Bull-Horned, Big-Nosed Ceratops Unearthed in Utah“]

This latest find is only the most recent indication of how diverse the family of horn-faced dinosaurs truly was, and of course, how much there’s yet to learn about the animals of the Ancient West.

As a colleague in the Mercuriceratops find, Dr. Mark Loewen of the Natural History Museum of Utah, summed up: “This discovery of a previously unknown species in relatively well-studied rocks underscores that we still have many more new species of dinosaurs to left to find.”

The team reports their find in the journal Naturwissenschaften.

Ryan, M., Evans, D., Currie, P., & Loewen, M. (2014). A new chasmosaurine from northern Laramidia expands frill disparity in ceratopsid dinosaurs Naturwissenschaften, 101 (6), 505-512 DOI: 10.1007/s00114-014-1183-1

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