77-Million-Year-Old Horned Dinosaur Discovered in Montana

First Posted: Jun 19, 2014 03:55 AM EDT

Scientists have unearthed fossilized remains of a horned dinosaur in Montana from the late Cretaceous Period.

A new species of horned dinosaur (ceratopsian) has been discovered in Montana in the U.S. The 20- feet long dinosaur lived some 77 million years ago. Discovered by paleontologists from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the dinosaur has been named Mercuriceratops (Mercuri+ceratops) Gemini.

The name comes from the wing like ornamentation on its head similar to the helmet of the Roman God-Mercury.  Gemini refers to the identical twin specimens that were discovered in north central Montana and the Dinosaur Provincial Park-UNESCO World Heritage Site in Alberta.

"Mercuriceratops took a unique evolutionary path that shaped the large frill on the back of its skull into protruding wings like the decorative fins on classic 1950s cars. It definitively would have stood out from the herd during the Late Cretaceous," said lead author Dr. Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

The horned dino used the skull ornament not just for protection from hungry predators but to attract mates too. They scientists believe that the wing like projection on the sides of its frill gave the male Mercuriceratops a competitive advantage in attracting mates.

"The butterfly-shaped frill, or neck shield, of Mercuriceratops is unlike anything we have seen before," said co-author Dr. David Evans, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum. "Mercuriceratops shows that evolution gave rise to much greater variation in horned dinosaur headgear than we had previously suspected."

"The Alberta specimen confirmed that the fossil from Montana was not a pathological specimen, nor had it somehow been distorted during the process of fossilization," said Dr. Philip Currie, professor and Canada research chair in dinosaur paleobiology at the University of Alberta. "The two fossils -- squamosal bones from the side of the frill -- have all the features you would expect, just presented in a unique shape."

The finding appears in the journal Naturwissenschaften.

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