New flamboyant dinosaur named after speedy god

Newly discovered dino with skull protrusion like "decorative fins on classic 1950s cars" gets a name like a god (and a car).

mercuriceratops-middle-compared-to-the-horned-dinosaurs-centrosaurus-left-and-chasmosaurus-right2c-also-from-the-dinosaur-park-formation-of-albertacomparison-courtesy-danielle-dufault-large.jpg
Mercuriceratops gemini (center) is a horned dinosaur like Centrosaurus (left) and Chasmosaurus (right) Danielle Dufault

Mercuriceratops gemini. It might sound like the home planet of a yet-to-be- introduced Marvel superhero, but in fact it's the moniker given to a new kind of dinosaur that has a swooping bony plate extending up behind its head.

"The butterfly-shaped frill, or neck shield, of Mercuriceratops is unlike anything we have seen before," David Evans, curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, said in a statement. Evans is a co-author of a paper that describes the new species online in the journal Naturwissenschaften. "Mercuriceratops shows that evolution gave rise to much greater variation in horned dinosaur headgear than we had previously suspected," he added.

The big beast -- which lived about 77 million years ago, weighed more than 2 tons, ate only plants, and was about 20 feet long -- belongs to the group of dinos known as ceratopsian, which is the horned class. It got the "Mercuriceratops" part of its name because the bony ornamentation on its head reminded scientists of the wings on the helmet of the Roman god Mercury -- though one might be forgiven for thinking the name came from a certain model of Ford.

"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 Michael Ryan in a statement. Ryan is the curator of vertebrate paleontology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the lead author of the paper.

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

As for the the "gemini" part of the name, it comes not from knowing this dino's birth sign, but from the fact that fossils for this particular species were found in two places (think "twins"): the Judith River Formation in Montana and the Dinosaur Park Formation in Alberta, Canada.

"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," added Mark Loewen, research associate at the Natural History Museum of Utah, and co-author on the paper. Meaning that Mercuriceraptops might just be the bony tip of fancy fossils yet to come.

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About the author

Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for Crave and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.

 

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