New Dinosaur Discovered

Michael Weilert MD Aquilops

An artist’s rendition of the Aquilops

Back in 1997, fossil hunters in Montana found a rock containing part of the skull and lower jaw of an unidentified small dinosaur.  However, a new study published last week confirmed the identification of the fossil as an early ceratopsian (horned dinosaur related to the Triceratops) that could be found in the region some 107 million years ago, during the Early Cretaceous period.  According to scientists, this ancient dinosaur had a sharp, hooked beak and spiky cheeks.  Before this latest discovery, the earliest known horned dinosaur found in North America was Zuniceratops, which lived some 90 million years ago.

According to the new report, paleontologists have dubbed this new dinosaur species Aquilops.  Although it lacks the prominent horn and bony neck frill of its more famous relative, it still sports other features unique to the ceratopsian species, such as a strongly hooked, toothless beak known as a “rostral bone”.  This beak, most likely used to crop the flowering plants and other vegetation that made up its diet, gives the dinosaur’s skull the appearance of an eagle.  The skull, measuring 3.3 inches long, also features a large cavity over the cheek region, as well as cheek spikes.  The authors of the study were surprised to learn that the Aquilops seems more closely related to Asian ceratopsian species, such as the Protoceratops, than to other previously-discovered North American ones.  According to researchers, this is evidence that, around 110 million years ago, there was a large influx of creatures from Asia into North America.

Through comparisons with similar ceratopsians from Asia, paleontologists estimate that the Aquilops wasn’t any more than 2 feet long and weighed about 3 pounds, 8 ounces, about the same size as a cat.  The Triceratops is estimated to have weighed around 4,000 times as much.  According to the researchers, the Aquilops most likely hid among bushes to escape predators such as the Deinonychus, a close relative of the Velociraptor.  Even though paleontologists are hoping that the discovery of the oldest known North American horned dinosaur will help them to reconstruct the early evolution of ceratopsians, they aren’t expecting to find many other fossils.  While they’ve found multiple fossils belonging to other dinosaurs around the rock where Aquilops was found, no others belonging to Aquilops itself was found.  This suggests that Aquilops may have been a fairly minor character in the ecosystem.