Scientists reveal new species of dog-sized dinosaur

May 07, 2013
This is a life reconstruction of the new pachycephalosaurid dinosaur Acrotholus audeti. Credit: Julius Csotonyi

Scientists have named a new species of bone-headed dinosaur (pachycephalosaur) from Alberta, Canada. Acrotholus audeti (Ack-RHO-tho-LUS) was identified from both recently discovered and historically collected fossils. Approximately six feet long and weighing about 40 kgs in life, the newly identified plant-eating dinosaur represents the oldest bone-headed dinosaur in North America, and possibly the world. Research describing the new species is published May 7, 2013 in the journal Nature Communications.

Acrotholus means "high dome", referring to its dome-shaped , which is composed of solid bone over 10 centimeters (two inches) thick. The name Acrotholus audeti also honors Alberta rancher Roy Audet, on whose land the best specimen was discovered in 2008. Acrotholus walked on two legs and had a greatly thickened, domed skull above its eyes, which was used for display to other members of its , and may have also been used in head-butting contests. Acrotholus lived about 85 million years ago.

The new dinosaur discovery is based on two skull 'caps' from the Milk River Formation of southern Alberta. One of these was collected by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) over 50 years ago. However, a better specimen was found in 2008 by University of Toronto graduate student Caleb Brown during a field expedition organized by Dr. David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum and University of Toronto, and Dr. Michael Ryan of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

This is the skull holotype specimen of Acrotholus audeti, found by Caleb Brown in 2008. Credit: Brian Boyle, ROM

"Acrotholus provides a wealth of new information on the evolution of bone-headed . Although it is one of the earliest known members this group, its thickened skull dome is surprisingly well-developed for its ," said lead author Dr. David Evans, ROM Curator, Vertebrate Palaeontology. "More importantly, the unique fossil record of these animals suggests that we are only beginning to understand the diversity of small-bodied plant-eating dinosaurs."

and reptiles can be very diverse and abundant in modern ecosystems, but small dinosaurs (<100 kg) are considerably less common than large ones in the fossil record. Whether this pattern is a true reflection of dinosaur communities, or is related to the greater potential for small bones to be destroyed by carnivores and natural decay, has been debated. The massively constructed skull domes of pachycephalosaurs are resistant to destruction, and are much more common than their relatively delicate skeletons – which resemble those of other small plant-eating dinosaurs. Therefore, the researchers suggest that the pachycephalosaur can provide valuable insights into the diversity of small, plant-eating dinosaurs as a whole.

This is the discovery site of Acrotholus audeti in the Milk River Formation of southern Alberta. The pile of rocks marks the exact spot where the most complete specimen was found. Credit: Dr. David Evans, ROM

"We can predict that many new small dinosaur species like Acrotholus are waiting to be discovered by researchers willing to sort through the many small bones that they pick up in the field," said co-author Dr. Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "This discovery also highlights the importance of landowners, like Roy Audet, who grant access to their land and allow scientifically important finds to be made."

This dinosaur is the latest in a series of new finds being made by Dr. Evans and Dr. Ryan as part of their Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project, which aims to fill in gaps in of the record of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs and study their evolution. This project focuses on the palaeontology of some of the oldest dinosaur-bearing rocks in Alberta, which have been studied less intensely than those of the famous badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park and Drumheller.

Acrotholus was identified by a team comprising of palaeontologists Dr. David Evans, of the Royal Ontario Museum; and Dr. Michael J. Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History; as well as Ryan Schott, Caleb Brown, and Derek Larson, all graduate students at the University of Toronto who studied under Evans.

The fossils of Acrotholus will be put on public display at the Royal Ontario Museum starting in May 2013.

Explore further: Everglades trail surveyed for cultural artifacts

More information: D. C. Evans, R. Schott, D. Larson, C. Brown, and M. J. Ryan. 2013. The oldest North American pachycephalosaurid and the hidden diversity of small-bodied ornithischian dinosaurs. Nature Communications. May 7, 2013. dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms2744

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