Headless dinosaur reunited with its skull, one century later

April 26, 2017 by Katie Willis, University of Alberta
The Corythosaurus skull, collected in 1920 by George Sternberg, is in the University of Alberta's Paleontology Museum. Credit: Katherine Bramble

After being headless for almost a century, a dinosaur skeleton that had become a tourist attraction in Dinosaur Provincial Park was finally reconnected to its head.

Researchers at the University of Alberta have matched the headless to a Corythosaurus skull from the university's Paleontology Museum that had been collected in 1920 by George Sternberg to the headless dinosaur.

"In the early days of dinosaur hunting and exploration, explorers only took impressive and exciting specimens for their collections, such as skulls, tail spines and claws," explained graduate student Katherine Bramble, adding the practice was commonly referred to as head hunting. "Now, it's common for paleontologists to come across specimens in the field without their skulls."

A surprising discovery

The headless Corythosaurus skeleton has been a tourist attraction in Dinosaur Provincial Park since the 1990s. In the early 2010s, a group of scientists noticed newspaper clippings dating back to the 1920s in the debris around the site. Among them was Darren Tanke, technician at the Royal Tyrrell Museum and co-author on the paper, who began to wonder if this skeleton could be related to the skull at the University of Alberta. That was where Bramble and her supervisor Philip Currie came in, along with former post-doctoral fellow Angelica Torices.

"Using anatomical measurements of the skull and the skeleton, we conducted a statistical analysis," Bramble explained. "Based on these results, we believed there was potential that the skull and this specimen belonged together."

In 2012, the skull and skeleton of the Corythosaurus were reunited. Whole once more, the specimen resides at the University of Alberta.

Reunited and it feels so good

As natural erosion takes place and human activity digs up new specimens, more headless dinosaur skeletons continue to crop up. "It's becoming more and more common," said Bramble. "One institution will have one part of a skeleton. Years later, another will collect another part of a skeleton that could belong to the same animal."

The reasons are many, ranging from the historical practice of head hunting to a lack of resources for exploration to new parts of skeletons becoming exposed.

This discovery highlights a growing field of study in paleontology, Bramble noted.

"Researchers are now trying to develop new ways of determining whether or not disparate parts of skeletons come from the same animal," she explained. "For this paper, we used anatomical measurements, but there are many other ways of matching, such as conducting a chemical analysis of the rock in which the specimens are found."

As scientists develop new methods for matching specimens, Bramble hopes more skeletons will be reunited as well.

The entire story is explained in detail in the paper, "Reuniting the 'head hunted' Corythosaurus excavatus (Dinosauria: Hadrosauridae) holotype with its dentary and postcranium," which was published in the April 2017 edition of Cretaceous Research.

Explore further: Rare dinosaur skeleton goes on display in London

More information: Katherine Bramble et al, Reuniting the "head hunted"Corythosaurus excavatus(Dinosauria: Hadrosauridae) holotype skull with its dentary and postcranium, Cretaceous Research (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.cretres.2017.04.006

Related Stories

Near-complete dinosaur baby a rare find

December 2, 2013

Philip Currie has made some spectacular and rare fossil finds while dino hunting in Alberta's badlands, so when he says a discovery ranks among the best of his career, it's significant.

Deceptive feathered dinosaur finally gets a name

April 18, 2016

Solving one of the longest cases of mistaken identity, University of Alberta PhD candidate Greg Funston recently described a new genus and species of toothless dinosaur from Alberta. Long thought to be a more common ornithomimid, ...

Misty the dinosaur skeleton heads to Denmark

December 17, 2013

A rare full skeleton of a huge diplodocus dinosaur sold in Britain last month was bought by the Natural History Museum of Denmark, the institution said on Tuesday.

New horned dinosaur reveals unique wing-shaped headgear

June 18, 2014

Scientists have named a new species of horned dinosaur (ceratopsian) based on fossils collected from Montana in the United States and Alberta, Canada. Mercuriceratops (mer-cure-E-sare-ah-tops) gemini was approximately 6 meters ...

Recommended for you

T. Rex couldn't stick out its tongue, new research shows

June 20, 2018

Dinosaurs are often depicted as fierce creatures, baring their teeth, with tongues wildly stretching from their mouths like giant, deranged lizards. But new research reveals a major problem with this classic image: Dinosaurs ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.