Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mercuriceratops: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Today we will be looking at another exciting, newly-discovered dinosaur with a beautifully unique frill!  Enter Mercuriceratops gemini!  Only formally described this year, Mercuriceratops was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Alberta, Canada and Montana, USA. it lived during the late Cretaceous period, 77 million years ago and measured about twenty feet long from beak to tail. It's genus name, Mercuriceratops, translates to "Mercury Horned Face".  This is in reference to the Roman messenger god, Mercury, who was able to fly thanks to the wings on his helmet.  Mercuriceratops also had "wings" or rather extra wing-shaped structures on the sides of its bony frill.  What an appropriate name!  The species name, gemini, was given because Mercuriceratops is known from two nearly identical specimens, one from Montana, and the other from Alberta.  Each fossil, although from different individual animals that died in different places, are from the exact same parts of each specimen's frill!  Maybe they called each other the night before and arranged it that way?

Life reconstruction of Mercuriceratops gemini by Christopher DiPiazza.

 Mercuriceratops belongs to the subfamily of ceratopsid dinosaurs (beaks, horns, and frills) called chasmosaurinae.  These members of the ceratopsid family are characterized by their longer frills and normally narrower snouts.  Other examples of chasmosaurine ceratopsids are Chasmosaurus, Coahuilaceratops, Vagaceratops, and TriceratopsMercuriceratops' fossils are the oldest of any chasmisaurine to ever be discovered in Canada.

Image of the fossils from Montana and Alberta which would have been parts of Mercuriceratops' frill from the paper by Michael Evans, formally describing the new species.

There are a lot of unique horn styles amongst ceratopsids that  have been discovered over the years but Mercuriceratops is the only one known to have a frill that was this unique.  During the late Cretaceous (specifically the Campanian age, spanning from about 83 to 72 million years ago) there have been dozens of amazing ceratopsids discovered which tells us that whatever the environment was like back then, it definitely favored the horned dinosaurs and prompted an explosion of biodiversity amongst them.  Each species would have used a unique horn/frill shape (and probably colors too) to attract mates and communicate with each other within the species.  We can see similar biodiversity in Africa, with all the different kinds of gazelles and their differently-shaped horns.  If you want a closer related modern example, just check out all the different kinds of related birds in any given ecosystem and how they all showcase different coloration and songs for the same evolutionary reasons.  Sadly, so far only parts of Mercuriceratops' frill have been discovered and the exact shape of its horns is still a mystery. 

That is all for this week!  Feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!  When you hear from me next week I will be posting from New Mexico, doing fieldwork, excavating Triassic fossils! 

Works Cited

Ryan, M. J.; Evans, D. C.; Currie, P. J.; Loewen, M. A. (2014). "A new chasmosaurine from northern Laramidia expands frill disparity in ceratopsid dinosaurs". Naturwissenschaften. doi:10.1007/s00114-014-1183-1.

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