Move over Indominus Rex – scientists have discovered a previously unknown dinosaur in Canada that's cooler than any "Jurassic World" creation. And it's real.
The creature, a member of the family of horned dinosaurs, was an older cousin of Triceratops that lived about 79 million years ago. Like Triceratops, it had horns emanating from its face and head, along with a bony beak that it used to shred plants before eating them. Scientists described its bizarre cranial anatomy Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.
The story begins with professional fossil hunter Wendy Sloboda, who spotted something that appeared to be a dinosaur bone sticking out of a steep hill in southern Alberta, Canada, in 2010. She recognized it as a fragment of a skull belonging to the family of horned dinosaurs, so she took down the GPS coordinates of the location, pulled the fossil out and shared it with her colleagues in the Southern Alberta Dinosaur Research Project, paleontologists David Evans and Michael Ryan.
"We instantly knew that we had something special," said Evans, the dinosaur curator of the Royal Ontario Museum and lead author of the PLOS ONE study.
Indeed, he and Ryan were so excited that they immediately jumped into a car with Sloboda and drove more than two hours to the site where the fossil was found, she said.
Based on the shape of the skull fragment, Evans and Ryan were convinced that Sloboda had found something new. Each species has a distinctively shaped skull, as well as a unique pattern of horns and protrusions – called "ornaments" – that come out of it.
The pair gathered a crew of research assistants and spent two field seasons excavating through 60 feet of hillside that lay over the rock that contained the fossilized bone. In all, they moved many tons of rock.
"We certainly couldn't have done it without all of our grad students and volunteers," Evans said. "We spent the entire field season, every day, with a crew of five, jack-hammering the rock to get down to the bone layer."
Their efforts paid off. Buried under the hill were more than 200 pieces of dinosaur bones from four animals. The more bones they found, the more certain they became that they had in fact unearthed a previously unknown species of dinosaur.
Unlike any other dinosaur, this creature's skull is ringed with bone protrusions that curl inward toward the animal's nose like gnarly crochet hooks.
"They remind me a little bit of a weird sea anemone or something," said Ryan, the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
The dinosaur also has a medium-sized horn over its nose. The researchers suspect that it had horns over its eyes as well because its relatives, like Triceratops, boast prominent eye horns. The team will return to the field this summer to see whether they can excavate them.
The researchers hypothesize that the dinosaur's lavish array of horns may have helped it attract mates, "just like modern birds, which have all these ornate plumages and long feathers and short feathers," Ryan said.
Another possibility is that the horns allowed males to demonstrate their strength and fitness to the opposite sex, just as big-horned sheep butt heads to determine who will get to breed with the female.
Whatever their purpose, the horns are certainly distinctive, said Mark Loewen, a paleontologist at the University of Utah who was not involved in the Canadian discovery.
"No other dinosaur has the same pattern of curled-over horns like that," Loewen said. "It's great. Once again, we're learning more about this group of dinosaurs than we've ever known before."
The Canadian researchers named the new species Wendiceratops pinhornensis, in honor of Sloboda and the Pinhorn Provincial Grazing Reserve, where the fossils were found.
"Wendy Sloboda is probably the best fossil finder in the world," said Ryan, who took her on an expedition to Greenland to help him find dinosaurs there. (She did.) "We've always known that we wanted to name a dinosaur after her, but we wanted it to be a really great dinosaur."
Evans called Sloboda's skills "legendary."
"She has a sixth sense for finding important fossils," he said. "There are a lot of paleontologists, myself included, who would just die to have the skills she has."
Thousands of dinosaur specimens Sloboda has collected are in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Canada, where she worked for 16 years. (She now splits her time between fossil-hunting and sports photography.)
A native of southern Alberta, Sloboda started searching for -- and finding -- dinosaur fossils as a child with her family. Her first major find came at age 16, when she spotted fossilized embryonic dinosaurs inside eggs, a Canadian first.
"That kind of put my life into a direction," she said. "I was pretty heavy into it."
Sloboda now joins the slim ranks of female fossil hunters who have dinosaur namesakes. She called it "a big honor," and she celebrated in an unusual way.
"I went out and got a tattoo of it," she said. "I've been saving a spot on my arm for if I ever get a dinosaur named after me."