Researchers have discovered a new fossil that, according to them, belongs to an ancestor of the Triceratops. The species was first found in the western region of the Xinjiang province in China back in 2002. However, following extensive studies and research, the fossil has now been officially named Hualianceratops wucaiwanensis — which, according to National Geographic, translates to “ornamental face.” Named after its facial furrows, the Hualianceratops is estimated to have lived over 160 million years ago, during the late Jurassic period. It is also being considered the earliest known member of the ceratopsian family of dinosaurs which includes the Triceratops.
One of the most spectacular dinosaurs to have ever walked on Earth, the Triceratops was first made famous by the unforgettable scene in Jurassic Park which shows Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) attending to a sick animal. The triceratops resembles the modern-day Rhinoceros, except that it was much larger in size. The triceratops grew to be more than 30 feet in length and were believed to have weighed well over 6 tons. Fossil records also indicate that they lived during the Cretaceous period — around 65 million years ago — where it shared the space with the likes of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Velociraptor. The Cretaceous period marks the end of the dinosaur era, following which a major extinction event wiped out the dinosaurs from the planet forever.
Unlike the Triceratops, however, the Hualianceratops is much smaller in size and actually the size of a modern day spaniel. Researchers have only managed to recover the partial remains of the skull of the Hualianceratops. Another characteristic that differentiated the Hualianceratops from the Triceratops is the fact that the Hualianceratops walked around on two legs, and did not have horns. However, it did get a large, triangular head. Like the Triceratops, the Hualianceratops was a herbivore that ate plants and vegetation. According to Nick Longrich, a paleontologist at the University of Bath, the Hualianceratops is a unique dinosaur, as it was uncommon for an animal its size to feature furrows on the skill. He believes the furrows could have acted as a shield and to protect itself from injuries sustained during fights over mating and territory.
“It’s a small animal,” he adds, “but even very small animals can get pretty combative.”
The discovery of the Hualianceratops makes the already large dinosaur family tree even larger, and suggests that at least five different lineages of ceratopsian dinosaurs lived at around the same time over 150 million years ago. This has been confirmed by Jim Clark of George Washington University, the lead researcher of the study.
“It just shows how little we know and how much is left to discover, especially in the Jurassic.”
According to paleontologist Catherine Forster from George Washington University, before the discovery of the Hualianceratops, another dinosaur species belonging to the the ceratopsian family known as the Yinlong was its oldest known member. She adds that the Yinlong was a similarly sized animal, but was more heavily built than the Hualianceratops.
Meanwhile, several researchers and paleontologists have lauded the study and termed it “an exciting paper.” Caleb Brown, a paleobiologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Canada, adds the following.
“These small, early ceratopsians are important because they can tell us about the early evolution of this iconic group. Given the pattern of relationships revealed by the new animal and new analysis, the paper also suggests that there are many more, and more varied, species of these small … horned dinosaurs during the initial evolution of this group.”
[Photo by Remy de la Mauviniere/AP Photo]