Scientists unearth a big-nosed, long-horned dinosaur -- Nasutoceratops titusi -- in southern Utah

Nasutoceratops roamed West 76 million years ago

DENVER - Scientists have unearthed a big-nosed, long-horned dinosaur in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

The newly discovered dinosaur, a 15-foot-long, 2-ton plant-eater dubbed Nasutoceratops titusi, roamed the West 76 million years ago when the region was a subtropical swampy environment and the heart of North America was divided by a warm, shallow sea that stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Nasutoceratops translates as "big-nose horned face," and the second part of the name --  titusi -- honors Alan Titus, Monument Paleontologist at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, for his years of research collaboration.

The newly discovered dinosaur, belonging to the same family as the famous Triceratops, was announced Wednesday in the British scientific journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The study was led by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science's chief curator, Dr. Scott Sampson, when he was the Chief Curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah at the University of Utah. To many young dinosaur fans, Sampson is better known as "Dr. Scott," the on-air host and science advisor of the popular PBS KIDS television series, Dinosaur Train.

Horned dinosaurs, or "ceratopsids," were a group of big-bodied, four-footed herbivores that lived during the Late Cretaceous Period.  As typified by Triceratops, most members of this group have enormous skulls with a single horn over the nose, one horn over each eye, and a fan-like bony frill at the back of the head.

Nasutoceratops, possesses several unique features, including an oversized nose, and exceptionally long, curving, forward-oriented horns over the eyes. The bony frill, rather than possessing elaborate ornamentations such as hooks or spikes, is relatively unadorned, with a simple, scalloped margin, according to a news release by Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Researchers are puzzled why all ceratopsids have massive "nose regions," as the museum described it.

But even in a family of big noses, Nasutoceratops' huge honker stands out.

 

'Jumbo-sized schnoz'

"The jumbo-sized schnoz of Nasutoceratops likely had nothing to do with a heightened sense of smell -- since olfactory receptors occur further back in the head, adjacent to the brain -- and the function of this bizarre feature remains uncertain," Sampson said.

Paleontologists have long speculated about the function of horns and frills on horned dinosaurs. Ideas have ranged from predator defense and controlling body temperature to recognizing members of the same species, the museum said.
 
Yet the dominant current theory is that ceratopsids use their horns and frills to compete for mates by intimidating members of the same sex and attracting members of the opposite sex. So, it's their version of modern peacock tails and deer antlers.

"The amazing horns of Nasutoceratops were most likely used as visual signals of dominance and, when that wasn't enough, as weapons for combatting rivals," said Mark Loewen, a co-author of the study and researcher at the Natural History Museum of Utah and the University of Utah.

 

--Treasure Trove of Dinosaurs--

Researchers call Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils. Administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the vast and rugged desert terrain was the last major area in the lower 48 states to be formally mapped by cartographers, the museum said.

"Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is the last great, largely unexplored dinosaur boneyard in the lower 48 states," Sampson said.

Scientists call the western part of North America -- west of the ancient sea dividing the continent during the Late Cretaceous Period -- Laramidia.

Most known Laramidian dinosaurs were concentrated in a narrow belt of plains sandwiched between the seaway to the east and mountains to the west.

Researchers are amazed by the large dinosaurs that were living in the relatively small area.

"Currently, there are five giant (rhino-to-elephant-sized) mammals on the entire continent of Africa. Seventy-six million years ago, there may have been more than two dozen giant dinosaurs living on a landmass about one-quarter that size," the museum said.

 "We're still working to figure out how so many different kinds of giant animals managed to co-exist on such a small landmass?" Loewen said.

"Today, thanks to an abundant fossil record and more than a century of collecting by paleontologists, Laramidia is the best known major landmass for the entire Age of Dinosaurs, with dig sites spanning from Alaska to Mexico," the museum said.

But researchers have only recently begun to uncover the treasures of southern Utah.

During the past dozen years, crews from the Natural History Museum of Utah, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and several other partner institutions have unearthed more than dozen dinosaurs in the national monument.

In addition to Nasutoceratops, the collection includes a variety of other plant-eating dinosaurs -- including duck-billed hadrosaurs, armored ankylosaurs, dome-headed pachycephalosaurs, and two other horned dinosaurs, Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops, museum officials said. Paleontologists have also uncovered carnivorous dinosaurs, great and small, from "raptor-like" predators to a mega-sized tyrannosaur named Teratophoneus.

"Nasutoceratops is one of a recent landslide of ceratopsid discoveries, which together have established these giant plant-eaters as the most diverse dinosaur group on Laramidia," said Andrew Farke, a study co-author from the Raymond Alf Museum.

The Nasutoceratops study was funded in large part by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Science Foundation.

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