Nicholas Longrich, Department of Geology paleontologist, discovered a new dinosaur species, Titanoceratops, that may refine the evolutionary tree. This finding sheds light on how horned dinosaurs evolved into elephant-sized organisms.
The skeleton had previously been identified as a Pentaceratops, but only because it was found in the same location as previous Pentaceratops remains. Upon seeing illustrations of the remains, Longrich determined that the skeleton was far too large to be a Pentaceratops. While dinosaurs rarely deviated from their average size, this skeleton was twice the size of a Pentaceratops.
Longrich isolated small differences in the skeleton’s morphology that consistently matched features of a Triceratops more than those of a Pentaceratops. For example, Longrich identified a sinus that reached inside the nostril and into the palate, a characteristic typical of Triceratops but not of Pentaceratops. Altogether, subtle details in the skeleton’s nostrils, horns, snout, and frill confirmed what the large size of the skeleton suggested – Titanoceratops was a new species that was likely the ancestor of Triceratops.
The discovery of a large skeleton that predates the first giant dinosaurs by six million years suggests that diversification began increasing far earlier than when many had originally believed it to have started. “[Dinosaurs] didn’t get big out of nowhere; they’ve been sitting around, existing earlier than we thought,” observed Longrich. Ultimately, the discovery of the Titanoceratops suggests that a wide range of organisms remains to be discovered.