Fossil hunters digging in an area known as the “lost continent” have uncovered the remains of an ancient beast that leaves dinosaurs such as the Triceratops looking distinctly under-dressed.
The creature lived 76 million years ago in the warm, wet swamps of what is now southern Utah and was remarkable in bearing 15 full-sized horns on its head.
The animal, named Kosmoceratops, had an enormous 2m-long skull, was 5m from snout to tail and weighed an estimated 2.5 tonnes.
“These animals are basically oversized rhinos with a whole lot more horns on their heads. They had huge heads relative to their body size,” said Scott Sampson, a researcher at the Utah Museum of Natural History.
Kosmoceratops had one horn over its nose, one over each eye, one protruding from each cheek bone and a row of 10 across the frill at the back of its head.
“As far as we know it’s the most ornate-headed dinosaur ever found, with so many well-developed horns on its head,” Sampson said.
Scientists have long speculated about the purpose of dinosaurs’ horns. In the past, some suspected that beasts such as Triceratops used them to fight off predators. Many paleontologists now believe that dinosaurs’ horns were often more for sexual display and fighting off other members of the same species.
“In this case, we think these horns were really about competing for mates and more akin to peacock feathers or deer antlers, where it’s males trying to attract females or intimidate other males,” Sampson said. “Sometimes it’s good to have a way of visually ranking yourself relative to other animals. You can avoid unnecessary conflicts and that is probably what they were doing with all these bony bells and whistles.”
The team found two skulls belonging to Kosmoceratops in a rugged expanse of southern Utah known as the Giant Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
“This is one of the last, largely unexplored dinosaur treasure troves on the continent. We have to hike many miles to find these specimens and have to use helicopters to get them out,” Sampson said.
North America looked very different when Kosmoceratops roamed the land. A warm, shallow sea flooded much of central North America, dividing the continent into two land masses: Laramidia in the west and Appalachia in the east.
Kosmoceratops lived in Laramidia, alongside other herbivores and carnivorous predators such as tyrannosaurs.
“At the time, this was very much a swamp environment and very lush. The climate was more Mediterranean. It would have been a great place to hang out except for all the tyrannosaurs,” Sampson said.
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