New dinosaur species with big, blade-like horns discovered in Montana

Ancient marvel Lokiceratops' ornate horns point to evolutionary insights.

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Professor Mark Loewen of the University of Utah and Joseph Sertich of Colorado State University have identified a new plant-eating dinosaur with a very fancy set of horns. The dinosaur’s name, Lokiceratops rangiformis, translates roughly to “Loki’s horned face that looks like a caribou.

The new species, Lokiceratops (lo-Kee-sare-a-tops) rangiformis (ran-ɡi-FOHR-mees), was named by co-lead authors of the PeerJ study Loewen and Sertich because of its unusual, curved blade-like horns on the back of its frill, the shield of bone at the back of the skull, and its asymmetrical horns at the peak of the frill, which is reminiscent of caribou antlers.

“The dinosaur now has a permanent home in Denmark, so we went with a Norse god, and in the end, doesn’t it just really look like Loki with the curving blades?” Loewen said, referring to the trickster god’s weapon of choice.

Lokiceratops was discovered in 2019 in the northern Montana badlands, two miles (3.2 kilometers) south of the US-Canada border. Sertich and Loewen contributed to the dinosaur’s reconstruction using pieces no bigger than dinner plates. After assembling the head, they discovered the specimen belonged to a previously undiscovered dinosaur species.

Study authors Brock Sisson (left), Joseph Sertich (top) and technician Ben Meredith (right) use casts of the real bones to reconstruct the skull of Lokiceratops.
Study authors Brock Sisson (left), Joseph Sertich (top) and technician Ben Meredith (right) use casts of the real bones to reconstruct the skull of Lokiceratops. Credit: Mark Loewen

The largest dinosaur from the horned centrosaurines group yet discovered in North America is estimated to be 22 feet (6.7 meters) long and weigh 11,000 pounds (5 metric tonnes). It lacks the nasal horn that is typical of its kind and has the biggest frill horns of any horned dinosaur ever observed.

“This new dinosaur pushes the envelope on bizarre ceratopsian headgear, sporting the largest frill horns ever seen in a ceratopsian,” Sertich said in a press release announcing the dinosaur’s unveiling at the Natural History Museum of Utah, where a replica is displayed. “These skull ornaments are one of the keys to unlocking horned dinosaur diversity and demonstrate that evolutionary selection for showy displays contributed to the dizzying richness of Cretaceous ecosystems.”

Sertich compared avian feathers to the horns of dinosaurs. Birds distinguish their own species from other related species by the colors and patterns on their feathers.

“We think that the horns on these dinosaurs were analogous to what birds are doing with displays,” Sertich said. “They’re using them either for mate selection or species recognition.”

Excavated from the same strata of rock as four other dinosaur species, loxiceratops shows that five distinct dinosaur species 78 million years ago in the swamps and coastal plains of Laramidia, the western landmass of North America formed when a seaway split the continent. Although they were not found outside of the area, three of these species were closely related.

Reconstructed fossil skull bones of Lokiceratops are displayed at the Museum of Evolution in Denmark.
Reconstructed fossil skull bones of Lokiceratops are displayed at the Museum of Evolution in Denmark. Credit: Museum of Evolution

“It’s unheard-of diversity to find five living together, similar to what you would see on the plains of East Africa today with different horned ungulates,” Sertich said.

aHe continued that these ancient animals were geographically limited, in contrast to the wide range of large wild mammals that roam the U.S. West today, such as elk. Loki’s discovery offers proof that these species underwent fast localized evolution, a mechanism occasionally observed in birds.

Regional differences had been homogenized into only two species of horned dinosaurs from Canada to Mexico by the time Triceratops appeared 12 million years later, presumably in reaction to a more uniform climate, according to Sertich.

The study provides the most comprehensive family tree of horned dinosaurs to date and demonstrates how dinosaur diversity has been overestimated.

“Lokiceratops helps us understand that we only are scratching the surface when it comes to the diversity and relationships within the family tree of horned dinosaurs,” Loewen said.

Journal reference:

  1. Mark A. Loewen​​, Joseph J. W. Sertich​, Scott Sampson, Jingmai K. O’Connor, Savhannah Carpenter, Brock Sisson, Anna Øhlenschlæger, Andrew A. Farke, Peter J. Makovicky, Nick Longrich, David C. Evans. Lokiceratops rangiformis gen. et sp. nov. (Ceratopsidae: Centrosaurinae) from the Campanian Judith River Formation of Montana reveals rapid regional radiations and extreme endemism within centrosaurine dinosaurs. PeerJ, 2024; DOI: 10.7717/peerj.17224

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