Paleontologists in Canada have uncovered a new species of horned dinosaur that’s the oldest known relative of Triceratops.

It’s a very exciting time to be a paleontologist interested in horned dinosaurs. New species are being described at an incredible rate. But, it’s not the fact that they are new that’s important–it’s what the fossils say about the evolution, anatomy, and lifestyle of Triceratops and kin. Wendiceratops is the latest in this paleontological parade.

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Wendiceratops roamed southern Alberta around 79 million years ago, when the area was a lush lowland on the western edge of a seaway covering the middle of North America. Parts of at least four Wendiceratops were found together, including a mix of younger and older animals. None are complete, but enough is preserved to allow a fairly detailed reconstruction of the overall anatomy. Wendiceratops is unique among horned dinosaurs in the configuration of the forward-hooked bones studding the back of the frill. Each species has its own “fingerprint” of frill bones, so it’s pretty easy to pick out Wendiceratops from the crowd of its close relatives.

To me, it’s quite interesting that the frill of Wendiceratops is similar (but not identical) to an animal called Sinoceratops, which lived a few million years later in China. This suggests a close evolutionary relationship between the two animals. Does it mean that Wendiceratops or one of its descendents wandered over to China from North America? That’s certainly possible, and warrants additional study. Horned dinosaur skulls are developmentally plastic, so it’s also possible that the anatomy in Sinoceratops was independently evolved. We’ll need more fossils to figure this out!

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Skeletal reconstruction of Wendiceratops, with known bones shown in blue.

Like many of its close relatives, Wendiceratops had a big nose horn. This in itself is not unusual, but within geological time Wendiceratops is the oldest horned dinosaur to have the feature. Paleontologists have suspected for awhile that enlarged nose horns evolved at least twice in horned dinosaurs (once in the line leading to Triceratops and once in the line leading to Wendiceratops and its relatives…and maybe a third time in the “primitive” Protoceratops). Now we know a little more about the timing! Fossils like Wendiceratops add critical details to the broad-brush evolutionary picture.

Wendiceratops (named in honor of its discoverer, Wendy Sloboda) was recently announced by David Evans and Michael Ryan, in a paper appearing in PLOS ONE. The authors promise another manuscript focused on the back end of the animal (the postcrania), so we can look forward to more Wendiceratops in the near future!

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This article originally appeared at PLOS Blogs and is republished here under a creative commons license. Image credits: Danielle Dufault via Evans and Ryan, 2015.