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Misidentified for decades, one New Mexico fossil led to the eventual discovery of a new dinosaur

A rendering of the newly discovered Bisticeratops.
Sergey Krasovskiy
Courtesy of NMMNHS
A rendering of the newly discovered Bisticeratops.

Half a century ago, in the rolling badlands of New Mexico’s Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, a dinosaur skull fossil was discovered. Scientists quickly identified the remains and moved on.

Recently, a closer look at the fossil revealed something surprising––a completely new and undiscovered dinosaur.

KUNM sat down with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science curator of paleontology Dr. Spencer Lucas to chat about what they found.

DR. SPENCER LUCAS: Well, I'll tell you it's an interesting discovery because my team, the people I'm working with, and I, we didn't find the fossil. It was actually found by a group from the University of Arizona back in the 1970s. And then the fossil was transferred to the museum here in the early 2000s. What ended up happening was, this fossil, which is a big skull, it's the skull of this horned dinosaur, and it really hadn't hardly been cleaned up. So when it came to Albuquerque in the early 2000s, we went through a phase of cleaning it up and stabilizing it.

But then, what happened a few years ago is there was a final phase of preparation to really clean the bones and expose everything. Looking at it a few years ago, with new eyes, we thought: "Oh! This is different." We thought it was a pentaceratops. That's what had been called for years. But we realized there were some significant anatomical differences between the skull of this dinosaur and pentaceratops. So, we realized it was a new dinosaur.

KUNM: I can only imagine how fun it would be to go about naming a new dinosaur. You settled on one name in particular. What did you name it and why?

DR. LUCAS: Well, we named it Bisticeratops froeseorum. The place the fossil was collected is the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness. That's south of Farmington. "Ceratops," of course, the suffix you're familiar with that from triceratops. It means "horned face." So, this is a horned dinosaur. The species name "froeseorum." was from the lead author Sebastian Dalman, who was a former student of mine who's a research associate. And he named it after the family that created the group called Tangerine Dream because that's one of his favorite musical groups.

KUNM: It seems like the skull has bite marks on it?

DR. LUCAS: Oh, it has more than one. You know, that's one of the most interesting things to me about the fossil is that it's all bitten up. The skull has a lot of bite marks on it. It's really interesting. They match, in terms of size and shape, exactly what you would expect if a Tyrannosaur had bitten. So you have these holes in the bone. One of the things we actually did is we took replicas, plastic casts, we made tyrannosaur teeth and we fitted them.

A couple of the bite marks look like the bone started to heal after the bite. So, if that's the case, and those were bite marks made when the animal was alive. But, most of the bite marks show no evidence of healing. So, it could be one of two things happened... Either those bite marks represent the event that killed the dinosaur or the animal was scavenged. Some tyrannosaur came along and just decided to gnaw on the skull of this dinosaur.

KUNM: What sets these dinosaurs apart from others similar to it? 

DR. LUCAS: This skull, in particular, is very different from pentaceratops, particularly in the region around the face. And one thing you could focus on is what we call the jugal bone. That's the bone that's in the cheek of the dinosaur. So if you think about pelissero tops, it's called pentaceratops because it supposedly has five horns. This animal has jugle horns, but they're constructed differently and there are other anatomical differences about the way the upper jaw is put together. So those are the differences that we're drawing attention to and identifying it as a new dinosaur.

KUNM: It's always very obvious how important discoveries like these are. But scientifically, what does this find mean for dinosaur research here in New Mexico and more broadly?

DR. LUCAS: Well, I think there's two things it's telling us. One, we know these horned dinosaurs were really successful very late during the age of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs go extinct about 65 million years ago. Beginning about 75 million years ago, these horned dinosaurs diversified and became extremely successful in North America. So this animal just adds to that diversity and shows us that there's still more diversity out there that we haven't really tapped.

This animal and some of the other animals that we now know from New Mexico during this time interval, and this would be about 70 to 75 million [years ago]. A lot of these dinosaurs are very different from the dinosaurs that are found farther north in Wyoming, Montana, southern Canada. So, we're getting a sense that maybe there's a southern group of dinosaurs living at that time that's very different from a northern group. We're starting to see regional differentiation of the dinosaur fauna here during you know, the time interval about 70 to 75 million years ago.

KUNM: All righty. Dr. Spencer Lucas, thanks for taking the time.

DR. LUCAS: Yeah, my pleasure. It's good talking.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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