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Scientists Discover One Of The Oldest Horned Dinosaurs

Scientists have found a "new" horned dinosaur that lived about 79 million years ago — and they say the discovery helps them understand the early evolution of the family that includes Triceratops.

The new dinosaur, which was named Wendiceratops pinhornensis after a famous fossil hunter who discovered the bone bed in Canada where these fossils were buried, is one of the oldest known horned dinosaurs.

Its distinctive feature is a highly decorated frill around its neck, says paleontologist David Evans from the Royal Ontario Museum.

"The frill is sort of ornamented by a pretty spectacular wave of gnarly hooks that project forward," Evans says.

He adds that it probably had big horns above its eyes and had a big one over its nose — the earliest occurrence of a prominent nose horn in this dinosaur family.

"It's a significant discovery in that it tells us a lot of new information about the early evolution of skull ornamentation, the hooks and horns, that characterize this iconic group of dinosaurs," Evans says.

A few decades ago, scientists knew of only 25 to 30 horned dinosaurs. Now, there are more than 60 and new ones keep turning up all the time.

Michael Ryan, a paleontologist with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, says that Triceratops may have used its horns to fend off Tyrannosaurus rex in the late Cretaceous. But all these weird skull decorations in other dinosaurs likely had more to do with impressing the ladies.

"The horned dinosaur with the biggest horns may have been able to out-compete its rivals to control the biggest harem for breeding purposes," Ryan says.

He and Evans describe their new dinosaur in the journal PLOS ONE.

Despite this — and all the other new discoveries — Triceratops will likely continue to reign as the quintessential horned dinosaur, even though it is "actually a relatively boring horned dinosaur in many ways," Evans says.

But it was discovered over a century ago and has had time to get firmly lodged in the public's imagination. What's more, the fact that it lived in the time of T. rex means that children can play out epic battles between them.

"When I was a kid, Triceratops certainly loomed large in our household," says Evans, who recalls that it was his sister's favorite, while he preferred T. rex. "So, we kind of had the classic argument about which one was better when I was maybe 5 years old."

And he isn't the only one with such vivid Triceratops memories. Ryan recalls that his kindergarten teacher once read a children's book called The Enormous Egg.

"Because it was all about Triceratops and horned dinosaurs," Ryan says, "that probably set me on my path to where I am today."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.