New Dinosaur Species Surprises Paleontology Community
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, along with a world-renowned team led by paleontologist Dr. Robert Bakker, has announced the discovery and acquisition of a 66-million-year-old dinosaur skull that represents a new dinosaur species. The first-of-its-kind discovery in North America is an unexpected flat-headed dinosaur from the pachycepahlosaur family, plant-eating dinosaurs that were about the size of a horse. This fossil, found in central South Dakota, made its debut in conjunction with the American Association of Museums annual meeting being held in Indianapolis. Upon first glance, paleontologists knew this fossil find represented a new species. No paleontologist had ever seen this fossil’s unique combination of a long muzzle, long horns at the back of the skull and a flat forehead. According to Bakker, “When my colleagues saw a CAT scan of the new fossil, they tore up their family tree diagrams and said, ‘Back to the drawing board!’ The discovery of this fossil was a Cretaceous surprise… we never suspected such a creature existed.” This skull fossil changes the view of dinosaur history during the final days of the Cretaceous Period, 66 million years ago. It proves that family trees were still branching off and evolving in Montana and South Dakota, even though the entire dinosaur world was about to go extinct. The pachycephalosaur family is well-known for its dragon-like heads covered with horns, knobs and bumps. The most famous family member, Pachycephalosaurus, “Thick Headed Lizard,” carried a solid, domed bone helmet up to eight inches thick, a useful weapon for ramming other dinosaurs in their sides. Stygimoloch, a close kin to the flat-headed Pachycephalosaurus, had a smaller domed head but compensated with sharp, straight horns pointing backward. The Children’s Museum’s flat-headed pachycephalosaur was discovered in the same rock layers (and therefore time period) that produced Pachycephalosaurus and Stygimoloch. This new species of Pachycephalosaurus is similar to Stygimoloch with its dangerous horns, but has a flat head with no bone dome. The only other flat-headed pachycephalosaurs ever discovered were found in China and Mongolia. And, all the flat-headed pachycephalosaurs previously discovered had short muzzles and no long horns anywhere on the skull. The unique configuration of knobs and spikes found on The Children Museum’s specimen is strong evidence that the trio of American species was a late blooming branch of the evolutionary tree. The flat-headed pachycephalosaur, Stygimoloch and Pachycephalosaurus lived together in the same place and the same time, what is known as the Lance Age of the Rocky Mountain West. No other dinosaur ecosystem could boast of three distinctly different head-butting species. “The pachycephalosaurs had strong necks, like an interior lineman on a football team, thick and massive, and could inflict significant damage on other dinosaurs,” Dr. Bakker said. “They used their bony, spiked heads to nudge, butt and slam into members of their own species, all part of the kinetic courtship battles of the sort we see today between bull moose or giraffes. Pachycephalosaurs specialized in blunt-force trauma. Stygimoloch rammed and gored with its horns. This new species, being announced today, likely pressed their foreheads together and shoved one another really hard.” The new flat-headed pachycephalosaur species doesn’t yet have a scientific name. It will be named in a scientific article being prepared by Dr. Bakker and other members of The Children’s Museum’s dinosaur advisory board. The nearly complete pachycephalosaur skull was donated to The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis by three friends, Steve Saulsbury, Patrick Saulsbury and Brian Buckmeier, all from Sioux City, Iowa. The group found the fossil during a fossil collecting trip in the Hell Creek Formation in central South Dakota. Steve fondly recalled The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where he used to take his young daughter Alexandra when he and his family lived in Indianapolis during Steve’s residency at Indiana University Hospital in the early 1990s. Steve and the others agreed the Museum would be the perfect home for the specimen, and the trio donated it in late 2004. Dinosphere advisory board members, in partnership with The Children’s Museum, have created a first-rate scientific lab for cleaning and studying fossils, called the Paleo Prep Lab, where the new specimen will be prepared for display. “We are so grateful to have this one-of-a-kind specimen as part of our Dinosphere exhibit,” said Dr. Jeffrey Patchen, president and CEO of The Children’s Museum. “This dragon-like creature will have special appeal to the hundreds of thousands of children and visitors to the Museum each year. We are also excited to be able to provide American Association of Museums meeting attendees from around the nation with the first sneak peek at this extraordinary new fossil find.” The pachycephalosaur fossil will become part of the Museum’s world-renowned Dinosphere: Now You’re in Their World exhibit. Dinosphere is the largest display of real juvenile and family dinosaur fossils in the United States. The exhibit transports children and families back in time to the Cretaceous Period via a multi-level, multi-sensory, immersive environment. Visitors experience the sights, sounds and smells of the Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs last roamed the earth. “This is an amazing opportunity for us to continue our work with world-class dinosaur fossils and our international board of advisors,” said Children’s Museum paleontologist Victor Porter. “During the week of the American Association of Museums conference, visitors and Museum guests will be able to view this fossil. Then, it will be taken down for several months of painstaking preparation and research before it goes on permanent display.” With more than 450,000 square feet of space, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is the largest children’s museum in the United States. Situated on 13 acres of land in Indianapolis, it features 11 major galleries and hosts more than 1 million visitors annually.