When it comes to new scientific discoveries, very few things are quite as exciting as the identification of new dinosaur species. As anyone who has ever been 6-years-old will agree, dinosaurs are just cool. And having more species on the record just gives the imagination that many more tools to play with while imagining what the prehistoric world might have been like.
It turns out the Four Corners, northwestern New Mexico in particular, are a great place to dig them up. The Ojo Alamo geologic formation, found near Farmington, spans the Mesozoic/Cenozoic boundary – the delineation in time that separates the so-called Age of Reptiles and Age of Mammals (we’re currently living in the latter – sorry, reptilian overlords).
In fact, on June 5 a new species found in the region was officially named: Navajoceratops sullivani. It was named after the indigenous people of the area where it was found and Robert Sullivan, the leader of the expedition that dug it up. It’s a member of the ceratopsid family – you’re probably most familiar with its relative, Triceratops – which all have long frills on the backs of their skulls and horns on their faces.
An adult Navajoceratops stood 5 to 6 feet tall at the shoulder, with another 3 or 4 feet added by its frill, and was 20 to 25 feet long. It weighed about 5 tons and lived about 75 million years ago. It likely browsed on shrubs and ferns in herds of up to two dozen individuals.
The fossils that led paleontologists to identify Navajoceratops were collected in New Mexico in 2002 and hauled off to the State Museum of Pennsylvania, where they’ve been analyzed since. The Badlands Dinosaur Museum at the Dickinson Museum Center in North Dakota made the announcement. From a scientific standpoint, the discovery of the new species is important because it helps fill in the fossil record. Navajoceratops and Terminocavis sealeyi, a similar recently-named dinosaur, help fill in an evolutionary gap between Utahceratops and Anchiceratops.
Navajoceratops isn’t the only dinosaur from the region that was recently identified. In late March, the State Museum announced the discovery of Dineobellator notohesperis, a feathered upright-standing dinosaur. These guys were dromaeosaurids like their cousins, the Velociraptors. It’s worth noting, Jurassic Park fans, that these raptors were nowhere near as large as they are in the movies. Velociraptors are about turkey-sized, and Dineobellator was 3.5 feet tall at the hip and 6 to 7 feet long. It totally hunted the same way its cousins do in the films. So there’s that.
Dineobellator notohesperis’ name literally means “Diné warrior of the Southwest.” Living about 66 million years ago, it was one of the last species of raptors alive before the mass extinction that killed it and all the dinosaurs (that hadn’t already evolved into birds).
An expedition to collect more fossils in northwestern New Mexico was supposed to be underway right now, Steven Jasinski, curator of paleontology and geology at the State Museum, told PennLive.com. But like everything else, it was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. It may resume this fall or sometime next year.