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Art by Michael Skrepnick.

Paleontologists Discover Adorable Horned Dinosaur Baby

Dinosaur, roughly translated, means “terrible lizard.” The title works any way you look at it. Dinosaurs really were “terrible lizards” because they were about as unlizardlike as a reptile could possibly to be. Looking at it another way, the title encompasses the size, the teeth, and the apparent ferocity of our favorite dinosaurs. But it’s also a misleading moniker. Dinosaurs were not monsters. The non-avian species didn’t spend over 180 million years constantly stabbing, biting, and clawing each other. Tyrannosaurus was a terror and Stegosaurus was gnarly, yes, but there’s so much more to dinosaurs. For instance, some of them were downright cute.

In 2010, while looking for fossils along Alberta’s Red Deer River, paleontologists stumbled across part of a skull peeking out of the Cretaceous rock. Excavation revealed more and more bones, adding up to a nearly-complete skeleton, articulated and intact down to skin impressions on the ribs and the delicate ring of bones that were once encapsulated in the dinosaur’s eye. All cleaned up and now described by Phil Currie and colleagues, the dinosaur has turned out to be a baby Chasmosaurus – the smallest and most complete baby ceratopsid yet found.

A few pieces of the body went missing in the last 75 million years. The forelimbs and shoulders of the baby apparently fell into a sinkhole sometime before discovery, and the very tip of the tail broke off. But otherwise it’s a gorgeous for a dinosaur skeleton of any size, and drew audible gasps when Currie presented some initial photos to attendees of the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting a few years back.

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The baby Chasmosaurus. From Currie et al., 2016.

That the nearly five-foot-long skeleton is a from a baby, rather than a small species, is given away by various osteological details. Aside from the size, Currie and colleagues point out, the dinosaur has a bone texture typical of young, fast-growing animals, parts of the dinosaur’s vertebrae aren’t completely fused, it has a large orbit for its skull, and its frill had not yet grown the outer set of decorations called epiossifications, in addition to other traits. It all adds up to one unbearably adorable little dinosaur.

But there’s a greater paleontological reason for quantifying the cuteness. In the past paleontologists sometimes named baby ceratopsids as dwarf species, such as “Brachyceratops“. That risk is still there. When Currie and colleagues put all the baby Chasmosaurus traits into a program to figure out its relationships to other dinosaurs, the infant came out as a primitive ceratopsid. But when they tossed out all the characteristics known to change with age, the infant fell into its proper place with Chasmosaurus. In short, we need to know how dinosaurs changed with age in order to make sure we’re getting an accurate count of how many dinosaurs there actually were.

Currie and colleagues will continue to learn more about the baby dinosaur over the years. The new paper is just an initial description. And while it runs counter to a mature and staid appreciation of nature expected of science writers, I can’t help but look at the skeleton and artist Michael Skrepnick’s restoration and think “Aww.” The infant Chasmosaurus has the same big-eyed, short-faced look of a kitten and looks about as fierce as a puppy. Had non-avian dinosaurs survived to the present, and had evolution still allowed us to develop alongside them (which, hah!, not a chance), perhaps our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds would be filled with gifs of playful baby dinosaurs in addition to our mammalian companions.

Reference:

Currie, P., Holmes, R., Ryan, M., Coy, C. 2016. A juvenile chasmosaurine ceratopsid (Dinosauria, Ornithischia) from the Dinosaur Park Formation, Alberta, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. doi: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1048348