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E is for Eotriceratops

The recently discovered Eotriceratops might yield important clues about how the famous Triceratops evolved

The reconstructed skull of Eotriceratops. The actual specimen is not complete, but, based on the recovered elements and the dinosaur’s relationships, we know the dinosaur would have looked similar to Triceratops. Photo by Roland Tanglao, image from Wikipedia.

Triceratops is among the most cherished of dinosaurs. Even that might be a bit of an understatement. Fossil fans threw a conniption when they mistakenly believed that paleontologists were taking the classic “three-horned face” away, after all. But where did the charismatic chasmosaurine come from? Triceratops didn’t simply spring from the earth fully formed–the ceratopsid was the descendant of a long tail of evolutionary forerunners. And in 2007, paleontologist Xiao-chun Wu and collaborators described a 68-million-year-old dinosaur that might represent what one of the close ancestors of Triceratops was like–Eotriceratops.

In 2001, while on an expedition to search the Horseshoe Canyon Formation around the Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada, Glen Guthrie discovered the partial skeleton of a huge ceratopsid dinosaur. This was the first identifiable dinosaur skeleton found in the top quarter of the formation, and, as Wu and coauthors later argued, the bones represented a new species. They called the animal Eotriceratops xerinsularis.

Paleontological devotees know that “eo” translates to “dawn.” The tiny mammal Eohippus was the “dawn horse” (which Victorian anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley famously characterized for the steed of a tiny “Eohomo), and there are plenty of dawn dinosaurs such as Eoraptor, Eodromaeus, Eobrontosaurus and Eolambia. The prefix is a kind of honorific, used to indicate the hypothesized beginning of a major lineage or significant change. In the case of Eotriceratops, Wu and colleagues found that the dinosaur was the oldest known member of the evolutionary ceratopsid club containing Triceratops, Torosaurus and Nedoceratops (which, depending on who you ask, may or may not be the same dinosaur).

The individual Guthrie found had fallen apart between death and burial. Aside from some vertebrae, ribs and ossified tendons, the scattered specimen was primarily represented by a dis-articulated skull. When reconstructed, though, the head of Eotriceratops stretched almost ten feet long–about a foot longer than the largest-known Triceratops skull. And while different in some characteristics, Eotriceratops had the same three-horned look of its later relatives Triceratops and Torosaurus.

This isn’t to say that Eotriceratops was directly ancestral to Triceratops, Torosaurus, Nedoceratops or whatever combination of the three paleontologists ultimately settle on. Eotriceratops could be the closest relative of Triceratops to the exclusion of Torosaurus, which would support the idea that those later dinosaurs were separate genera.  Then again, Wu and coauthors pointed out that Eotriceratops might be the most basal member of the subgroup, which would make sense given that it was older than the other three genera. In either case, Eotriceratops can give us a rough idea of the Triceratops and Torosaurus prototype, but we lack the resolution to know if Eotriceratops was ancestral to any later dinosaur. Eotriceratops undoubtedly had some significance in the evolution of the last three-horned dinosaurs, but we need many more fossils to know this little-known dinosaur’s role in the story. Every dinosaur paleontologists find comes with a handful of answers and a myriad of new mysteries.

This post is the latest in the Dinosaur Alphabet series.

Reference:

Wu, X., Brinkman, D., Eberth, D., Braman. 2007. A new ceratopsid dinosaur (Ornithischia) from the uppermost Horseshoe Canyon Formation (upper Maastrichtian), Alberta, Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 44: 1243-1265

About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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