Island-Hopping Ceratopsians Made it to Europe

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Ceratopsians, or the "horned dinosaurs" such as Triceratops and Centrosaurus, were among the most distinctive members of dinosaur communities in North America and eastern Asia during the Cretaceous. Even so, bits and pieces of fossil bone collected by paleontologists over the years have hinted that this famous group of dinosaurs had a much wider range than previously thought, and a new discovery announced last week in the journal Nature confirms that ceratopsians once lived in Europe, too.

As reported by paleontologists Attila Osi, Richard Butler and David Weishampel, the new dinosaur is represented by a number of skull and jaw fragments discovered in the 83- to 85-million-year-old strata of Iharkut, Hungary. Named Ajkaceratops kozmai, this small dinosaur did not sport massive brow horns or a large bony frill like its cousins, but instead closely resembled forms like Bagaceratops and Magnirostris from Mongolia. Had Ajkaceratops been found in Asia its description probably would have been of interest to specialists, but its discovery in Europe raises the question of how this kind of horned dinosaur found its way farther west than any of its relatives.

During the time of Ajkaceratops, much of what is now Europe was covered by the sea, and so it seems that the small ceratopsian lived on an island. (Its small size, even compared to similar dinosaurs, makes it possible that it was a dwarfed island species, but the researchers stress that more research is required to ascertain this.) Given this bit of biogeography and the fact that its closest relatives lived in Asia, the authors of the new study propose that populations of Ajkaceratops (or their precursors) island-hopped from what was then the western coastline of Asia to Europe. This idea will require further study to confirm, but regardless of how it got there, the presence of Ajkaceratops in Europe during the Late Cretaceous illustrates that the evolution and dispersal of dinosaurs was more complex than traditionally understood.

Ősi, A., Butler, R., & Weishampel, D. (2010). A Late Cretaceous ceratopsian dinosaur from Europe with Asian affinities Nature, 465 (7297), 466-468 DOI: 10.1038/nature09019

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