Dinosaur With Giant, Loki-Like Horns Has the ‘Craziest, Coolest’ Headgear—and Could Be a New Species

The discovery sheds light on the evolution of a surprisingly diverse group of horned dinosaurs in the western United States

a drawing of a green dinosaur walking on four legs with purple horns curling outward from between its eyes and from the top of its head, which has a tall, plate-like frill
An artist's portrayal of Lokiceratops rangiformis, which lived in the swamps of western North America about 78 million years ago. Andrey Atuchin

In what sounds like a crossover episode between The Land Before Time and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, paleontologists have uncovered Lokiceratops—a new dinosaur that had an ornate set of horns resembling those worn by the Norse trickster god, Loki.

“If you’re into dinosaurs and you love bizarre headgear on dinosaurs, this is probably the craziest, coolest horned dinosaur to come along in a really long time,” Joseph Sertich, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Colorado State University, says in a video interview with the journal PeerJ.

The creature boasted two horns between its eyes and a spiky frill at the back of its head, which sprouted the largest frill horns ever found on a dinosaur. Weighing in at more than five tons and measuring 22 feet long, Lokiceratops lived about 78 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous.

A commercial paleontologist found the skull of the dinosaur in the arid badlands of northern Montana in 2019, about two miles south of the Canadian border. Then, the Museum of Evolution in Maribo, Denmark, acquired the specimen. Now, after studying the fossil, Sertich and others argue it represents a previously unknown species, dubbed Lokiceratops rangiformis, in a paper published Thursday in PeerJ.

When Lokiceratops lived, its habitat was a swampy floodplain on the western shores of an inland sea that split North America in two. This area is already noted among paleontologists for its diversity of horned dinosaurs.

“There are four other species of horned dinosaurs known from this particular region,” Sertich tells CNN’s Jacopo Prisco. “So, when we started working on it, we assumed that it was going to be one of those four—we were completely shocked to find out that it was a totally new species.”

Lokiceratops rangiformis from the Campanian Judith River Formation of Montana

As the fifth horned dinosaur to be found in the same rock formation, the specimen sheds light on the evolution of dinosaur species living in that time and place. These so-called ceratopsids were somewhat isolated from other geographic areas, which might have led to a greater diversity of horn shapes.

The horns of Lokiceratops, impressive as they are, don’t seem to have been used for defense like the nose horn on a Triceratops. The newly discovered species doesn’t have a nose horn at all, suggesting its other headgear was not meant to be protective, writes Will Dunham for Reuters.

Instead, “it’s becoming more clear that [horned dinosaurs] were using these [bony features] as ornaments, in order to attract mates, or intimidate rivals of the same species,” the study’s co-lead author Mark Loewen, a paleontologist at the University of Utah, tells Carolyn Gramling of Science News.

Lokiceratops skull
The skull of Lokiceratops rangiformes, described in the new study Sergey Krasovskiy, PeerJ, 2024

Local populations of female ceratopsids likely developed attractions to different displays of horns, leading to an explosive evolution of headgear variety in the area. “In modern ecosystems, that process has led closely related birds of paradise to develop different displays while sharing ecological niches,” writes Asher Elbein in the New York Times.

Other experts urge caution in naming Lokiceratops as a new species based on its limited remains. Denver Fowler, a paleontologist at the Dickinson Museum in North Dakota who was not involved with the study, tells Science News the Montana specimen could feasibly be a very mature individual of a different species that had its ornamental horns change shape over time. Or, it might represent the gradual evolutionary change of an already described species.

Nevertheless, Fowler tells the Times that “it’s a spectacular specimen, and it absolutely needs to be described. It really helps us to flesh out the fauna.”

In the video interview, Loewen says the field of dinosaur paleontology is still vibrant, and Lokiceratops is evidence of that.

“When I started as a paleontologist, I tended to think all the cool stuff has already been found,” he says in the video. “[But] there really are new lessons to be learned every day and new specimens to be uncovered.”

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