Robert Siegel speaks with Dr. Michael Ryan, Coordinator of Research and Curator and Head of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, about a new dinosaur species discovery — the Xenoceratops.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel with a 78 million-year-old mystery that appears to have been solved. Fragments of fossilized bone discovered back in the 1950s in Southern Alberta, Canada, have been pieced together to form part of a skull - the skull of a new genus and species of dinosaur. It has been named Xenoceratops foremostensis, which means alien horned face from Foremost, Alberta. And we're joined now by one of the paleontologists who identified it and named it. Dr. Michael Ryan, welcome and congratulations.
DR. MICHAEL RYAN: Thanks very much.
SIEGEL: So tell us what this dinosaur would have looked like and what makes it different enough to be classified as a new one.
RYAN: Well, your listeners are probably familiar with the large-horned dinosaur triceratops. It showed up in all the old movies, and it's just about in every museum around the world. So it's a large, four-footed, four-legged herbivorous dinosaur, body about the size of an oversized rhinoceros. On its face, it's got, typically, a horn over the nose and then two large horns coming off either brow over the eye. And uniquely coming off the back of the skull, there's a large shield or frill, as we call it. And depending on which type of horned dinosaur you're talking about, it's got ornamentation sticking off spikes or hooks off the back of that frill. So on Xenoceratops, it would look something like that. It's got two big spikes at either corner of that frill. It's got a beak at the front of its mouth and, surprisingly, was actually herbivorous dinosaur, ate plants.
SIEGEL: So what's so different between it and the triceratops? Is it just the diceratops?
RYAN: Well, there actually is another animal called diceratops that some of my colleagues would argue about whether it exists or not. So horned dinosaurs, I tell my students, come in two flavors. There's two subfamilies. There's the Chasmosaurinae, which includes things like triceratops. And then there's the other group, which includes our new Xenoceratops, which is called the Centrosaurinae. And our Xenoceratops is actually at the very bottom of the branch where those two branches would come off.
And like triceratops, our Xenoceratops has large brow horns, which it's not supposed to have, at least it's not supposed to have if it belonged to that group. And it's got these large spikes. So the combination of those unique features, certainly the back of the frill tells us that it's not triceratops definitely, and it's like nothing else we've seen before.
SIEGEL: Now, all that you have to go on in making this determination is bones, I assume.
RYAN: That's correct. Unfortunately, all the soft tissue is long gone.
SIEGEL: And how much of the skull do you actually have? What percent, let's say, of the skull do you actually have in hand and built?
RYAN: I always hate it when people ask me what the percent is because it's always a very small number. But it's - I would probably say in terms of the actual three original specimens that we based our description on, we've got about 40 percent of the skull. We also found an additional skull of the same type, same genes and species about a year later in our digs out there, but it was totally broken apart, totally weathered. And it would take forever to reassemble it, but that's probably about 100 percent complete, although it's just a bag of kibble bits.
SIEGEL: Well, as you've said, the fossils that you've been working with were dug up a while ago, more than half a century ago in Southern Alberta.
RYAN: That's right.
SIEGEL: Is it normal that there are just piles of dinosaur remains around that are waiting to be pieced together artfully?
RYAN: You mean in collections and museums?
RYAN: Yes, indeed. If you have a museum that's old enough, something like the American Museum of Natural History in New York or the Canadian Museum of Nature here in Ottawa, Canada, where Xenoceratops was discovered, those museums have long histories both of collection and just being open to the public. So the museum in Ottawa has almost 100-year history of collecting dinosaurs. And unfortunately, we don't have enough scientists or technicians to actually prepare all the specimens that come back out of the field.
When we find something in the field, we wrap it up in a large plaster-burlap jacket so the fossils won't fall apart. And those field jackets, as we call them, will sit on the shelves sometimes for dozens of years. As it turns out, part of the field jackets - some of the field jackets with this specimen set there from 1958 when Juan Langston(ph) originally collected them till we opened them up a couple of years ago.
SIEGEL: Which do you think is closer to the truth, that we've found remains of most of the dinosaurs that were around in what is now North America and now and again we'll find another one, or there were zillions of different species of dinosaur and we just happen to be lucky enough to have found the bones of a small number of them?
RYAN: I'll crib a statement from Carl Sagan and say that there were billions and billions of them out there and we've only found a small, tiny fraction of them. When we find dinosaur fossils, we're typically finding them in what we call terrestrial sediments. They're sands and muds that are laid down by ancient river systems. And the bodies...
SIEGEL: We're finding the unluckiest dinosaurs there were.
RYAN: Well, the ones that died - well, actually, they're lucky for us because they died and became fossils. But they were ones that were living around bodies of water or river systems. So the dinosaurs that were living in upland mountain environments or deep forest don't have that opportunity to become fossils, at least very rarely become fossils. So there's a whole large percentage of the Earth that just didn't have the opportunity to preserve dinosaurs when they were alive. So we're going to be missing all those different animals that were living in all those different environments.
SIEGEL: And to - I'm trying to recall some of that enormous amount of high school biology I took - because Xenoceratops foremostensis is a new genus and species, it could only have bred with other whatever the plural of that creature is?
RYAN: In theory that's right. In fact, that's one of the reasons we think that these horned dinosaurs had those unique ornamentations off the back of their frills. Xenoceratops has these two short spikes at the - either corner. Things like styracosaurus has spikes all the way around the margin. And we think those were probably signaling devices so that females could recognize males. And very much like some modern birds, like the bird-of-paradise with those giant tail feathers, females would preferentially prefer and mate with the dinosaurs that have the most robust horns on their frills.
SIEGEL: Are you one of those, by the way, who regards dinosaurs as not extinct? They're the little things flying around in the sky all over the Earth now?
RYAN: Yes, indeed. Every living bird is a dinosaur. Although not all dinosaurs that were alive were birds. It's pretty unequivocal. We have Thanksgiving coming up in a few days time...
SIEGEL: We all have a big dinosaur to eat you're saying.
RYAN: ...you'll all have a big dinosaur to eat. In fact, if you actually take - if you're lucky enough to have a nice, big turkey and you totally consume it, as most families would do, so you've got a table full of bones, if you pick up one of the leg bones or one of the ribs or one of the vertebra and you hold it in your hand, it's about the same size and shape as something like velociraptor, those little carnivorous dinosaurs you see in the movies all the time. And I would bet that if you took your upper leg bone, the femur from a turkey and held it beside a velociraptor femur that's been fossilized for 70-plus million years, you'd have a hard time telling which one is which if you didn't know which one was fossil.
SIEGEL: It's both fascinating and appetizing at the same time.
RYAN: Hmm, yummy.
SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Ryan, congratulations on this, and thanks for talking with us about it.
RYAN: Oh, thanks very much for having me in. I appreciate it.
SIEGEL: Dr. Michael Ryan is curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and he is a discoverer of the new dinosaur Xenoceratops foremostensis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.