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How Utah researchers helped discover a new 78 million-year-old dinosaur species

A new species of dinosaur, Lokiceratops rangiformis, found in the ancient swamps of northern Montana, is unveiled at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY (KSL.com) — Mark Loewen remembers receiving a call from the Museum of Evolution, a small museum in Denmark, a few years ago about an item on the for-profit dinosaur bones market.
It was a fossil discovered in 2019 of what Loewen, a paleontologist for the University of Utah and the Natural History Museum of Utah, and others had assumed was a 78 million-year-old Medusaceratops, a member of the horned, plant-eating ceratopsian family.
As an expert in this group of dinosaurs, Loewen asked the museum to buy the item so it could remain in the public sphere and be researched. The museum agreed and purchased it, allowing Loewen, his colleagues and students to inspect every little piece of this fossil before putting it on display.
But something interesting happened once it landed in the scientists’ hands, Loewen said. They noticed that the dinosaur’s horn patterns were different than those of a Medusaceratops. It also didn’t have a nose horn, and they all came to the same conclusion: This was not a Medusaceratops. It didn’t match any known dinosaur genus or species at all.
“We recognized right away that this was a new dinosaur,” he told KSL.com, recalling the moment.
This discovery sparked a research paper detailing a new dinosaur species that the team had uncovered, one that they affectionately named Lokiceratops rangiformis — or Lokiceratops for short. Their findings were published Thursday in PeerJ.

Mark Loewen of the Natural History Museum of Utah and University of Utah, a co-lead author of the study, speaks during the unveiling of a new species of dinosaur, Lokiceratops rangiformis, found in the ancient swamps of northern Montana at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News
Finding a new dinosaur
The process of discovering the Lokiceratops began five years ago.
Mark Eatman uncovered the dinosaur while digging for fossils on a ranch near the U.S.-Canada border in Montana. Some calls were made and, in the fall of that year, Brock Sisson, founder of the Utah-based Fossilogic LLC, and his employees came in to excavate, clean and restore the specimen.
“(It) was one of the most challenging projects my team and I have ever faced,” Sisson said, noting that it took about a year to remove it from the ground and prepare it for display.
With the museum scooping up the dinosaur, Loewen, Sisson and at least 11 other researchers were able to investigate every piece of the dinosaur as the fossils were mounted back together. Experts from the U.S., Canada and Europe were all pulled in over the past few years to help determine it was, in fact, a new species.
The research paper published on Thursday took about a year to go through the peer-review process, in which refinements were made. It describes everything that the team pieced together about the dinosaur, including its internal anatomy and other major details.
Researchers believe it was likely a plant-eating ceratopsian species that roamed the swamps and floodplains on the eastern shore of Laramidia, the island continent that formed about 100 million years ago when the Western Interior Seaway divided what is now the western half of North America with the rest of the modern-day continent.

A rendering of what a Lokiceratops rangiformis is believed to have looked like after a 78 million-year-old fossil of the species was uncovered in 2019. A report about the new dinosaur species, led by Utah researchers, was published on Thursday. | Courtesy Natural History Museum of Utah
It was also the largest horned dinosaur at the time, and its horn was unique.
“This new dinosaur pushes the envelope on bizarre ceratopsian headgear, sporting the largest frill horns ever seen in a ceratopsian,” said Joseph Sertich, a paleontologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Colorado State University, in a statement.
Its horn made the dinosaur look like a modern-day caribou, which played into the name that researchers settled on.
The team wanted a name that fit its prominent home at the Museum of Evolution in Denmark. Loewen said its full name is partially a nod to Loki as its horns are similar to depictions of the trickster god from Norse mythology. Rangiformis refers to the caribou-like attributes.
Put together, the name translates to “Loki’s horned face that looks like a caribou.”
Yet what Loewen found most interesting is that the finding places a fifth horned dinosaur species living in the same area at the same time, three more than once thought. It would have coexisted with other similar species like the Medusaceratops, Albertaceratops and Wendiceratops in the West’s prehistoric forests.
This finding gives a better picture of the ecosystem that existed 78 million years ago and how this species remained in it.
He and Sertich said they believe its horns were used to appeal to species of the opposite sex and intimidate rivals within the same sex, which played into its “evolutionary selection.”

A new species of dinosaur, Lokiceratops rangiformis, found in the ancient swamps of northern Montana, is unveiled at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 20, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News
Now on display
The first Lokiceratops ever discovered is now at the Museum of Evolution in Maribo, Denmark, where it’s available to researchers and museum visitors.
Peter Makovicky, an expert with the University of Minnesota and study co-author, believes it will give European visitors “an amazing opportunity” to view an “iconic North American dinosaur” up close.
Natural History Museum of Utah visitors can view the next best thing.
The museum on Thursday unveiled an exact 6-foot replica of a Lokiceratops skull alongside a full-size skull with skin, eyes and horns based on what researchers believe it looked like 78 million years ago.
While it’s now the newest-discovered dinosaur known to have lived in ancient North America, Loewen said it probably won’t be the last new species discovered.
“We think we probably know less than 1% of the animals that belong to this group that lived here in North America,” he said. “Going forward, we’re going to try to increase that more so we have a better knowledge base.”
The post How Utah researchers helped discover a new 78 million-year-old dinosaur species appeared first on East Idaho News.
Source: eastidahonews.com

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