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13Nov 2012

UPDATED*: What!? Reporters amazed. A big frilly horned dinosaur that's NOT triceratops. And so many horns. Sigh....

UPDATED*: What!? Reporters amazed. A big frilly horned dinosaur that's NOT triceratops. And so many horns. Sigh....

One might almost think from some accounts within a spate of small news items the last few days that paleontologists had found a UFO with unearthly bones in it. The news is in a report by a Canadian-born researcher, now at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, who published with colleagues a report in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. They described analysis of  the oldest large ceratopsian known from Canada, one whose bones had been stored away in an Ottawa museum, unappreciated, for half a century. It is deeper on the ancestral tree than famous Triceratops, has about the same face and parrot-like beak, a big neck frill, and even more horns.

    But reading some of the accounts makes one wonder. How many reporters did any research into this family? I don't mean deep research. I mean any. A few of these stories make it seem that its goofy big head is something unlike any of its family ever seen. The press release (see Grist) may suggest as much, but really. The image I run with this is of a book, a proceedings from a few years ago with multiple editors (and mentioned in an earlier tracker post on these creatures. Here is another tracker post on this sort of creatures that has pictures that look an awful lot like the supposedly super-bizarro new one in the news). The new species really is new, but to the lay eye it is no outlier. It is damned typical. If one scans the paper (see Grist) it becomes clear it has close affinities to others in the general family. Few reporters called an outside authority for comment. The image I put up top shows the cover of a book, a proceedings, from not long ago. Any of the listed editors could have provided knowing perspective on the latest. top image there (this newish tracker blogware seems to make adding images to a post particularly graceless) is one of the horned dinos in news a couple of years ago. Next one down is the new fella. Pigmentations are artists' fancies. But really. Who is to say either is stupendously weirder than the other? The news is not the creature's face, but that such features, while typical, are notable in a specimen quite this old.

   Anyway.... here is a partial compendium of news accounts:

  • Daily Mail (UK) - Damien Gayle: The ferocious vegetarian: Two ton, 20ft long 'alien horned-face' dinosaur discovered in Canada ; Well, this is easy pickings. It's the Mail. As for ferocity, a lot of these things looked ferocious as a horned toad looks ferocious.
  • Live Science - Tia Ghose: 2-ton "Alien" Horned Dinosaur Discovered; The story refers to the "strange patterns of horns on its head and above its brow" when this, seems to these eyes, were pretty much par for the course with this family. The piece has plenty of legit detail, but again goes overboard on the uniqueness front when declaring "The species most distinctive feature .. is its spiky head: two hooks jutting from its forehead, two massive spikes rest at the top of its head and a frilly shield adorns its neck." That is, it is a ceratopsian. Ghose, for one, did call an outsider for useful comment.
  • NY Times - Sindya N. Bhanoo: Before Triceratops, There Was This Prickly Fellow; Decent job, as always from Bhanoo. In today's ScienceTimes. But her third graf, with a long quote on its facial features, reads as though we are to believe they are distinct to this species when they apply to a whole slew of its ilk - especially the 'beak at the front of the mouth, very much like a turtle."
  • Wired - Olivia Solon (via Ars Technica) : Xenoceratops: the 'alien horned-face' dinosaur discovered in Canada ;
  • National Geographic News - Ker Than: Two-Ton "Alien" Dinosaur Found - "different From Every Other" ; The text is not so overdone, but the headline and sub heads in the text amp the news too far. (One says "Like No Other Dinosaur." Actually it is like a whole bunch of them. But not the same. I can tell somebody that an Aston Martin coupe is like a Jaguar or Maserati and be correct. But there are big differences.)
  • *UPDATE: Smithsonian/Dinosaur Tracking - Brian Switek: Paleontologists Welcome Xenoceratops to the Ceratopsian Family Tree ; Switek is among the most earnest and sensible popularizers of paleontological news in the science writing clan. He's a reporter who knows the history of the field and honors context. He calls much of the ceratopsian clan "fantastically ornamented." And he puts proper narrative arc in this tale. He explains the the "alien" meaning of xeno- has nothing to do with this new one's horns, knobs, and other protusions. Good job (would've been better had it included remark from an outsider. PLUS: Switek has another post up on evidence much more important to deciphering the evolution of all ceratopsids including familiar Triceratops, not just the centrosaurine wing of that line: E is for Eotriceratops.

   Maybe it's the 'xeno' in its Latin name that sent reporters over the line. That means alien. All restraint seems to have fallen away upon seeing that green light for hyperventilation.

Grist for the Mill: Canadian Museum of Nature Press Release ; Cleveland Museum of Natural History Press Release ; Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences Article.


- Charlie Petit



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