New Horned Dinosaur Species Used Horn Frills to Drive Diversity and Evolution

Discovery of Lokiceratops rangiformis, a 11,000 pound dinosaur, is helping rewrite the story of dinosaur evolution.

By Paul Smaglik
Jun 20, 2024 4:30 PMJun 20, 2024 4:35 PM
Lokiceratops rangiformis gen. et sp. nov. (Ceratopsidae: Centrosaurinae) from the Campanian Judith River Formation of Montana reveals rapid regional radiations and extreme endemism within centrosaurine dinosaurs
Lokiceratops rangiformis gen. et sp. nov. (Ceratopsidae: Centrosaurinae) from the Campanian Judith River Formation of Montana reveals rapid regional radiations and extreme endemism within centrosaurine dinosaurs (Credit: Andrey Atuchin)


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Move over Triceratops, there’s a new horn-faced dinosaur in town.

Researchers announced the fossil of an herbivore dinosaur with one of the largest, most ornate “frills” on its skull and two blade-like horns protruding from it, in the scientific journal PeerJ.

Those features inspired its name, Lokiceratops rangiformis, which means “Loki’s horned face that looks like a caribou.” Lokiceratops appeared at least 12 million years earlier than its famous cousin Triceratops and at 22 feet long and 11,000 pounds, was the largest horned dinosaur of its time.

Horns of Plenty

As cool as “Loki’s” name, appearance and relationship to Triceratops is (and the authors do, in fact, acknowledge that coolness) the bigger picture may prove even more fascinating.

The new fossil, excavated in northern Montana just a few miles from the U.S.-Canada border, represents just one data point of the biggest collective analysis of horned dinosaurs ever conducted.

Collaborations between the National Science Foundation, the Natural History Museum of Utah, the University of Utah, and the Museum of Evolution for over 30 years drove the examination of thousands of bones from about 80 distinct horned dinosaur taxa, covering about 400 characteristics.

Portrait reconstructions of all four centrosaurine dinosaurs that lived together in the Kennedy Coulee Assemblage of northern Montana and southern Alberta. (Credit: Fabrizio Lavezzi © Evolutionsmuseet, Knuthenborg)

That analysis allowed the researchers to look at horned dinosaur evolution. Those ancient animals split into two groups — the centrosaurines and the chasmosaurines. Lokiceratops is a centrosaurine, while Tricerotops is a chasmosaurinme.

Read More: How Do Scientists Reconstruct What Dinosaurs Looked Like?

Differences in Dino Species

The centrosaurines possessed two unusual qualities. First, several different varieties lived in relatively close proximity at about the same time. For instance, Lokiceratops lived next to four other horned dinosaurs in an area about the size of Salt Lake City, says Mark Loewen, a scientist with Natural History Museum of Utah and an author of the paper.

“Effectively, it’s like going to Africa and finding 5 elephant species that look different than each other,” says Loewen. Paleontologists had previously thought only two similar dinosaur species could coexist.

Also, centrosaurines appeared to evolve very quickly, with new species emerging within 200,000 years. By comparison, millions of years are often necessary to produce significant evolutionary change. Much of the differences were in the frills and horns.

“The centrosaurines demonstrate some of the greatest diversity of skull ornamentation, the 'peacocks of the Cretaceous' and are an important group for understanding ancient patterns of evolution in a hothouse world, a time when the tropics and subtropics extended much farther north,” says Joseph Sertich, a paleontologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Colorado State University and an author of the paper.

Read More: A Complete Dinosaur Timeline to Extinction: How Long Did They Roam Earth?

Diversity and Rapid Evolution

Both Loewen and Sertich say that the centrosaurines’ showy frills are related to both horned dinosaurs’ variety and rapid evolution.

“We think they used these to impress mates and to intimidate rivals,” says Loewen. “We think these are sexual selection characteristics. And that’s driving diversity.”

There’s another factor contributing to both diversity and rapid evolution, though — a geological one. About 100 million years ago, volcanic activity flooded what is now North America, effectively cutting it in two. The flooding isolated a relatively small landmass in the northwest corner of North America named Laramidia, where the centrosaurines flourished, due to a sort of “Galapagos effect.”

Since they were cut off from competition, they evolved relatively rapidly into many species, partially by displaying their “frills” to attract mates. The scientists’ analysis indicates that there may be more dino diversity than previously suspected.

It also speaks to how paleontologists keep finding new fossils that seem to continuously rewrite the evolutionary narrative.

“Every time you find a new dinosaur, it changes everything,” Loewen says.

Read More: What Was the End-Cretaceous Mass Extinction?

Article Sources

Our writers at use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Before joining Discover Magazine, Paul Smaglik spent over 20 years as a science journalist, specializing in U.S. life science policy and global scientific career issues. He began his career in newspapers, but switched to scientific magazines. His work has appeared in publications including Science News, Science, Nature, and Scientific American.

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