Everyone’s favorite demon-spawn officially has his own Dinosaur: Regaliceratops peterhewsi, also known as “Hellboy.” Rise, oh horned one.
The prehistoric creature, which was unearthed in southeastern Alberta, Canada over a decade ago, has become something of a paleontological puzzle, as it combines traits from two great lineages of horned dinosaurs.
“It breaks down like this,” explains dinosaur expert Brian Switek. “In the Late Cretaceous of North America, there were two horned dinosaur branches – the centrosaurines, and the chasmosaurines. And while the lines have become a bit fuzzy with new discoveries, the two can often be differentiated by their horn arrangements.”
Species belonging to the Chasmosaurines, like Triceratops, typically have a small horn over the nose, large horns over the eyes and a large frill. Centrosaurines, on the other hand, have a large horn over the nose, small horns over the eyes and a small frill. But much to the surprise of scientists, Regaliceratops doesn’t quite fit with either. Stranger still, the specimen comes from a geographic region where no horned dinosaurs had been found.
“We knew it was important,” says Dr. Caleb Brown of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. “[But] it wasn’t until the specimen was being slowly prepared from the rocks in the laboratory that the full anatomy was uncovered, and the bizarre suite of characters revealed. This new species is similar in many respects to Triceratops, except that its nose horn is taller and the two horns over its eyes are almost comically small.”
While it seems logical that Regaliceratops would have gotten its hellish nickname because of the resemblance to his comic-counterpart (who shaves his horns down), it was actually the effort required to dig him up that earned the moniker. Hard rocks, steep cliffs, and proximity to protected fish spawning habitat made relocating the old bones nearly impossible – and that was just the beginning.
“Preparation [of the skull] was difficult, and took around 18 months,” says Brown. “Once it was prepared it was obviously a new species – and an unexpected one at that. Many horned-dinosaur researchers who visited the museum did a double take when they first saw it in the laboratory.”
According to Brown, the best supported idea is that for horned dinosaurs, facial “bone bling” functioned like a billboard (similar to horns and antlers today), as if to say ‘Hey, my genes are strong, and you’d be wise to mate with me.’ But what Regaliceratops’ small horns tell us is that there is still much to learn about these animals, and their various styles.
“[It’s a clue into life] just before Triceratops was on the scene,” says Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology curator Andrew Farke. “I am now really curious to see what other oddities might have been around at the same time—this new beast is an important data point.”
Brown and his team will be working on digital reconstructions of the Hellboy skull, to correct for any deformities that 70 million years underground may have caused, and he says that more expeditions are in the works.
“This discovery tells us there are other horned dinosaurs out there – we just haven’t found them yet.”
IMAGES: Julius T. Csotonyi; Royal Tyrrell Museum