A young dinosaur, 72 million years old

February 13, 2008 9:00:45 AM PST
The Mexican state of Coahuila, due west of the southern tip of Texas, is arid country today. But 72 million years ago it was a tropical paradise, warm and moist, close to a vast sea that divided what eventually became North America. Now, scientists report they have found a new dinosaur species there -- one of the very few ever discovered in Mexico.

It was apparently a duck-billed plant eater, probably about 25 feet long. Scientists hesitate to guess too much about it, but they say they can tell from its bone structure that it was probably not fully grown. An adult of the species could have been 10 feet longer.

"Close your eyes," said Terry Gates, a paleontologist at the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah. "I want you to imagine yourself on a beach in Puerto Vallarta. Nice day, with the sun and the ocean -- and then, when you open your eyes, you're suddenly looking at this thing."

Gates was on the team, from Mexico, Canada and the United States, that dug up the fossil and reconstructed it. The work took more than 10 years, partly because the skull was shattered -- and buried under 12 feet of rock and dirt. They called the new species Velafrons coahuilensis.

It is different from almost any other duck-billed dinosaur ever found. The reassembled skull has a large hollow bulge on top, through which it probably breathed.

"The really cool thing about these duck-billed dinosaurs is that their nasal passages probably allowed them to make some kind of music," said Gates. "We don't know exactly what kinds of sounds they would make, but it is likely to be somewhat like what trumpeters make."

Gates said it is likely that such an ornate crest on top of the head might have been useful in attracting a mate. Beauty, even in the late cretaceous period, was in the eye of the beholder.

The desert terrain of northern Mexico has made dinosaur hunting difficult there. For lack of rain, there is little erosion, so buried fossils are rarely exposed over time.

Velafrons coahuilensis was found, like many fossils, by accident. Parts of it protruded from the earth on the outskirts of the small Mexican town of Rincon, Colo.

Volunteers from the area tried for a decade to dig it up. Not until 2002 did scientists from Utah mount an expedition. They saw how difficult the dig would be, and came back with a jackhammer.

It took two years, back at the lab, for the skull to be reconstructed. They also found fossils of turtles, fish and lizards buried in the area around the dinosaur skeleton.

What killed the great animal? That question is as mysterious as the many about how it lived.

Scientists wonder about the geography of the area. Central America would not have formed yet 72 million years ago, so Mexico would have been the southern end of the continent. It is quite possible, say the researchers, that the young dinosaur was caught in a prehistoric hurricane.

"This discovery is part of a new window that's being opened up," said paleontologist Scott Sampson of the Utah Museum. "It won't be the only Mexican dinosaur for long."


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