Experts estimate that a new species of dinosaur is named every two weeks. While there is debate about whether these are all new species or, in some cases, previously discovered species being given new names, it’s clear that there are a lot of dinosaur fossils out there. Scientists are digging them up and identifying them at a ferocious pace. As Riley Black, paleontologist and science writer, put it in a 2019 article in The New Scientist, we are in a “golden era of dinosaur discovery.”
Here are a few — just a few — of the exciting finds so far in this year of the golden era.
(Credit:Jorge Gonzalez)CC BY-NC
Iani smithi was a big-jawed, plant-eating dinosaur that lived almost 99 million years ago in the mid-Cretaceous. It was a tough time to be alive. Increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide were causing warmer temperatures and higher sea levels. It was so warm that there were rainforests at the poles. In what is now Utah, where Iani lived, habitat and food supplies were shrinking because of encroaching seaways and other geographical changes. Iani’s lineage eventually went extinct in North America.
Researchers named the dinosaur after Janus, the two-faced Roman god who presides over transitions, a reference to the changing biota that it lived in, according to a paper on Iani’s discovery.
The discovery is important for several reasons. For example, it can help researchers better understand why some species survived and others didn’t. Because the finding offers some clues about what plants Iani ate, the discovery adds an essential piece to the picture of what life on Earth was like at the time, helping scientists better understand how ecosystems and individual species respond during periods of rapid climate change.
“This dinosaur stood on the precipice, able to look back at the way North American ecosystems were in the past, but close enough to see the future coming like a bullet train,” Lindsay Zanno, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University and one of Iani’s discoverers, said in a press release announcing the study. “I think we can all relate to that.”
Two Vectipelta barretti (Credit: Stuart Pond)
The Isle of Wight, just off the south coast of England, is often called Dinosaur Island because of the number and diversity of dinosaur fossils discovered there over the years. A recent addition is Vectipelta barretti, described in a paper published this June in Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. Vectipelta barretti was an ankylosaur, a type of plant-eating dinosaur with short legs and a wide body covered with bony, spiked plates. Vectipelta barretti lived during the early Cretaceous, about 125 million years ago.
One of the things that makes this find fascinating is that Vectipelta barretti is more closely related to ankylosaurs found in China than to armored dinosaurs in the U.K. That could mean that during the early Cretaceous, animals moved between what is now Europe and what is now Asia, though the researchers caution that much more work is needed to say for sure.
This was a big discovery, both figuratively and literally. Chucarosaurus diripienda, a titanosaurian sauropod found in the southern Patagonia region of Argentina, another area teeming with dinosaur fossils, lived in the late Cretaceous, about 95 million years ago. Some titanosaurs were huge. This one was 30 meters (98.4 feet) long, making it likely one of the largest animals ever to live on Earth. C. diripienda’s femur alone was almost two meters long (over 6 feet — longer than most humans are tall).
(Credit: Kostiantyn Ivanyshen/ Shutterstock)
OK. This one is not a dinosaur; it’s a mosasaur, a prehistoric marine reptile. But it’s far too cool not to mention. Stelladens mysteriosus lived in the late Cretaceous and was found in modern-day Morocco. This mosasaur, a predator that must have terrorized the Cretaceous marine community, had some interesting dental work. While most mosasaurs had teeth somewhat like serrated knives, the blade-like ridges running down S. mysteriosus’s teeth were star-shaped, more like a Phillips-head screwdriver.
As the scientists who made the find explained in the paper that described the new species — published in the journal Fossils — the genus’ name comes from the Latin word ‘stella’ meaning star, and ‘dens’ meaning tooth. The species’ name, from the Latin word’ mysterium,’ reflects the mysterious structure of the teeth. “It may have had an unusual and highly specialized diet, a specialized prey-capture strategy, or both,” they wrote.
And that’s the beauty of all these discoveries. They add much-needed clues to the growing picture of prehistoric life. But they also generate new and fascinating questions to pursue.