The remains of a tiny version of the huge triceratops dinosaur – no bigger than a small dog – have been unearthed in fossil beds in China. The discovery pushes the origins of the popular frilled, horned dinosaur back in time by tens of millions of years.
The tiny plant-eater - named Hualianceratops - lived approximately 160 million years ago during the early Late Jurassic period. It would be another 100 million years before the huge, horned triceratops appeared on the scene.
Catherine Forster is a paleontologist at George Washington University in Washington who helped identify the remains of the mini dinosaur, which - unlike triceratops - had no horns.
Size of cocker spaniel
“They are small, probably about the size of a [cocker] spaniel," said Forster. "They walked on their hind legs. But they had pretty big heads. Their heads were kind of outsized relative to their bodies. They were small, little plant eating animals.”
Fossils of another triceratops cousin from the same era, a larger dinosaur named Yinlong, were discovered in the same area of China in 2002, although paleontologists didn’t know then what they had until they compared the two sets of bones.
WATCH: Related video on the dinosaur by National Science Foundation/GWU
Only when they found Hualianceratops did scientists realize they were getting to the roots of what evolved into triceratops, which Forster says had “crazy head stuff” that began to appear in the smaller creature.
“They have a tiny little neck frill sticking out behind their head. And they also have like all other ceratopsian dinosaurs, they have this extra little bone that’s stuck on the upper end of its jaw," said Forster. "And so all ceratopsians have that. So these little guys have that, early members have that and all the later members have that as well.”
Forster says it’s hard to know for certain, but suggests the head frill may have served as ornamentation to attract and interact with members of its own species.
Like its bigger cousin, Hualianceratops was stocky. It had teeth all along its jaw. But 100 million years later, triceratops had evolved razor-sharp molars packed in the back of its mouth, probably an adaptation for eating tough vegetation.
Forster says she looks forward to making other dinosaur discoveries.
“Absolutely. And we have a better idea of the timing of that diversification," said Forster. "We know that it had already happened by the early part of the late Jurassic. So if we go back into older rocks we might be able to find older members of these lineages and trace it back to the beginning of ceratopsias.”
With the discovery of Hualianceratops, reported in the journal PLoS ONE, Forster says it appears there was more diversity among the early horned dinosaurs than was previously recognized.