Weird Heads Month #14: Horns and Frills

We can’t go through this month without having an appearance from the most famous group of weird-headed dinosaurs: the ceratopsids!

Their distinctive-looking skulls were highly modified from those of their ancestors, with large bony frills extending from the back of their heads, various elaborate horns and spikes, enormous nasal cavities, large hooked beaks at the front of their snouts, and rows of slicing teeth further back.

And while typically depicted as purely herbivorous, ceratopsids’ powerful parrot-like beaks and lack of grinding teeth suggest they may actually have been somewhat more omnivorous – the Cretaceous equivalent of pigs – still feeding mainly on plant matter but also munching on carrion and opportunistically eating smaller animals when they got the chance.

Machairoceratops cronusi here lived during the late Cretaceous of Utah, USA, about 77 million years ago. Only one partial skull has ever been found belonging to an individual about 4.5m long (14’9″), but it wasn’t fully grown and so probably reached slightly larger sizes.

It had two long spikes at the top of its frill, similar to its close relative Diabloceratops but curving dramatically forward and downwards above its face. Whether they were purely for display or used in horn-locking shoving matches is unknown, but either way it was a unique arrangement compared to all other known ceratopsids.

Medusaceratops

Medusaceratops lokii, a ceratopsid from the Late Cretaceous of Montana, USA (~77.5 mya).

About 6m long (19′8″), it had long brow horns and large curved spikes on its frill an arrangement very similar in appearance to the centrosaur Albertaceratops, and initially its fossils were misidentified as belonging to that particular ceratopsid. But in 2010 it was recognized as a different genus, and based on some partial frill remains it was classified as a very early chasmosaur (a different branch of the ceratopsids which includes Triceratops), related to other early forms like Mercuriceratops.

Its genus name was based on the snake-haired Medusa from Greek mythology, while its species name comes from the Norse trickster god Loki – both in reference to the years of confusion about the identity of Medusaceratops’ fossils, and the distinctive curved horns on the helmet of Marvel’s Loki.

And, true to its name, the confusion wasn’t over yet.

Recently more fossil material and a new study have shown it was still being misclassified. Now it seems like Medusaceratops was actually part of the centrosaur lineage all along, and was indeed a very close relative of Albertaceratops.

It also turns out that what were thought to be numerous Albertaceratops fossils found in the same location were all just even more Medusaceratops. Instead of a mixture of two different ceratopsids there’s a single big bonebed representing some sort of mass-mortality event of only this one animal.

Similar mass bonebeds have been found for other centrosaurs in the same area and around the same age. Perhaps there were frequent flash floods at the time, or they were attempting to migrate across fast-flowing rivers like some modern animals, but we still don’t actually know for certain why they died en masse so frequently.