STL Science Center

STL Science Center

08 August 2014

Forgotten Ceratopsians

©Nobu Tamura
Possessing a name that means small, insignificant, and meager all in one word is kind of sad. However, when the second part of your name means horned face, the small, insignificant, and meager horns seem a little less awful. When that name is in Greek it sounds even better: Leptoceratops. In Alberta's Red Deer Valley in 1910 Barnum Brown and his team unearthed what would be the first smaller ceratopsian dinosaur named and described. The small horns on the face aside, this dinosaur was already well established on the family tree, we just did not know it quite yet. Beak, teeth, and hypothesized cheek as well as a clearly defined head shelf (the meaning of "marginocephalia") were only a few characteristics of Leptoceratops that would be improved upon by later members of the family as they had been up to the time of Leptoceratops' roaming around in Alberta. That time, the Late Cretaceous, was certainly the heyday of the ceratopsians. The fact that these "advanced" but middle-of-the-family-tree characters were still displayed could mean a couple of things, one being that these smaller members of the family tree were beginning to splinter off in a new direction and another being that the cranial anatomy was well suited to dinosaurs of all sizes in the family. Small ceratopsians were, in fact, still doing well in the evolutionary scheme of things and Leptoceratops was the most advanced member of that branch of the family tree. Specializing in getting close to the ground to eat, these smaller ceratopsians could probably have foraged in denser forests than their larger cousins, eating all of the bushes, ferns, and flowering plants growing between the trees. Shearing teeth and a parrot-like beak with a powerful bite most likely meant that Leptoceratops was nearly as fearsome a defender of the dense forest as Triceratops was in more open areas, but with far fewer horns on its head.

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