A skull and jaw bone belonging to North America’s oldest horned dinosaur has been identified more than 100 million years after it walked the Earth, scientists said.
With its hooked beak, chiseled cheeks and small stature, the Aquilops americanus has been dubbed “the little dinosaur that could” by paleontologists, who described its discovery in a study published Wednesday in PLOS One. The creature measured no more than 2 feet long and weighed about 3.5 pounds. It likely hid out in the bushes from its main predator, the deinonychus, the study’s co-author Andrew Farke said.
“It was about size of a raven,” Farke, a paleontologist at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in California, told CBS News. “You could hold the animal pretty comfortably in your arms. The fossil skull would fit very comfortably in your hand.”
Aquilops, which translates to “eagle face” in Latin, is most closely related to creatures from Asia.
“Aquilops lived nearly 20 million years before the next oldest horned dinosaur named from North America,” Farke said. “Even so, we were surprised that it was more closely related to Asian animals than those from North America.”
The rare find in North America suggests these dinos migrated from Asia to North America around 110 million years ago, researchers said.
The fossil was found by paleontologist Scott Maden during a 1997 National Geographic Society expedition in Montana. Maden, now at the Utah Geological Survey, noticed it was a ceratopsian, a herbivorous dinosaur from the Cretaceous Period. But it turned out to be more than that.
“Scott initially thought it was generic, plant-eating dinosaur but it turned out it was one of these early horned dinosaurs,” Farke said. “Up to this point, all that was known for horned dinosaurs were just isolated teeth and fragment bones. This new find is the first one that allows us to say exactly what kinds of horned dinosaurs lived in North America about 108 million years ago.”
Because scientists have only the skull to study, they still don’t know much about the skin, Farke wrote on PLOS One’s blog. Though, he said, similar dinos had scales, quills or “hair-like structures” on their skin.
Paleontologist James I. Kirkland told CBS News the discovery will help scientists learn more about the species.
“This guy is the beginning of the story in North America,” he said.
The fossil is at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.