While 2014 saw some truly exceptional new species of dinosaurs discovered (see here for our top ten), including one of the largest ever to have lived and a small dinosaur which changed the way we see the dinosaur family as a whole, 2015 looks like it might well have raised the bar in terms of wonderful and unique new dinosaurs once again.
The following is our list of what are arguably the ten most important newly described dinosaurs of 2015:
10. Morelladon beltrani
A distant relative of the famous Iguanodon, Morelladon beltrani lived in what is now Spain some 130 million years ago during the early Cretaceous period. While not the biggest member of its family (some 6 metres long and weighing about 2 tonnes), what sets Morellodon apart from most its more well known cousins is the presence of a large D-shaped spinal column on its back which would have made it very similar in appearance to its African relative, Ouranosaurus (as seen in the below image by Nobu Tamura), which lived about 10 million years later.
The purpose of Morelladon‘s tall spines is uncertain, but there are several theories as to what they may have been for. Ideas range from simple explanations such as display/ornamentation to more complex uses such as forming a sail which could have been used to help regulate body temperature, or being the base of a fatty hump which Morelladon could draw nutrients from during times of hardship.
9. Kunbarrasaurus ieversi
First dug up in Queensland in 1989, the remains of Kunbarrasaurus ieversi turned out to be the most complete dinosaur fossil yet found in Australia. It did, however, not receive its name from science until 2015 as its remains were mistaken for those of another Australian armoured dinosaur called Minmi (depicted below). However, closer examinations revealed that while the two are quite closely related (both are considered primitive members of the ankylosauria in that they lack the clubbed tail and fused armour plating which later members of the family are renowned for), there are enough differences to place Kunbarrasaurus into its own genus.
Analysis of Kunbarrasaurus‘ stomach contents showed that it ate plants which were chopped up into tiny pieces. The lack of gastroliths (the stones that certain plant eating animals swallow in order to help grind up tough vegetation) suggests that Kunbarrasaurus was doing its food processing with its beaked mouth. Comparisons with the scat (that’s a fancy word for ‘poop’) of modern animals including lizards, emus and geese shows that Kunbarrasaurus was a better food processor than its closest living relatives.
8. Probrachylophosaurus bergei
Probrachylophosaurus bergei is sometimes referred to as “the Super Duck” in sections of the media due to the fact that it is a fairly large member of the hadrosaur dinosaur family (commonly known as “duck-bill dinosaurs”), measuring a good 9 metres in length and probably weighing more than 5 tonnes. Probrachylophosaurus is not notable purely for its impressive size though. After all, at over 16 metres long and 15 tonnes, Shantungosaurus is the largest hadrosaur known.
What makes Probrachylophosaurus special is the fact that it represents the perfect example of what is known as a transitional species in evolutionary terms. The crestless hadrosaur Acristavus lived just before Probrachylophosaurus, which had a modest nasal crest, in the same region of Montana, indicating that the former was ancestral to the latter. In addition, another similar dinosaur, Brachylophosaurus, which lived in Montana about 1.5 million years after Protobrachylophosarus was also very similar, but for having a significantly more pronounced nasal crest. This indicates that this particular branch of hadrosaurs’ evolution can be traced directly through three distinct genera over the course of a few million years.
7. Qijianglong guokr
The first remains of Qijianglong guokr were initially discovered in the early 1990s, but the animal was not formally described until 2015. Qijianglong, sometimes nicknamed ‘long dragon’, was certainly worth the wait. With a total body length of 15 metres (50 feet), Qijianglong was by no means huge by sauropod (long-necked dinosaur) standards, the largest of which were about twice as long, but its bizarre body proportions make it stand out among the group.
Qijianglong had an outlandishly long neck which made up half of its entire body length. By contrast, most sauropods’ necks make up one third of their body length. Qijianglong was able to achieve such a bizarre body plan by exploiting a unique quirk of biology not seen in any other members of its immediate family (the mamenchisaurids); its many neck vertebrae were filled with air, meaning the creature’s neck was surprisingly lightweight, despite its incredible size.
6. Wendiceratops pinhornensis
Living in Alberta, Canada some 80 million years ago, Wendiceratops pinhornensis was an earlier relative (although not a direct ancestor) of the famous Triceratops. Lacking the prominent nose horn of later members of its family such as Centrosaurus and Styracosaurus, Wendiceratops had a peculiar ceratinous nose bump instead. In addition to this, it also had lots of ornamental forward-pointing horns adorning its frill which would not have been useful defensive structures. It would appear that these earlier ceratopsian dinosaurs were more ‘showy’ than their later relatives, which sacrificed looks for defensive weaponry as predators such as tyrannosaurs evolved into increasingly deadly forms.
5. Hualianceratops wucaiwanensis
While Wendiceratops lived about 15 million years before Triceratops, it was by no means the oldest ceratopsian dinosaur to have been discovered in 2015. That honour goes to a small, no bigger than a spaniel dog, Chinese member of the family called Hualianceratops wucaiwanensis which lived 160 million years ago during the late Jurassic.
In addition to being one of the oldest members of the ceratopsian family, Hualianceratops (which means ‘ornamental face’) was very far removed from what most people think of when they consider the group. Instead of the iconic horns for which the ceratopsians are named, Hualianceratops had series of bony lumps adorning its face, believed to be an ‘evolutionary leftover’ from its ancestors which would later give rise to both the ceratopsians and the headbutting pachycephalosaurs. The presence of Hualianceratops alongside Yinlong, another primitive ceratopsian, indicates that the group diversified a lot earlier than previously thought.
4. Zhenyuanlong suni
‘Raptors’ were very much in vogue in 2015 thanks to the success of the Jurassic World movie. Of course, it’s a pretty well known fact at this point that the Velociraptors as portrayed in the Jurassic Park franchise are far from scientifically accurate; for a start, they are too big and lack feathers (except in Jurassic Park 3 where some of them had a small amount of feather-like quills). While there is some direct evidence to show that Velociraptor had advanced feathering, we never had a very good idea as to the exact extent, until now.
Enter Zhenyuanlong suni, an early Cretaceous relative of the famous Velociraptor (late Cretaceous). While not a direct ancestor of Velociraptor, the extremely well preserved feathering of Zhenyuanlong (the above illustration by Emily Willoughby is considered to be very accurate) gives us a good idea of what later dromaeosaurs (the dinosaurs commonly called ‘raptors’) would have looked like in life.
While Zhenyuanlong had very developed wing feathers, its arms were too short and the animal itself was too heavy to have been any use at gliding, let alone powered flight. Instead, it is believed that Zhenyuanlong used its complex feathers for display purposes.
3. Dakotaraptor steini
2015 really did turn out to be “the year of the raptor”. In addition to Zhenyuanlong, another, much larger type of dromaeosaur was unveiled by palaeontologists. Proving that scientists do indeed have a sense of humour, the terrifying Dakotaraptor steini, a raptor even bigger and scarier than those seen in Jurassic Park, which lived in a place called Hell Creek, was announced to the world on Halloween.
If the name Hell Creek sounds familiar, it is because that is the geographic formation where some of the most famous dinosaurs of all were discovered, including Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex. Some media outlets got a bit carried away when they learned of Dakotaraptor‘s existence, some even going so far as to imply that Dakotaraptor dethroned T. rex as the dominant carnivore of Hell Creek. Hyperbole aside, comparing Dakotaraptor to T. rex would be akin to speculating if a pack of jackals could bring down a fully grown lion.
Nevertheless, a raptor that’s taller than a person with a sickle claw bigger than your hand is nothing short of nightmare fuel!
2. Chilesaurus diegosuarezi
Chilesaurus diegosuarezi was a small and unassuming looking dinosaur which lived in Chile some 145 million years ago (the middle Jurassic), so might seem like an unlikely candidate to rank so highly in a list about the best dinosaur discoveries of the year, especially when so many giant monsters were described in the same year. Looks can be deceiving however.
Chilesaurus is totally unlike any other dinosaur discovered to date and is sometimes referred to as the platypus of the dinosaur kingdom as it possesses a mixture of physical traits commonly associated with numerous dinosaur groups including sauropods (‘long necks’) and coelurosaurs (the group containing ‘raptors’ and tyrannosaurs), despite not being closely related to any of them.
Strangely enough, Chilesaurus‘ direct ancestors were known meat eaters, but Chilesaurus adapted to a strictly vegetarian lifestyle. It also evolved away from fast running, opting for sturdy footing instead. Despite its lack of speed, size and sharp teeth, Chilesaurus was not defenseless. It had strong arms with large claws which it could use to lash out at its enemies.
Conventional wisdom traditionally told us that all dinosaurs walked on land and that no dinosaurs could fly or live in water. Last year, new revelations about Spinosaurus showed that the latter statement was at least half wrong, while we now know that a great many dinosaurs were/are capable of powered flight (we like to call them ‘birds’). So, apart from birds and their very close kin, no dinosaur was ever known to have possessed the ability to fly until a small creature called Yi qi from late Jurassic China was described.
Unlike all other known dinosaurs to have possessed even limited flight capabilities, Yi qi did not have flight feathers on its wings, but a skin-like membrane not totally unlike those seen in unrelated pterosaurs and bats. So unique however is Yi qi‘s wing structure, that scientists have found it very difficult to interpret as it doesn’t quite match up with any other kind of animal, living or extinct. While the jury is out as to whether or not Yi qi was capable of fully powered flight (i.e. flapping its wings to generate momentum), most researchers err on the side of caution and speculate that it was most likely a specialised glider, albeit one not quite like anything we have ever encountered before in the fossil record.
With all of these fantastic new dinosaur species unveiled in 2015, who knows what awaits us in 2016!?