Not so deep down, we’ve all got a soft spot for dinosaurs thanks to the children’s media we all consumed (or still consume). So when the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque announced a new dinosaur had been found in New Mexico, it felt improper to not ask more about our dead friends down below in the bedrock. SFR spoke to curator of paleontology at the museum Spencer G. Lucas for more sweet dinosaur deets regarding this new discovery. FYI, the museum hopes to have the sorta-Triceratops on display by September, assuming the pandemic approves. Keep an eye out.
Can you tell us a little more about how this is a new fossil discovery?
This dinosaur was actually found back the 1990s. So when you dig one up, it’s a bit of a project—a lot of plaster and coating. Only parts of it could be studied at the museum back then. We knew a general idea of what [the fossil] was, but we weren’t seeing enough of it. Come 20 years, we finally got to do a full prep of the fossil. In the process, we learned a lot more about the horned dinosaur. We found it was new—and it’s rather old for the group it represents. This turns out to be one of the oldest Centrosaurs yet found, somewhere around 81 to 82 million years old. And it’s rather far south. All the other ones known in North America are identified from states farther north.
It’s a new kind of dinosaur, which is exciting to say. We analyzed how we think they are related to each other [this to a Triceratops], and the analysis suggests this is very primitive. This animal is right near the base of the Triceratops’s evolutionary tree.
There’s a lot of old fossils in museum drawers. But our understanding scientifically changes, and better tools come along. Now we want to go back and look. We [at the museum] have a bunch of them. We can collect fossils faster than we can prep and study them. We’ve got a lot. We could argue now that this species originated in the Southwestern part of North America—that’s the big scientific impact.
What kind of dinosaur is it? Close to the popular imagination kind of Triceratops, or something totally new to us?
The first difference would be it’s about half the size, at 13 to 15 feet long, while a Triceratops is around 30. We normally can tell them apart by the horns and the shape. This one didn’t have a nasal horn. The frill looks a lot different too. Along the edges are small bones that are kind of ornamented. It looks distinctive and fits the mold. They were plant-eaters too, like a Triceratops.
What’s the state’s history with dinosaur fossils like this one?
Since we’re arid, we’ve got a lot of bedrock exposed. Other places have soil and vegetation on top. What happens is that the bedrock continues to erode through weather patterns. You identify a place with one fossil and then go back a few years later, and you can find more that are newly exposed. It’s like harvesting a crop. That’s why [the northwestern region of the state] has produced the most fossils. There have been thousands of finds out there, and it’s just a tiny fraction of what remains to be found. These new discoveries show you how much we need to keep working.
For younger people who want to go out and look for fossils, there’s tremendous opportunity to go searching, and the museum can help with that—150,000 school-age children visit the museum every year from around the state. We’re one of the biggest informal science learning centers in New Mexico, and we want to educate and train young people. So I hope these discoveries encourage people to go into the sciences.