This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Its four prominent horns lend this new Utah dinosaur an intimidating air, but the rhinoceros-sized beast probably spent large parts of its day peacefully grazing.
This 20-plus horned creature, which can easily hold its own in the spike department against its famed younger Triceratops cousin, is the latest major discovery by Utah scientists to be announced from the badlands of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Jim Kirkland, state paleontologist, is scheduled to describe the 80-million-year-old creature for the first time today during a paleontology meeting in Ottawa, Canada. The official name of the dinosaur, dubbed "Last Chance Ceratopsian" for the location where it was found, will be unveiled sometime next year.
"It's particularly gratifying to find something like this," said Kirkland, who predicted such a find more than a decade ago.
A member of the ceratopsid family of dinos, the creature was probably not using its horn-covered head to charge the occasional passing Tyrannosaurus rex. Instead, Kirkland said, the horns were more likely used for sparring with others in its horned species to attract mates.
Kirkland, who has studied other horned dinosaurs from the Southwest U.S., theorized the horns above the brow in this family of dinosaurs likely appeared before the nose horns on later species. He predicted an ancestral dinosaur would be found to prove his theory.
That evidence, in the form of Last Chance's 6-foot-long horned head, cropped up in 2002.
Don DeBlieux, a Utah Geological Survey fossil preparator, was hiking through Grand Staircase as part of a general survey of the monument when he noticed orange-colored fossil bits on the ground, a sign the pieces were coming out of a nearby outcrop.
DeBlieux put his backpack down on a ledge, and there he happened to find a golf-ball-sized fossil piece poking through the sandstone. During his first few visits to work the site, DeBlieux had trouble visualizing the orientation of the skull in the stone.
"I couldn't make heads or tails of it," he said. "Then there was that eureka moment."
DeBlieux finally realized the left half of the skull was buried in the rock. After several field seasons, the crew never found the rest of the beast.
Kirkland speculates the head of this dinosaur rolled into a stream bed. Over the years, silt covered half of the skull, but the right half eroded away before it could be buried.
Since both halves of these skulls would have been identical, scientists were able to reconstruct what the entire skull would have looked like.
Getting the skull to a lab, a seven-hour truck drive away, proved to be a major challenge.
"There was no way we were going to drag it out by hand," DeBlieux said, since the dig site was several miles to the nearest usable road.
Wanting to leave most of the skull covered in rock to preserve the fossils, the team used rock saws to cut it down to a one-ton chunk. But no helicopter would accept such a load. Instead of cutting the skull in half, DeBlieux managed to trim down the piece to 1,000 pounds.
In September 2005, a helicopter carried the rock-covered skull to a nearby truck for its drive to the survey's Salt Lake City lab.
As the rock came off this year, researchers found the skull had a turtle-like beak for a mouth. This would make for inefficient grazing, so Kirkland said the dinosaur may have turned its head to the side to capture clumps of plant material.
To date, no other members of the Cretaceous-era species has been found nearby. It is unclear whether this creature lived a solitary life or traveled in herds, though later family members have been found in groups, Kirkland said.
DeBlieux has spent about 400 hours preparing the skull, and he hopes he is half done. The skull will eventually be displayed at the Utah Museum of Natural History.
For decades, the isolated, rugged terrain kept fossil hunters away. But a new crop of researchers, many based in Utah, have been taking inventory of what kinds of ancient life lived in the area. The exposed rock dates back to several dinosaur periods, making this prime fossil country. More than a dozen new dinosaurs - including Falcarius utahensis and Hagryphus giganteus - have been discovered in this region in recent years, with more on the way.
Species name: To be determined
Era: Roughly 80 million years ago, Cretaceous period
Skull size: 6 feet long, including frill on the back
About the rendering: Utah researchers have only found the skull, so the body in this artist's rendering is based on those of related species.