A new species of duckbill dinosaur discovered by MSU Professor and adjunct teacher Elizabeth Fowler was showcased on Nov. 11 in a paper published by the scientific journal PLOS ONE. The paper was written by Fowler along with MSU paleontologist Jack Horner and reveals that the new species, named Probrachlophosaurs bergei, is an evolutionary link between two previously discovered species of dinosaur.
The dinosaur lived 79 million years ago and lived on the floodplains of prehistoric Montana. It was a variety of hadrosaur, popularly known as duckbilled dinosaurs due to their broad duck-like snout, and reached up to 30 feet in length and weighed five tons when fully grown. Natural predators of the Probrachylophosaurus included small pack-hunting raptors and an early relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
According to Fowler, the species is an ancestor of Brachylophosaurus, which lived 77 million years ago, and is also a direct descendant of an earlier species called Acristavus, which lived 81 million years ago, making Probrachylophosaurus a missing link between the two previously discovered species.
The dinosaur’s species name, bergei, is a tribute to landowner Sam Berge, who passed away in 1999; Berge’s three children own the land where the fossil digs are located. The specimen was uncovered on the “superduck site” (so named because of the large size of the new species), located north of Rudyard, MT.
Bones of the Probrachylophosaurus were originally discovered in 1981 by a crew from the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley.
“They just found a couple leg bones and part of the pelvis coming out, and they didn’t really see much else; they weren’t there for dinosaurs, they were there for mammals,” Fowler said, “They came back in 1992, they got a couple more bones, but they never found any skull material, and skull material is what we need for identifying species.”
In 2007, Jack Horner returned to the site and he observed some newly discovered bones that students had found were part of a skull. Fowler and her crew moved from a nearby site in order to begin excavating the fossils.
The team spent the summers of 2007 and 2008 digging at the site and were able to collect most of the skull along with all of the pelvis and most of the hind legs, as well as ribs and vertebrae but were not able to find the forearms of the animal.
Once the specimen had been returned to the lab for examination, the team discovered that the skull had a unique nasal crest much smaller than the crests of similar species, and from this were able to determine they were working with a new species. Fowler and Horner began work on the paper detailing the discovery.
Since the publication of the paper, the discovery has attracted attention from various media outlets, including Discovery Channel, Yahoo Science News, Christian Science Monitor, Reuters and the Billings Gazette.
“It has gotten really good press coverage so far, we’ve been very pleased by it,” Fowler said.
In the future, Fowler hopes to continue to study and catalog potential new species. “This is kind of the end of this project but there’s always spin-off projects. We have other fossils from the same area that need to be described, both duckbills and other animals living at the same time. So we have a lot more new species left to come in the near future,” she said.
As for the Probrachylophosaurs, the specimen will continue to reside at the Museum of the Rockies. Though there are no immediate plans to exhibit the Probrachylophosaurus at the Museum, Fowler hopes to eventually have an exhibit featuring Probrachylophosaurs, Brachylophosaurus and Acristavus together. “I would love to make a display case with the three of them, showing the evolution all in order … that’s still in my future plans,” Fowler said.