Fossilized skull from Bisti identified as newly-discovered horned dinosaur species

Specimen is on display at New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The mostly complete skull was found in the 1970s by a University of Arizona team.
  • It was transferred to the Albuquerque-based institution in the 2000s.
  • The significance of the find was reported in an article in the latest edition of the Bulletin of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

FARMINGTON — An ancient, fossilized skull extracted from the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness south of Farmington that has been identified as a new species of horned dinosaur is not a newly discovered specimen, according to one of the leaders of the paleontology team that revealed the significance of the find in an academic journal this week.

The mostly-complete skull was found in the 1970s by a University of Arizona team, according to Spencer Lucas, curator of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, before being transferred to the Albuquerque-based institution in the 2000s. Lucas is also one of the members of the team that published the article outlining the group's findings in the latest edition of the Bulletin of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

It was the paleontology team made up of Lucas, research associate Sebastian Dalman and Stephen E. Jasinski from Harrisburg University, that spent years cleaning up, preparing and examining the specimen and only recently identified its significance. It had been unearthed decades earlier.

Lucas said such lengthy delays in revealing the nature of fossilized remains are not unfortunate or even unusual in the natural history world, where time is very much a relative concept.

"That fossil is 74 million years old," he noted drily. "What's another 20 or 30 years?"

This fossilized Bisticeratops froeseorum skull extracted from the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area south of Farmington once belonged to a horned dinosaur that lived approximately 74 million years ago.

The skull that was discovered belonged to a Bisticeratops froeseorum, an 18-foot horned dinosaur that roamed the jungles and swamps of a seacoast that once existed in the space that now makes up the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area in southeastern San Juan County, according to news release issued by the museum.

Discovery of major dinosaur fossil at Bisti helps unlock 75 million-year-old mystery

The dinosaur derives its name from the place where the fossil was extracted and from a secondary, highly unlikely source — the German electronica band Tangerine Dream, led by Edgar Froese. Dalman, as it turns out, is a fan of the group and chose to immortalize its founder with a paleontological tip o' the cap.

The specimen has been on display at Lucas' museum for the past two months, where Lucas said it has drawn considerable interest from visitors. He said the dinosaur likely weighed at least five tons, making it an imposing figure. To put that into perspective, he said, that's more sizable than an elephant or a rhinoceros.

"It would look a lot like that, only bigger," he said.

Despite its heft, the Bisticeratops froeseorum wasn't immune to becoming part of the food chain. The news release from the museum indicates the skull shows bite marks from a large predatory dinosaur, probably a tyrannosaur. It is unclear, the news release states, whether those bites marks were the result of active predation while the Bisticeratops froeseorum was alive or came from a scavenging dinosaur after it had died.

What is clear is that the Bisticeratops froeseorum represents a new genus and species of horned dinosaurs that lived in New Mexico. Lucas said the discovery contributes to science's understanding of horned dinosaurs in two important ways.

The Bisticeratops froeseorum once roamed the jungles and swamps of a seacoast in northwest New Mexico 74 million years ago.

The oldest horned dinosaurs, he said, lived in China 100 to 110 million years ago, during the Jurassic era. They didn't appear in North America until approximately 75 million years ago, and, by then, those animals had begun to display considerable genetic differentiation, with the horned dinosaur fossils recovered from New Mexico and elsewhere in the Southwest showing marked differences from the ones found in Wyoming and Montana, he said.

"This fossil contributes to that diversity," he said. "And I'm sure there's a lot of diversity among horned dinosaurs we haven't recovered. We had a bunch of fairly unique dinosaurs living in New Mexico 70 to 75 million years ago."

Lucas said what the Bisticeratops froeseorum discovery makes clear is that horned dinosaurs were thriving in the American West during that period, not just in terms of numbers but also in their variety.

"They were going gangbusters, diversifying and regularly differentiating," he said. "They were a really successful group of dinosaurs. … This was a more complex story that we used to think was happening."

All that came to an end approximately 10 million years later when dinosaurs went extinct, making the Bisticeratops froeseorum one of the last great triumphs of the dinosaur era, which lasted for 165 million years.

The discovery of the fossil is only the latest example of the paleontological treasures that the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area has yielded.

"Oh, yeah, I always say the Bisti Wilderness is the richest dinosaur real estate out there in New Mexico," he said. "There's a lot of material remaining to be found, absolutely."

This discovery also illustrates that a lot of blanks still need to be filled in, he said.

"Every new discovery like this is a reminder we don't know everything there is to know about the history of life," Lucas said. "There are many more things out there remaining to be found."

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science is located at 1801 Mountain Road NW in Albuquerque. Call 505-841-2800.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.