Ceratopsians, in my opinion, are the most stunning dinosaurs out there.
Look no further than Wendiceratops pinhornensis, one of their newest members. Discovered in 2010 in the badlands of Alberta, Canada, Wendiceratops exemplifies the beauty of the ceratopsians. Though it may not have been the largest of ceratopsians, its extravagant frill and horns make it a unique and scientifically important member of the order.
Before I can discuss why Wendiceratops is so unique, some background information on the ceratopsians is necessary. During the Late Cretaceous Period, some 80 million years ago, ceratopsians in North America evolved into a new order. These were the ceratopsids, the most common and diverse lineage of horned dinosaurs that are notable for their large sizes.
Ceratopsids were divided into two suborders: the chasmosaurines and the centrosaurines. Chasmosaurines are notable for a pair of long horns above their eyes (suborbital) and an elongated frill. Triceratops, the most famous ceratopsian, is an example of a chasmosaurine. In opposition were the centrosaurines, whose suborbital horns and frill were noticeably smaller[i][ii]. Styracosaurus, the spiky frilled ceratopsian from Alberta, represents a centrosaurine. Seems simple, right?
This is where Wendiceratops throws a wrench into the mix. When Wendiceratops was first described by paleontologists David Evans and Michael Ryan, it was determined to be a centrosaur. However, some peculiar traits of Wendiceratops complicate this diagnosis. While the size of the frill screams centrosaur, the horns on top of it – small, triangular pieces of bone that hang down over the frill – resemble those of the chasmosaurines Kosmoceratops and Vagaceratops[iii]. Additionally, reconstructions of Wendiceratops feature large suborbital horns due to their presence on other early centrosaurines, such as Menefeeceratops. As discussed previously, this is a trademark feature of chasmosaurines, but not centrosaurines. So, where does Wendiceratops fit in?
It turns out that Wendiceratops was a centrosaurine, albeit a very primitive one. The fossils of Wendiceratops date to about 79 million years ago, meaning Wendiceratops was one of the oldest ceratopsids and lived shortly after the chasmosaurine-centrosaurine split. Because of this, Wendiceratops lacks the structural clarity of more derived species like Triceratops and Styracosaurus. While the features of later species are more refined, those of Wendiceratops reflect its status as a primitive ceratopsid.
Not all traits of Wendiceratops were primitive, however. In addition to two orbital horns, Wendiceratops also had a large nasal horn. While this is a common trait for later ceratopsids, it is unheard of amongst species living at the same time as Wendiceratops. Close relatives of Wendiceratops – such as Xenoceratops and Diabloceratops – lack nasal horns, making their presence on Wendiceratops unusual.
In fact, the nasal horn of Wendiceratops is the oldest recorded amongst ceratopsids. Since Wendiceratops evolved after the split between chasmosaurines and centrosaurines, it suggests that nasal horns evolved twice in the ceratopsids. If nasal horns were a trait passed down from the common ancestor of both families, we would expect to find them on all ceratopsids. Because primitive species like Diabloceratops lack these horns, we can reason that they evolved after the split, meaning that two ceratopsid lineages evolved the trait independently. Pretty cool if you ask me!
Wendiceratops was named in 2015 after legendary fossil hunter Wendy Sloboda, whose accomplishments in the field are immense. At the start of her career in 1987, Sloboda immediately demonstrated an eye for fossil hunting by discovering a pterosaur bonebed near the Milk River in Alberta[iv]. Her accomplishments have only grown in the following decades. Many specimens – including a mummified hadrosaur, theropod nests, a pregnant Cretaceous turtle, and dozens of dinosaurs – have all been discovered by Sloboda[v][vi]. That’s quite a list!
In 2010, while excavating the rocks of the Oldman Formation in southern Alberta, Wendy came across a fragment of bone sticking out of a hillside. After years of hard work digging out the remains of four ceratopsian skeletons, Wendy was rewarded with her very own dinosaur: Wendiceratops. Surprisingly, Wendiceratops is not the only fossil named after her; In 2003, bird footprints discovered in Argentina were named Barrosopus slobodai in honour of their discoverer[vii]. Having one dinosaur named after you is awesome. Having more than one puts in you rare company.
So, cheers to Wendy, one of Alberta’s finest fossil hunters! May her eye for fossils take her to new heights!
And cheers to my mother, a fellow Wendy, whose birthday is today! What a coincidence! My Wendy’s unwavering love and support allowed me to follow my passion to university, which I am thankful for every day. Without Wendy, there is no Max’s Blogosaurus (or, at the very least, not a good Max’s Blogosaurus). Happy Birthday, Mom! You’ve certainly earned it!
I do not take credit for any images found in this article.
Header image courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum
[i] Naish, Darren. Dinopedia: A Brief Compendium of Dinosaur Lore. Princeton University Press, 2021.
[ii] Black, Riley. “A Point about Horned Dinosaurs.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 31 Jan. 2018, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/laelaps/a-point-about-horned-dinosaurs/.
[iii] Evans, David C., and Michael J. Ryan. “Cranial Anatomy of Wendiceratops Pinhornensis Gen. Et Sp. Nov., a Centrosaurine Ceratopsid (Dinosauria: Ornithischia) from the Oldman Formation (Campanian), Alberta, Canada, and the Evolution of Ceratopsid Nasal Ornamentation.” PLOS ONE, vol. 10, no. 7, 2015, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0130007.
[iv] calgaryherald. “This Day in Alberta History: August 8, 1992 – Bone Booty in the Badlands.” Calgary Herald, 8 Aug. 2012, https://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/this-day-in-alberta-history-august-8-1992-bone-booty-in-the-badlands.
[v] Graveland, Bill. “Fossilized Pregnant Turtle Unveiled.” Thestar.com, Toronto Star, 28 Aug. 2008, https://www.thestar.com/business/tech_news/2008/08/28/fossilized_pregnant_turtle_unveiled.html.
[vi] Currie, Philip J., and Eva B. Koppelhus. Dinosaur Provincial Park: A Spectacular Ancient Ecosystem Revealed. Indiana University Press, 2005.
[vii] Coria, R. A.; Currie, P. J.; Eberth, D.; Garrido, A. (2002). “Bird footprints from the Anacleto Formation (Late Cretaceous) in Neuquén Province, Argentina”. Ameghiniana. 39: 1–11.