Fossilized skull fragments of Spinops sternbergorum, a new dinosaur species announced this week, collected dust in a British museum for nearly a century before scientists were able to analyze and describe them.
Now, paleontologists are hypothesizing that Spinops, which lived between 74 and 76 million years ago, could be the missing link between two previously known species of Ceratopsians, the same dinosaur group Triceratops came from.
"It's like you took two dinosaurs and put them in a blender to come up with a new one," Dr. Michael Ryan, head of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and second author of the research paper told HuffPost. "So the blender is actually evolution, so what we're looking at is the evolution of one form of dinosaur into another."
Scientists knew that Centrosaurus, known for large, curled hooks, evolved into Styracosaurus, a dinosaur with spikes on its face. But they didn't how exactly it evolved.
"Intermediate between the two dinosaurs you find the animal with the big hooks and big spikes, which is ours," Ryan said.
Like Centrosaurus, Spinops had a pair of large, banana-shaped hooks that curled forward over the frill and, like Styracosaurus, it also had a pair of large, straight spikes set close to the midline that pointed backwards.
Ryan said that the dinosaur's big hooks and spikes could have been used to defend itself from predators. They could also have been used as "signaling devices" to show potential mates who's dominant, similar to the way bighorn sheep fight with each other over an ewe.
The plant-eating dinosaur weighed more than a ton and was about 20-feet long. What's more, Ryan said that because the fossils were found with a lot of other bones, Spinops likely traveled in herds.
The Spinops sternbergorum fossils were unearthed in 1916 in Alberta, Canada, by Charles H. Sternberg and his son, Levi, while doing work for what was then called the British Museum (Natural History).
A letter dated 1918 and found in the museum's archives called the Sternbergs' find "nothing but rubbish." Thus, the specimen sat untouched for 90 years.
"This discovery demonstrates that new dinosaurs are found in museum collections and laboratories almost as frequently as in the field," Dr. Paul Barrett, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “It shows the scientific value of our historical collections and how they continue to allow new discoveries to be made."
"The hypothesis is that it's the missing link between two dinosaur species," Ryan said, adding that over the last five or so years, paleontologists have been finding more and more horned dinosaurs. "The more we find the more we fill in the gaps ... we're building a bridge from one to another."
The new species is described in the current issue of the paleontology journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.