While I know from Jurassic Park that even the most adorable-looking dinosaurs mean trouble, I can’t help but think “Awww…” when I see this fully intact baby dinosaur skeleton. How could something so small have been so scary? (That’s a rhetorical question, in case you were wondering). While its cuteness may be debatable, everyone can agree that finding a fully intact skeleton like this is rare and awesome.
The five-foot-long skeleton was found in a hillside of the appropriately named Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada. The find is the smallest intact skeleton ever discovered of its particular dino-type, the ceratopsids, which also includes Triceratops and Torosaurus, which scientists now believe are one in the same. Baby dinosaurs are pretty tough to find, as they make easy (and tasty) prey and their bones don’t hold up as well to decay. While scientists have found some ceratopsid bones here and there in the past, there’s a distinct lack of intact skeletons of younger dinosaurs, which is part of the reason scientists initially believed Triceratops and Torosaurus were two different species of dinosaur.
So when the University of Alberta paleobiologists saw what they thought was a turtle shell protruding from the hillside, they didn’t get too excited at first. But as they kept digging, they realized they were looking at the frill, or the bony headpiece, that curls around the back of ceratopsids’ heads. They then unearthed the Chasmosaurus belli skeleton and did the dance of joy.
The skeleton was so well preserved by layers or sediment that they found a pattern of its skin on the rock next to it. Because of the lack of bite marks or evidence of injury, paleontologists surmise that it the little guy drowned, perhaps because of a particularly strong current, in a nearby river about 70 million years ago. It was about three years old — just past dino-infancy.
In addition to helping test theories about the development of dinosaur bones, including the frills, which apparently change quite a lot over time, paleontologists can learn more about the development of dinosaurs, especially the herbivorous ones. One detail the scientists have already noticed is that the proportions of the limbs of the Chasmosaurus don’t change over time, which suggests that the adult dinos didn’t need to run all that fast — that they weren’t chasing or being chased. By comparison, T-Rex youngsters have particularly long limbs, probably because they have to do a lot of running to stay with the pack. Ah, so that explains the front arms! They’re born with those tiny things and as the rest of them grow, they get proportionally smaller and smaller. See, Dinosaur Jr. has already taught me a lesson!