The duck-billed dinosaur known as Edmontosaurus regalis was supposed
to be a plain Jane of the Cretaceous. No elaborate neck frill for it,
nor horns, nor spikes, nor any of the fancy headgear sported by many of
Now scientists have discovered that Edmontosaurus
regalis actually had a spectacular adornment unique in the dinosaur
world. A beautifully preserved new fossil shows Edmontosaurus boasted a
party hat of jiggly flesh atop its head. Researchers theorize that like a
rooster's coxcomb, the crest was brightly colored and served as a
signal to others of its kind. Never before have scientists found such a
non-bony crest on a dinosaur.
"We saw something we simply didn't
expect to find - a soft-tissue crest on top of its head," said
paleontologist Federico Fanti of the University of Bologna, an author of
the new study. "This is changing the way we imagine and even understand
When Fanti found the 73 million-year-old fossil along a river in
Alberta, Canada, in 2011, no one judged it anything special. All that
could be seen were some vertebrae sticking out of a coffin-sized
sandstone block, and the researchers left the block sitting in the field
for weeks before trucking it back to the lab.
As tools liberated
the fossil from its stone wrapper, the scientists slowly realized that
they had a spectacular find on their hands. What emerged from the rock
was an extremely rare dinosaur "mummy," a specimen including not just
fossilized bone but also soft tissues such as skin. The greatest
surprise came as paleontologist Phil Bell of the University of New
England in Australia chipped along the fossil's head and found flesh
where there shouldn't have been any.
His first thought, Bell says,
was that "it must be some kind of mistake. But every way I looked at
it, I could only come up with one answer, and that answer was, this
animal had a crest."
The curved crest reached 8 inches high and
roughly a foot in length, making it look like a too-small bowler hat for
an animal that weighed as much as a small bulldozer and stretched more
than 30 feet long. Roosters and condors have brightly colored crests, so
Edmontosaurus could have, too.
Some dinosaurs with crests made of
bone probably used their headgear for sound production. Edmontosaurus
apparently didn't. It was a company-loving creature that lived at least
part of the year in large herds, and the crest probably served as a
signal to its buddies, relatives or potential love interests.
Scientists not associated with the study, published in this week's Current Biology, said it was persuasive in showing that the fossil had a crest, a find credited in part to Bell's deftness with a chisel.
diamonds is easy compared to what these guys have done with this
fossil," says the University of Manchester's Phillip Manning, who has
also worked on a dinosaur mummy. "The fellows who undertook this prep
work were absolute artists." Manning agrees with the authors that the
crest very well could've been used as a signal to others in the herd.
Many dinosaurs had hidden genitals, so maybe the crest was a clue to
gender, he says.
Eye-catching features "are used (widely) in the animal kingdom today," Mannig says. "Why should dinosaurs be any different?"
The discovery shows there's always more to learn, even about animals as common and well-studied as Edmontosaurus.
has been known for, oh, 120 years," says Johns Hopkins University
School of Medicine's David Weishampel, co-editor of a scholarly
compendium of dinosaurs. "And we had not an inkling that at least some
of them, if not all of them, had ... a small but significant-sized crest.
It all holds together."