Cleveland paleontologist assists team that discovers new dinosaur in South Korea

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A paleontologist with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History helped identify a first-of-its-kind dinosaur from fossilized remains discovered two years ago in South Korea.

Technicians used specialized drills to pulverize the stone surrounding the fossilized bones of the Koreaceratops. There are no plans to remove the fossil from the stone, Michael Ryan said. Michael Ryan, one of the world’s leading authorities on horned dinosaurs, and two other scientists who studied the 100-million-year-old fossils will present their findings today at simultaneous news conferences in Cleveland and South Korea.

Ryan and his teammates named the creature Koreaceratops hwaseongensis in recognition of the Hwaseong City region, more than 30 miles southwest of Seoul, that yielded the fossil. A construction crew erecting a dam dug up the half skeleton.

“It was a matter of someone looking at the right rock at the right time,” Ryan said in an interview last week.

Unfortunately, the paleontologists only obtained the bottom half of the dinosaur’s fossil. The missing half is in a different block of rock, likely lost forever.

“But we know now that these dinosaurs are there,” Ryan said. “Others will be found.”

Although categorized in the family of horned dinosaurs known as ceratopsids, the Koreaceratops has no horns, Ryan said. Perhaps the best known ceratopsids, the Triceratops that roamed North America 68 million years ago, had three horns.

Koreaceratops had a parrot-like beaked mouth, triangular face, and a bony shield that protruded from the back of its head — all characteristics unique to ceratopsids.

Ryan estimates the dinosaur was about six feet long and 100 pounds, with a leathery hide like an alligator. It almost certainly survived on aquatic vegetation, probably moved in groups, and was fast afoot.

How does he know what it looked like with only half a skeleton?

Paleontologist Michael Ryan calls the model of Koreaceratops created by Julius Csotonyi of Winnipeg, Manitoba, "one of the more gorgeous reconstructions of a dinosaur I've ever seen." All of the ceratopsids of the era are similar, with the same numbers of bones, Ryan said. Koreaceratops fills a 20 million-year gap in ceratopsid fossils.

“We’re pretty confident that, based on our analysis, we know where it fits and what it looked like,” Ryan said.

Koreaceratops’ long, flat tail may indicate that it undulated back and forth, possibly like a paddle, to propel itself in water. It also could have been used as a signaling device for species recognition, or as a display to attract a mate, he said.

“We’re speculating,” Ryan said. “All we know for sure is that there was a good reason why this dinosaur had this large, broad tail.”

The potential functions of Koreaceratops’ tail are a topic for spirited debate among paleontology bloggers on Smithsonian.com.

“Admittedly, it is relatively easy to come up with hypotheses about tail function,” wrote Brian Switek, a freelance science writer who specializes in evolution and paleontology.

“What is more difficult is finding a way to test ideas about long-extinct organisms. No single study will shut the case entirely, but the more lines of evidence we can draw upon to approach the question of swimming ceratopsians, the better,” Switek wrote.

The discovery of the new ceratopsid is major news in South Korea, which has been a relatively untapped country for skeletal fossils through the years, Ryan said. Dinosaur tracks and fossilized eggs are more commonly found there.

Ryan also is encouraged by the flurry of fossil discoveries worldwide in recent years, which has produced an average of a new dinosaur every month. Much of the credit for this can be traced to the 1993 release of the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park, the fictional account of a tropical theme park with cloned dinosaurs that ran amok during a major power outage.

The movie spawned legions of young paleontologists, who have been receiving their doctorates and writing their theses on fossil discoveries.

“It’s a great time to be in the field and collecting dinosaur fossils,” Ryan said.


Author: James F. McCarty | Source: The Plain Dealer [December 06, 2010]


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