Europe has beautiful landscapes, great food and wine, and romantic cities such as Paris, London, and Rome. But it has been missing something that is plentiful in North America and Asia: fossils of horned dinosaurs. A new discovery in Hungary puts an apparent end to that fossil gap and raises the possibility that some dinosaurs island-hopped their way to Europe.
The new specimen is “absolutely and utterly convincing,” says Peter Dodson, a paleontologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Researchers “hadn’t found them in nearly 200 years of searching," he says, "and so we really thought they weren’t there.”
The horned dinosaurs, known as ceratopsians, lived mainly during the Cretaceous period, 145 million to 65 million years ago. The most famous example is Triceratops, a huge beast that measured up to 10 meters long and whose menacing horns probably made predators such as Tyrannosaurus hesitate to attack it. Until recently, most researchers assumed that ceratopsians never made it to Europe, although the recent discovery of ceratopsian-like teeth in Sweden and a reanalysis of dinosaur teeth found in Belgium during the 19th century has sparked new debate about the issue. Nevertheless, many scientists caution that teeth alone cannot distinguish between groups of dinosaurs.
Now a team led by paleontologist Attila Ősi of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest has put Europe on the ceratopsian map. Last year, while excavating at the Iharkút bauxite mine near the Hungarian town of Ajka—a site that has yielded numerous other nonceratopsian dinosaur fossils since 2000—Ősi’s team unearthed four bones from the jaws and beak of what it concludes is an unmistakable ceratopsian that lived about 85 million years ago, during the late Cretaceous. In tomorrow's issue of Nature, the researchers dub this new horned dinosaur Ajkaceratops kozmai, the first ceratopsian species to be named from the European continent.
Although the discovery may be major, the dinosaur itself was diminutive, measuring only an estimated 1 meter in length.
But the find raises an important new question. During the late Cretaceous, Europe was an archipelago of islands stretching across what geologists call the Tethys Ocean. And the region of western Hungary where the fossils were found was probably located on one of those islands. So how did Ajkaceratops, which the authors say resembles some Asian ceratopsians and might have been related to them, get there?
Ősi and his colleagues suggest that Ajkaceratops might have island-hopped its way from Asia. According to this scenario, Ősi says, “our ceratopsian was able to swim short distances between islands and so reached newer and newer areas westwards.”
Indeed, in a commentary that accompanies the paper, paleontologist Xing Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing suggests that such island-hopping might explain why Ajkaceratops was so small compared with giant ceratopsians such as Triceratops: It may have been subject to an evolutionary phenomenon known as island dwarfing, in which animals shrink when confronted with the reduced resources of isolated islands.
Dodson says that the island-hopping scenario makes sense given what researchers know about other ceratopsians, many of whom were apparently good swimmers. “It is a safe bet that any animal that could traverse a distance of some 6000 miles from Asia to Europe is not going to be afraid to get its feet wet.”