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Student's dino skull discovery defies scientists' assumptions: U of A

Edmonton Journal logo Edmonton Journal 2019-11-25 Jason Herring
a person holding a dog: Scott Persons poses with Hannah, the skull of a Styracosaurus dinosaur that has asymmetrical horns, and Hannah, his dog which he named the skull after. Persons discovered the skull while he was a University of Alberta graduate student. © Supplied Scott Persons poses with Hannah, the skull of a Styracosaurus dinosaur that has asymmetrical horns, and Hannah, his dog which he named the skull after. Persons discovered the skull while he was a University of Alberta graduate student.

A dino skull discovered by a University of Alberta graduate student in 2015 is upending assumptions about the facial structure of dinosaurs.

Scott Persons, now a professor and museum curator at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, found the well-preserved Styracosaurus skull in the badlands northwest of Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park. The spiky dinosaur, whose name means “spiked lizard,” was over five metres and had a fan of long horns.

But the skull found by Persons has a trait that challenges a long-held assumption by paleontologists — its horns are asymmetrical.

Persons affectionately named his dinosaur discovery ‘Hannah,’ after his dog, though the sex of the prehistoric creature can’t be determined by its skull. He explains that in the past, dino scientists operated under the assumption that both sides of a skull had the same structure.

“When parts of one side of the skull were missing, paleontologists have assumed that the missing side was symmetrical to the one that was preserved,” Persons said in a news release. “Turns out, it isn’t necessarily. Today, deer often have left and right antlers that are different in terms of their branching patterns. Hannah shows dramatically that dinosaurs could be the same way.”

The breakthrough will mean that some partial skulls that have been discovered will have to be reevaluated as potential matches for one another. Much like moose antlers, scientists expect that there could be dramatic differences between the horn structures of different dinosaurs of the same genus, even within an individual dinosaur.

In fact, if paleontologists had discovered Hannah’s skull as two isolated halves instead of as a whole, they could have concluded those two halves came from different creatures.

Hannah’s interesting facial structure can now examined by scientists across the world after U of A researchers performed a 3-D laser scan of the skull, which paleontologists can download for detailed study.

jherring@postmedia.com

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