Meet Nasutoceratops: Big-Nose Horned Face

While digging in southern Utah, researchers unearthed a previously unknown relative of Triceratops: Nasutoceratops titusi, or "Big-Nose Horned Face." Scott Sampson, a paleontologist on the team that discovered the dino, discusses a day in the life of this lumbering herbivore, and possible explanations for its oversized nose.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Way back in the late Cretaceous period, ooh, around 76 million years ago, western North America was a land of giants. And we're talking beasts that weighed thousands of pounds. You already know the main players - the T-Rex, the triceratops, stegosaurus - but just like today there were related species, variations on a theme. And one of them you may not be familiar with. It was the nasutoceratops, nasutoceratops.

Can you say that? Or is - he was known among friends - it's easier - the big-nosed horn face. It's a dino I can relate to. My next guest was on the team that discovered this triceratops relative and he's here to talk about it. Scott Sampson, vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Denver, Colorado. He's also the author of a paper describing the beast in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

He joins us today from San Francisco at KQED. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Sampson.

DR. SCOTT SAMPSON: Thank you very much, Ira. Thanks for having me on.

FLATOW: Can you give us a little description, a little thumbnail description of what you found there? Is it a new species? What did it look like?

SAMPSON: Well, this animal is not only a new species but appears to be a new branch on the horned dinosaur family tree, which makes it all the more exciting. We can start with the name, nasutoceratops, as you said. Big-nosed horn face is the translation. It sounds like an insult but it's actually quite descriptive. This thing does have an oversized nose even for a horned dinosaur, and extremely long horns over the eyes that project forward and go almost to the tip of the snout.

FLATOW: Wow. Does a big nose have anything to do with big smell?

SAMPSON: No, not at all. It's just the outer chamber of the nose. If I could be so indelicate, it's the part you could put your finger inside, Ira. And the sense of smell is further back in the head. Your last guest talked about the olfactory parts of the brain and that's very close to the brain itself.

FLATOW: I was about to say, you know, it almost sounds like you're describing a beak rather than a nose.

SAMPSON: Well, it's interesting. These things do have a parrot-like beak and behind that hundreds of teeth that they use for chomping up plant food. But above that beak and around it, it's this outer chamber of the nose that may have been used to cool off the brain. It may have been used to hold soft tissues that could've made noises, kind of like elephant seals do.

So we're really not sure about the function of that. The horns we know quite a lot more about and they were probably all about sex, probably intimidating members of the opposite sex and attracting members - sorry. Attracting members of the opposite sex and intimidating and maybe even fighting with members of the same sex.

FLATOW: Hmm. And was this found by accident or were you looking for it?

SAMPSON: Well, we were working a place in southern Utah, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. I started this project when I was with the Natural History Museum of Utah some time ago and the fossils will ultimately go in that museum. But we found almost 20 new dinosaurs over the past 13 years, a whole assemblage. And nasutoceratops is the latest member.

So we're out looking in these very remote and rugged badlands for whatever we can find. And nasutoceratops is the latest bizarre addition to the clan.

FLATOW: You said you have to have a whole new branch. Where would it be branching out from?

SAMPSON: Well, the horned dinosaurs - we think of triceratops and that belongs to what is generally thought of as the long frilled group of horned dinosaurs. There's a short frilled group as well and nasutoceratops falls into that short frilled group. But instead of having an ornate frill with all kinds of bony bells and whistles - hooks, horns, spikes, etc. - this thing had a relatively simple frill with just a scalloped margin.

And it devoted all of the energies for ornamentation into these giant horns over the eyes. And this is previously unknown for an animal this young from this group. And it really does appear to point to a whole new clan of these horned dinosaurs that lived in the southern part of the western interior of North America.

FLATOW: You know, it's interesting because we were out in Salt Lake a few months ago and we were given a tour of a lot of the finds of the different kinds of triceratops out there. And they had - right. They had some that were never found anywhere else on Earth. Which speaks to the rich diversity of fossils that probably still exist that we haven't found yet.

SAMPSON: Yeah. There's been more fossils and more new dinosaurs discovered in the past generation than in all prior history. And that rate of discovery is not slowing down. So I get to talk to kids all the time about dinosaurs and I'm always reminding them that if they really want to grow up and become paleontologists, there are still going to be amazing discoveries to be made.

FLATOW: Do you have any idea what this dinosaur ate?

SAMPSON: Well, probably a lousy diet. There was no grass around.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMPSON: Well, probably a lousy diet. There was no grass around at the time.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMPSON: But when you're that big. When you weigh, you know, a couple of tons, you can't get by on fruits and nuts and stuff. So you have to eat pretty much a poor quality diet. It's interesting, though. It just shows our level of ignorance about the world of dinosaurs. We really don't know exactly what it ate, whether it was ferns or some kind of flowering plants or conifers. We really don't know. We don't have that information yet.

But we can be pretty sure that that parrot-like beak was used for pulling off vegetation and the teeth were used for slicing it up into bite-sized chunks.

FLATOW: So there were no nuts around yet at that point of evolution that it would've cracked with its beak like a parrot or something like that?

SAMPSON: Yes, there could've easily been nuts around. And in fact, there were. But when you weigh over a ton you just aren't going to find enough of those to do that. I mean, it's little mammals, little birds that can get by on nuts and seeds. When you get to be giant sized like, you know, over 1,000 kilograms you have to eat a lousy quality diet just to get enough food in your gullet.

FLATOW: Junk food for the (technical difficulty).

SAMPSON: There you go.

FLATOW: Makes you big and fat. Do we know - I mean, we've never recovered the - or have we recovered the contents of a dinosaur's stomach to really know what it might've eaten?

SAMPSON: Yeah, we have. In fact, several examples. There's duck-billed dinosaurs that - and their guts have had the remains of conifers in them. There are fish eating dinosaurs, things called spinosaurs that have, you know, fish in the guts. There's a half dozen or so, maybe a few more, with gut contents but not really very many.

And it's so hard to say just because you find a fish in an animal's gut, that just means that you have remains of its last meal. It doesn't necessarily tell you what this animal ate on a regular basis.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. There was news this week of an extraordinary specimen - two dinosaurs locked in a death battle. And it went to auction instead of a museum. And the price estimated is about $8 million. And so it went to a private collector instead of a museum. Any thoughts on that?

SAMPSON: Well, as I understand it, it hasn't gone to anybody yet. It's being put up for auction in November by Bonhams in New York and so it could still go to a museum. And that would be a wonderful outcome. I have not seen these specimens firsthand. I've seen some casts, or copies, of it. And it really does look like a remarkable animal. So it would be terrific if it went to a museum so it could studied by scientists. But we'll have to wait and see.

FLATOW: But if a museum - if a museum spends $8 million on a dinosaur, and it's the kind of museum that does research, and there are a lot of museums that do research, isn't that money they could've spent on going out and finding, you know, dinosaurs in their own research?

SAMPSON: It is a really interesting problem. I mean, the Field Museum in Chicago bought Sue several years ago for a large sum of money, several millions of dollars. And Sue has really helped the Field Museum. So I think in retrospect they would look back and say that that was a tremendous purchase and they got some big help to do that from corporations.

So I think just the notoriety of bringing in such a high profile specimen can be great for a museum, but you're exactly right. If you took that $5 to $8 million and invested it in field work, you could do a decade worth or more, in fact, probably a lot more than that, of paleontology. For the most part, we work pretty cheap. Helicopters are a little expensive but paleontology is not like putting a man on the moon.

FLATOW: So if, you know, someone sees that a dinosaur fossil goes for a few million bucks, $8 million, whatever, they're not going to be calling their local university to come out and see what they've got, are they? I mean, they're going to be calling...

SAMPSON: No. And this has been a problem. I've had this happen before. I've gone and knocked on a rancher's door and said, hey, would you mind if I looked on your property? Any specimens we find will go into a museum in perpetuity. And they say, well, can you give me $10,000 up front and 20 percent of whatever you sell it for? And I say, well, we're not going to sell it.

And they're thinking, well, if I really have an amazing specimen on my land, I'd rather make some money. And so this commercial collection that goes on does have a number of shades of gray and one of them is that sometimes these incredible specimens that might go into a museum and be studied by scientists for generations, goes into a private collection and is lost to science forever.

But having said that, most major museums in this country have specimens that were privately collected. So the commercial collection has been an important aspect to paleontology for over a hundred years.

FLATOW: So there's really no desire, then, to say, well, if you find - or make categories for fossils that they become public domain or, you know, your state or the federal government owns that?

SAMPSON: Well, it's interesting. In Canada, where I'm originally from, if you find fossils on your land you do not own them and so you can't dig them up and sell them. But of course, that's not the case in the U.S. and I doubt that it will be any time soon. Your land is your land, and particularly out west. So that is a difficult problem.

And of course, fossils from public lands should be collected by museums and go into these permanent repositories, but much of the West, of course, is private land. So it's a different situation altogether.

FLATOW: Now, if people wanted to see the nasutoceratops, the big-nosed horn face, where could they go see it?

SAMPSON: They can go see it at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City. There is a cast of the skull on permanent display and I believe the bones will be on exhibit as well for people to see. And hopefully we'll have the same kind of specimens over at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science where I'm based now too.

FLATOW: Were you always interested in dinosaurs since you were a kid?

SAMPSON: I really am the kid who never grew up. It's kind of pathetic. I mean, paleontology is one of the first words I learned how to spell. And I always wanted to be a paleontologist. I thought about a few other things on the way, but now I get to have fun trying to inspire another generation of paleontologists.

FLATOW: So, as they say, you don't work a day of your life?

(LAUGHTER)

SAMPSON: That's right. I love what I do.

FLATOW: Yeah. Thank you very much, Dr. Sampson, for taking time to be with us.

SAMPSON: Oh, Ira, thank you very much. It's been my pleasure.

FLATOW: Scott Sampson, vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Denver, Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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