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New Dinosaur With "Sail" On Its Back Roamed Spain 125 Million Years Ago

Dec 17, 2015 01:02 PM EST

Fossils of a new dinosaur species suggest each of the animals carried a strange "sail" on its back, which researchers believe may have helped them with temperature regulation, or fat storage when food was scarce. This specimen, subsequently dubbed Morelladon beltrani, was recently unearthed from Spain's fossil-rich Arcillas de Morella Formation, located near the city of Morella.

This sail-backed dinosaur was a herbivorous species that roamed the eastern Iberian landmass during the Early Cretaceous, roughly 125 million years ago. The new find, made by researchers from the Evolutionary Biology Group at the National Distance Education University in Madrid, Spain, adds to a growing number of closely related medium to large-bodied dinosaurs found from this region and time period, according to a news release.

During the Early Cretaceous, some areas of Iberia had alternating wet and dry periods, so it is possible that M. beltrani could have used its sail to regulate its body temperature, similar to how modern elephants use their large ears to release excess body heat, researchers say.

On the other hand, perhaps its sail acted like a camel's hump, storing fat during periods of migration or food shortages -- an adaptation that may have allowed them to survive warmer climates.

Similar to its relative Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis, M. beltrani was roughly six meters long and stood 2.5 meters tall. This suggests the Early Cretaceous was home to a particularly diverse population of iguanodontians dinosaurs.

"We knew the dinosaur fauna from Morella was similar to those of other contemporary European sites," co-author Dr. Fernando Escaso explained in the release. "However, this discovery shows an interesting rise of the iguanodontoid diversity in southern Europe around 125 million years ago."

In addition to a rigid dorsal spine, researchers discovered the specimen had 14 large teeth that would have helped it grab and chew tough plants. Their findings were recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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