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Rare Find Suggests Duck-Billed Dinosaurs Originated In Eastern US

Jan 26, 2016 02:25 PM EST
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A new dinosaur species was recently unearthed in Alabama, suggesting duck-billed dinosaurs originated in what is now the eastern United States, before dispersing rapidly around the world. 

In the latest study, an international team of researchers from Florida State University, the McWane Science Center in Alabama, and the University of Bristol in the U.K. examined the nearly-complete skeleton of what they found to be a primitive duck-billed dinosaur, subsequently dubbed Eotrachodon orientalis. The dinosaur's new name means "dawn rough tooth from the east" and pays homage to "Trachodon," which was the first duck-billed dinosaur named in 1856.

"This is a really important animal in telling us how they came to be and how they spread all over the world," Gregory Erickson, one of the study researchers and a Florida State University Professor of Biological Science, said in the university's news release.

Fossils indicate this duck-billed dinosaur - also known as a Hadrosaurid - was between 20 and 30 feet long as an adult. Researchers say the creature likely walked on its hind legs, but would come down on to all four to graze on plants with its grinding teeth. While it had a scaly exterior like most of its relatives, what set it apart was the exceptionally large crest on its "big ugly nose."

The remains of this 83-million-year-old dinosaur were found alongside a creek in Montgomery County, Alabama in marine sediment. Dinosaur fossils from the South are extremely rare, and a nearly complete set - including a full skull with teeth, multiple backbones, a partial hip, and a few limb bones - is even harder to come by.  Since the remains were encased by marine sediment, researchers believe the animal was washed out to sea by river or stream sediments after it died. (Scroll to read more...)

Eotrachodon orientalis
(Photo : Courtesy of Jun Ebersole, McWane Science Center)
Eotrachodon orientalis remains.

It is also believed that this creature is among some of the first hadrosaurids in the eastern U.S., as its teeth are similar to those found in early individuals who were able to grind up plants like modern cows or horses. This suggests the dinosaurs were able to eat a wide variety of plants, thus allowing them to live in all sorts of environments around the world.

However, during the late Cretaceous Period - roughly 85 million years ago - North America was divided down the middle by a 1,000 mile ocean that connected the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean and created two separate landmasses: Laramidia to the west and Appalachia (comprising the U.S. East Coast) to the east.

"For roughly 100 million years, the dinosaurs were not able to cross this barrier," Jun Ebersole, director of collections at McWane Science Center, explained. "The discovery of Eotrachodon suggests that duck-billed dinosaurs originated in Appalachia and dispersed to other parts of the world at some point after the seaway lowered, opening a land corridor to western North America."

Although researchers had a difficult time pin-pointing the dinosaur's exact age, its highly vascularized bones indicate it was growing very rapidly at the time of death, suggesting is many have been a teenager when it died.

Their study was recently published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

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