10 Best Dinosaur Discoveries of 2015
This year was one of the best ever for paleontology, marking the discovery of a diverse group of new dino all-stars.
The year 2015 was one of the best ever for paleontology. It saw the discovery of organic protein molecules -- for red blood cells and bone collagen fibers -- in 75-million-year-old dinosaurs, and earlier this month we learned of one of the world's largest dinosaur sites, on Scotland's scenic Isle of Skye.
For this list, however, we are focusing on the stars themselves, the new dinosaurs that made the animal history books in 2015.
It is hard, for example, to forget the "Chicken from Hell."
"It was a giant raptor, but with a chicken-like head and presumably feathers," co-discoverer Emma Schachner of the University of Utah, explained. "The animal stood about 10 feet tall, so it would be scary as well as absurd to encounter."
The first known dinosaur with bat-like wings was discovered in China earlier this year. Named Yi qui (pronounced "ee chee"), it has the shortest scientific name ever given to a dinosaur.
"This is the most unexpected discovery I have ever made, even though I have found a few really bizarre dinosaurs in my career," noted paleontologist and co-discoverer Xu Xing, of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, told Discovery News.
"I know the complexity of the dino-bird transition, but this new find still shocks me," added Xu. "It demonstrates how extreme the experimentation for dinosaurs to get in the air is."
The "Dragon of Qiijiang" (Qijianglong) was unearthed in 2006, but its bones were analyzed and described just this year. It measured nearly 50 feet long and was practically all neck.
"Qijianglong is a cool animal," co-discoverer Tetsuto Miyashita, of the University of Alberta, said. "If you imagine a big animal that is half-neck, you can see that evolution can do quite extraordinary things."
It was a plant eater that likely used its construction-crane-like neck to reach leaves on trees and other tall vegetation. It may not be a coincidence that this dinosaur lived during the Jurassic era, around 160 million years ago, which is when the earliest surviving species of tree -- (Ginkgo biloba) of Zhejiang, China -- appeared.
A dinosaur with a toothy grin and a "sail" on its back was excavated this year in Spain. Morelladon beltrani was a plant-eating dino that grew to about 20 feet long and was just over 8 feet tall.
The jury is still out on how the dinosaur used the conspicuous 'sail' appendage on its back. Some say that it was an identifier, helping members of a species find each other over long distances.
Still other paleontologists suspect that the sails were used for thermoregulation -- allowing heat to escape over a wider surface during hot days and capturing warmth on colder days.
Finally, some suspect that the sail was like a hump on a camel, providing a place to store fat that the dinosaur could have relied on during periods of low food supply.
In 2015, paleontologists found a relative of T. rex nicknamed "The Platypus." It loved to eat plants instead of meat.
The lifestyle of "The Platypus" (Chilesaurus diegosuarezi) certainly contrasted with that of its relative, T. rex, the latter likely able to rip the heads off other animals with a single devastating bite.
"Chilesaurus probably fed upon ferns, araucarians, bennetitaleans, and podocarps --all of which were plants that were abundant at the end of the Jurassic," lead researcher Fernando Novas, of the Bernardino Rivadavia Natural Sciences Museum in Buenos Aires, told Discovery News.
A very unusual horned dinosaur nicknamed "Hellboy" was identified this year. It dates to about 70 million years ago and was discovered after Calgary-based geologist Peter Hews spotted its fossils sticking out of a cliff. The dino's scientific name (Regaliceratops peterhewsi) bears Hews' name as a result.
The size and shape of Hellboy's shield-like frill and facial horns have never been seen in any other dino. As a result, Caleb Brown, of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, enjoyed showing its remains to other scientists.
"Many horned-dinosaur researchers who visited the museum did a double take when they first saw it in the laboratory," Brown said.
The discovery of a close cousin of Velociraptor in 2015 strongly suggests that this family of dinosaurs has been inaccurately depicted over the years.
The new 5-foot-long dino, Zhenyuanlong suni, especially busts myths about velociraptor that were included in the hit movie "Jurassic Park."
"Look at Zhenyuanlong and you're probably seeing, more or less, what a real velociraptor would have looked like," Stephen Brusatte, who analyzed the dino's remains, told Discovery News.
"Velociraptor would have been a feisty little feathered poodle from hell, not a drab, scaly reptilian monster like in the 'Jurassic Park' films," added Brusatte, who is a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences.
During the Late Cretaceous, 66–100 million years ago, North America was split into two continents by a shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway. Remains of dinosaurs living in the western continent, known as Laramidia, are common, but few such fossils have been found from the eastern ,"lost continent" of Appalachia.
Discovery this year of a rare dino fossil from the lost region therefore made headlines. Nick Longrich, of the University of Bath, studied the fossil and identified it as coming from a ceratopsian dinosaur. These were horned, plant-eating dinos that lived during the Cretaceous.
Longrich said: "Just as many animals and plants found in Australia today are quite different to those found in other parts of the world, it seems that animals in the eastern part of North America in the Late Cretaceous period evolved in a completely different way to those found in the western part of what is now North America, due to a long period of isolation."
"This adds to the theory," he continued, "that these two land masses were separated by a stretch of water, stopping animals from moving between them, causing the animals in Appalachia to evolve in a completely different direction, resulting in some pretty weird looking dinosaurs."
It was definitely a good year for horned dinosaur discoveries, with one of our favorites being "Wendy" (Wendiceratops), which grew to about 20 feet long and weighed more than 1 ton. It was named after Alberta fossil hunter Wendy Sloboda.
"Wendiceratops helps us understand the early evolution of skull ornamentation in an iconic group of dinosaurs characterized by their horned faces," said David Evans, of the Royal Ontario Museum, who studied the animal's remains.
"The wide frill of Wendiceratops," Evans added, "is ringed by numerous curled horns, the nose had a large, upright horn, and it's likely there were horns over the eyes too. The number of gnarly frill projections and horns makes it one of the most striking horned dinosaurs ever found."
"Superduck," another dino excavated in 2015, was 5 tons of fun for members of the opposite sex, especially given its mate-attracting head crest. It serves as a missing link between two other known duck-billed dinosaur species: one with a huge head crest and another that had none at all.
"It is a perfect example of evolution within a single lineage of dinosaurs over millions of years," Elizabeth Freedman Fowler, of the Museum of the Rockies and Montana State University, told Discovery News.
She and her colleagues studied the dinosaur's remains and believe its head ornamentation would have been used for visual signals, letting members of its own species know whether or not the individual was of a mature age and ready to mate.
"On a crowded floodplain, you want to make sure you stay with the right (dinosaur) herd," Freedman Fowler explained. "The crests may have also helped them attract mates."
"Just like with modern birds that have big colorful feathers and dances to show how strong and healthy they are," she continued, "dinosaur crests aren't essential for the animal's life, so by spending energy growing a big, flashy crest, the animal is advertising that it's doing really well in life, and has really good genes. This attracts mates."