A distinctive new dinosaur with a "sail" on its back has just been unearthed in Spain.
The new plant-eating dino, named Morelladon beltrani, adds to a growing number of medium to large-bodied dinosaurs of a similar kind that have all been found in the region that now comprises parts of Spain and Portugal.
In this case, Morelladon beltrani was discovered in Morella, Spain, according to a paper published in the latest issue of PLOS ONE. The authors mention that "the specimen was found in a body of red clays belonging to the upper Barremian Arcillas de Morella Formation." It dates to around 125 million years ago.
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"The generic name (of the new dino) is derived from Morella, the name of the type locality, and ‘odon,' the Greek word for tooth," wrote lead author José Miguel Gasulla from Grupo Biología Evolutiva (UNED-UAM) and his colleagues.
The recreation has a bit of a toothy grin because 14 large teeth were associated with the dinosaur's remains. The teeth helped it to grab and process a variety of tough plant material back in the Early Cretaceous period, when the dinosaur was alive.
Even with such impressive teeth, the most conspicuous feature of this dinosaur was its sail, according to the researchers. They could detect its former presence based on tall spines that would have jutted up out of the dino's back.
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Paleontologists have speculated about these sails, which were found on other dinosaurs, as well as on certain large lizard-like reptiles.
Although this particular dinosaur was no size slouch at about 20 feet long and just over 8 feet tall, the sail when extended would have made it look much larger. Since it was a plant eater, carnivorous dinosaurs in the area must have been higher on the food chain, so the tactic would have been useful.
Also, imagine a predator trying to take a bite out of this dinosaur. If it hit the substantial sail, it would not have damaged any internal organs, giving M. beltrani a chance to escape.
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There are some other theories about the sails, though. The appendage could have been used as 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. Since whatever fat that might have been in place has since broken down, it is now not fully possible to know just how the sail was used.
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The authors believe that this sail-backed Spanish dinosaur had features in common with yet another eye-catching species, Iguanodon, which was one of the planet's most successful dinosaurs. It managed to colonize many parts of the world.
Iguanodon was a large, mostly two-legged (its forelimbs were fairly substantial too), herbivorous dinosaur of the early to mid Cretaceous period. Iguanodon had a broad, stiff tail and, like M. beltrani, its thumbs are thought to have evolved into sharp spikes.
As a group, such dinosaurs are often referred to as iguanodontoids.
Co-author Fernando Escaso of the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia said in a press release, "We knew the dinosaur fauna from Morella was similar to those of other contemporary European sites. However, this discovery shows an interesting rise of the iguanodontoid diversity in southern Europe around 125 million years ago."