Rare skulls reveal new dinosaur species

A new species of sauropod — large, four-legged, plant-eating dinosaur — has been found in Utah, including four of the species' skulls.

A new species of sauropod — large, four-legged, plant-eating dinosaur — has been found in Utah, including four of the species' skulls.

Four skulls of the new dinosaur species, Abydosaurus mcintoshi, were found in Utah. ((Michael Skrepnick))
Skulls of sauropods, such as the famous Apatosaurus, are a rare find because they're made of thin bones held together by soft tissue. They usually fall apart after the animal's death.

"Their heads are built lighter than mammal skulls because they sit way out at the end of very long necks," Brooks Britt, a paleontologist at Brigham Young University, said in a statement.

Of the 120 known varieties of sauropod, complete skulls have been found for only eight.

Paleontologists working at a quarry in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah recovered four skulls of the new species, two of them fully intact. All four skulls belonged to young dinosaurs.

The quarry didn't give up its secrets easily, though. Researchers at Brigham Young had to use jackhammers and concrete saws to break up the 105-million-year-old sandstone where the fossils were found.

The National Park Service also called in a demolition crew to blast apart the overlying rock.

Because they're so rare, the skulls of the new species, called Abydosaurus mcintoshi, are revealing new information about sauropods in general, including how they ate. 

"They didn't chew their food," Britt said. "They just grabbed it and swallowed it. The skulls are only one two-hundredths of total body volume and don't have an elaborate chewing system."

The researchers' analysis of the bones, published in the German journal Naturwissenschaften, indicates that the dinosaur's closest relative is Brachiosaurus, which lived 45 million years earlier.

The new species is named in part after paleontologist Jack McIntosh, who debunked the Brontosaurus in 1975. He exposed the erroneous species as a skeleton with an Apatosaurus body and a Camarasaurus skull. 

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