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This massive, spiky dinosaur might have used camouflage to fool predators

In 2011, a Canadian miner accidentally stumbled upon an eerily well-preserved, 18-foot-long dinosaur covered in spikes, and scientists now believe the 110-million-year-old fossil belongs to a brand-new species. The 2,800-pound dinosaur is in near-perfect 3D, from its nose to the tips of its (many) horns. Its petrified remains give scientists an unprecedented view of what this prickly dinosaur looked like, which could tell us a lot about the world it lived in.

Despite its dragon-like appearance, this dinosaur wasn’t a fearsome predator, but a well-defended, solitary vegetarian in the nodosaur family, a close cousin of the club-tailed ankylosaurids. It “was the rhinoceros of its day, a grumpy herbivore that largely kept to itself,” Michael Greshko wrote in National Geographic in May, when the fossils were first revealed to the public. In a study published this week in the journal Current Biology, the unusual beast is described in more detail.


Photo: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology / Drumheller, Canada

Its new official name is unfortunately not Spike, but Borealopelta markmitchelli a tribute to museum technician Mark Mitchell, who spent over 7,000 hours painstakingly extracting the fossil from the surrounding stone.

Borealopelta was found in a Canadian mine in 2011, lying on its back in what had once been a seabed. It’s possible the dinosaur drowned and was washed out to sea. There, it was quickly encased in a kind of natural concrete that ensured its bones, scales, and even chunks of a film that might be skin would live on in near-perfect condition for roughly 110 million years.

The astounding preservation also gave researchers clues to the dinosaur’s color: reddish-brown on top, and lighter on the bottom. This kind of two-toned coloration is called counter-shading, and it’s used as a kind of camouflage to hide from predators. Not everyone agrees on the dino’s colors, however: some argue that the pigment molecules the researchers found could have been from the fossil’s environment, rather than its skin, Greshko reports.


Photo: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology / Drumheller, Canada

But if the researchers are right, their findings could tell us more than just Borealopelta’s coat. If a creature so large and pointy really needed camouflage to fool predators, that says something about the environment it lived in. As study co-author Jakob Vinther told Greshko, that could mean the “Cretaceous is bloody scary.”


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