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'Little bitty' dinosaur species found in North Texas

An extraordinary discovery has been made in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, as experts have identified a new dinosaur species that lived approximately 96 million years ago. The species, named Ampelognathus coheni, is particularly significant because herbivorous dinosaur fossils are seldom found in North Texas.

Study significance

According to the researchers, Ampelognathus coheni is the first small-bodied ornithopod dinosaur discovered from the Lewisville Formation.

“The significance of this discovery is that it provides a previously missing but predicted element of that ancient ecosystem,” study co-author Christopher Noto told Sci News. “Naming a new species is always exciting, because it means we’re adding new information to science.”

Initial discovery 

The initial discovery was made in 2020 near Lake Grapevine, where a two-inch-long fragment of the dinosaur’s jawbone was unearthed. Subsequent analysis confirmed that it was indeed a new species, as reported in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Changes in the fossil record

Paleontologists from the Perot Museum of Nature and Science who have been studying Ampelognathus coheni noted the major changes that occurred in the fossil record during the time of its existence. 

“The ‘mid’ Cretaceous marked a time of great change in North American terrestrial ecosystems. Vertebrate taxa with Asian origins began traversing the newly established connection of Beringia and appear in the North American fossil record, angiosperms were on their rise to dominance in terrestrial floras, and previously diverse North American groups declined or disappeared from the fossil record,” wrote the study authors.

Small size

The experts estimate that Ampelognathus coheni would have been comparable in size to a border collie and weighed between 20 and 60 pounds. 

“It’s a little bitty animal,” Ron Tykoski, vice president of science at the Perot, told the Dallas Morning News. “You could almost hold its head in your hand.”

The name of the species pays tribute to both the location where it was found, with “Ampelos” meaning vine in Greek, and to Murray Cohen, the volunteer who discovered the fossil.

At first, the experts believed the jawbone was from a small crocodile. “It wasn’t until we got it back to the lab and got under a microscope and cleaned it up using little pins and needles that we realized it was not like a little crocodile, but instead it was a new little kind of dinosaur,” said Tykoski.

Unique anatomy 

The unique jaw anatomy of Ampelognathus coheni set it apart from any other known species, indicating it was not just a smaller variant of a previously identified dinosaur.

“The newly described dentary is similar in overall form to those of non-iguanodontian ornithopods such as Nanosaurus agilis, Hypsilophodon foxii, Changchunsaurus parvus, and Haya griva,” wrote the researchers.

“However, the combination of low coronoid process, number of dentary tooth positions, lack of diastema between predentary contact and first dentary alveolus, proportions and orientation of predentary facets, and torsion of the dentary on its long axis distinguish it from these other taxa.”

Image Credit: Ron Tykoski

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