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Scientists shed new light on Europe’s enigmatic dinosaurs

When we imagine dinosaurs, iconic species like Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops often come to mind. Yet, during the reign of dinosaurs in North America, they had quite different relatives ruling territories in Europe.

The Late Cretaceous European Archipelago

During the Late Cretaceous period (100 to 66 million years ago), Europe was a massive archipelago dotted with both big and tiny islands, submerged in what is known as the Late Cretaceous European Archipelago. 

The species of dinosaurs living on these islands greatly differed from their counterparts on larger land masses, often being notably smaller in size. This includes not just the carnivorous theropods, but also the armored ankylosaurs, the elongated sauropods, the duck-billed hadrosaurs, and the rhabdodontids.

The Rhabdodontidae family

The Rhabdodontidae family stands out as one of the most notable European dinosaur clusters. 

This family is often associated with the frequently observed medium-sized herbivores of that period. Characteristically, rhabdodontids measured somewhere between two and six meters in length. 

Now, an international team of researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Hungary, and the University of Bucharest in Romania has investigated in more detail this peculiar group of dinosaurs.

New details about rhabdodontids

“They were probably habitually bipedal herbivores, characterized by a rather stocky build, with strong hind limbs, short forelimbs, a long tail, and a comparatively large, triangular skull that tapers anteriorly and ends in a narrow snout,” said lead author Felix Augustin, a doctoral student in Vertebrate Paleontology at Tübingen.

“They had a relatively robust skull with strong jaws, large teeth and a pointy beak that was covered in keratin, demonstrating that these dinosaurs were well-adapted to eating tough plants.” 

Evidence from some fossil findings suggests that they might have been social creatures, often found in groups. 


Although they most likely faced an earlier extinction in Western Europe, around 69 million years ago, potentially due to shifts in their plant diet, their presence persisted in Eastern Europe, lasting till the end of the Cretaceous period, about 66 million years ago.

Rhabdodontid fossils present a unique trait – they have solely been discovered in Europe and specifically in strata dating between 86 and 66 million years, suggesting that these creatures were exclusive to the Late Cretaceous European Archipelago.

As of now, this group is represented by nine distinct species distributed across five European nations: France, Spain, Austria, Hungary, and Romania.

“The first rhabdodontid species was scientifically named more than 150 years ago and the last one as recently as November 2022, so, although the group looks back to a long research history, we still have much to learn about it,” Augustin explained. 

Many features remain a mystery 

“Generally, our portraying of the world of dinosaurs is heavily biased towards the well-known North-American and Asian dinosaur faunas.”

Europe’s Late Cretaceous period is not as rich in dinosaur fossils as North America or Asia. To date, a full skeletal structure of a rhabdodontid remains elusive. 

Despite their prevalence in Europe during the Upper Cretaceous, many of their features, such as their precise body dimensions, movement patterns, and dietary habits, remain a mystery.

“In the past decades, a wealth of new, and often well-preserved, rhabdodontid fossils has been discovered throughout Europe, the majority of which still remains to be studied,” said Augustin.

“A joint research project is currently underway to study the available fossil material in order to gain new insights into the evolution and lifestyle of these fascinating yet still poorly known dinosaurs.”

The study is published in the journal Fossil Record.

Image Credit: Peter Nickolaus

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