Triceratops' older, plainer cousin discovered in China

Story highlights

  • Newly unearthed dinosaur had neither horns nor a bony frill
  • But it was an older cousin of the well-known triceratops
  • Researcher: "Significant discovery" helps understand evolution of horned dinosaurs

Hong Kong (CNN)Triceratops, one of the most widely recognizable of the dinosaurs that once roamed our planet, has a new cousin.

Known for its three-horned head and bony, frilly collar, the triceratops somewhat resembles the modern-day rhinoceros.
    But not only is its new relative older -- by 100 million years -- it also looks dramatically different.
    Discovered in the Gobi Desert in northwestern China, hualianceratops "provides significant information on the early evolution of horned dinosaurs," says paleontologist Xu Xing, who worked on the discovery announced Wednesday.
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    An artist's impression of the dinosaur suggests it had a beak, rather than a horn. It was also much smaller than later members of the group -- the ceratopsian family.
    Its unearthed remains consisted of a partial skull, two vertebrae and a hind limb. The hualianceratops was named because of the textured and grooved surfaces found on its skull ("hualian" means "ornamented face" in Chinese.)
    Dating back to the late Jurassic period, around 160 million years, the newly-discovered fossils came from the same area and time period as the yinlong, previously the earliest known precursor to horned dinosaurs.
    Xu said the skeleton wasn't complete but estimates that the newly-discovered species would have been around 1.5 meters long.

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    A plant eater, it might have been preyed upon by the guanlong, an early tyrannosaur found at the same fossil site.
    Triceratops, one of the final known species of horned dinosaurs, lived on Earth around 68 million years ago, right up to when they became extinct around 65 million years ago.
    This 65 million-year-old male Triceratops skull is on sale for $1.8 million.
    China has been at the forefront of the world's most significant dinosaur discoveries in recent years and is particularly known for the unearthing of feathered dinosaur fossils.
    The research was published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.