When paleontologist Tony Fiorillo made one of the most stunning dinosaur discoveries in Alaska, a NOVA television crew was there to capture the moment. But it now turns out that the skull he unearthed in front of the cameras in 2006, a highlight of the 2008 NOVA documentary "Arctic Dinosaurs," was more significant than previously thought.
The skull and associated bones from a steep bank of the Colville River in Alaska's Arctic are from a species of horned dinosaur that has not been documented anywhere else.
Years of research by Fiorillo, curator of the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, and painstaking reconstruction by Ronald Tykoski, the museum's chief fossil preparator, confirmed that this was a type of pachyrhinosaurus -- a relative of triceratops -- that had not been found anywhere else.
"Obviously, it's a tremendous thrill to have that level of photo-documentation at the moment of discovery. And this enhances it. This is the wildest dream possible," he said.
They have named the dinosaur species Pachyrhinosaurs perotorum, in honor of former presidential candidate Ross Perot and his family, major benefactors of the Dallas museum.
What makes this different from other pachyrhinosarus species is the array of horns, Fiorillo said. "We have a horn going in a different direction, a radically different direction," he said.
The discovery on the Colville cliff was not just a single specimen or mutation of an ordinary pachyrhinosaurus, Fiorillo said. The river bank was the 70 million-year-old burial site of several of the same type of dinosaurs; over time the hundreds of bones left there became jumbled and entangled, he said.
The newly discovered pachyrhinosaurus species was among numerous dinosaurs that once roamed the North Slope. The Colville River area has proved the world's most fertile grounds for discoveries for Cretaceous-era Arctic dinosaurs, including duck-billed, plant-eating hadrosaurs and pack-hunting, meat-eating Troodon.
The Alaska dinosaur discoveries have caused scientists to re-evaluate theories about the animals being cold-blooded and about how they went extinct about 65 million years ago. The North Slope findings support the theory that at least some dinosaurs were warm-blooded and thus able to survive in cold climates.
At that point in geologic history, Alaska was warmer than it is today, but far from tropical. The climate was like that in the area ranging from Portland, Oregon to Calgary, Fiorillo said. But today's Alaska was farther north, due to continental drift, so subject to even more profound seasonal changes, he said.
Some of the North Slope dinosaurs had Arctic adaptations. Troodons, for example, had extremely large eyes that helped them be lethal predators in dark winters.
Fiorillo said he and his colleagues have not yet found anything on Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum that is an obvious Arctic feature.
A reconstructed Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum skeleton is being prepared for display in Dallas in 2013.
Check out the draft article by Fiorillo and Tykoski, which will be published later this year.