10 of the most amazing dinosaurs discovered in 2021

This year, fossil sites from around the world yielded spectacular new insights into the age of dinosaurs.

Published 9 Dec 2021, 12:01 GMT
Yamatosaurus
More than 66 million years ago, during the last age of the Mesozoic Era, two species of “duck-billed” dinosaurs lived in what is now Japan. One of these large herbivores (center) was announced earlier this year—just one of the 42 new dinosaurs unveiled so far in 2021.
Photograph by Illustration by Msato Hattori

On average, palaeontologists have found more than 45 new dinosaur species every year since 2003. The pace of discovery is staggering, and during this golden age of palaeontology, scientists are transforming our understanding of the prehistoric world. 

So far this year, 42 new dinosaur species have been discovered, according to the University of Maryland’s Tom Holtz, who maintains a database of new dinosaur finds. What has sustained this pace? For one, Holtz says, “it’s more people doing the work: more eyes on the ground, more teams, more parts of the world being investigated.” Dinosaur palaeontology is a more diverse and more global discipline than ever before—with huge benefits to science.

Scientists also have a more refined sense of what a dinosaur “species” actually is. Palaeontologists once gave the name Iguanodon to fossils that spanned tens of millions of years. Re-evaluations now show that Iguanodon is really multiple species, including a new one unveiled in November.

What’s more, technology is allowing scientists to make astounding discoveries about known dinosaurs—including details about their scaly skin, their digestive and reproductive tracts, their cellular structure, their social displays, and even how some nested in polar regions. The combined results reveal just how diverse and strange these prehistoric animals really were. In no particular order, here are 10 of the most amazing dinosaurs unveiled by scientists this year. 

1. Morocco’s “punk-rock” dinosaur with bizarrely spiky ribs

The only known fossil of Spicomellus so far is a single spiked rib fragment.
Photograph by Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Between 168 million and 164 million years ago, a strange reptile trundled through what is now northern Morocco: a creature with large spikes sticking out of its ribs and protruding from its skin.

The only known fossil belonging to this animal, unveiled in Nature Ecology and Evolution in September, is a single rib fragment with four spikes, measuring about 10.5 inches long. Based on the fossil’s shape and size, researchers strongly suspect it belonged to a type of armored dinosaur called an ankylosaur. The dinosaur’s name is Spicomellus afer, after the Latin for “spike,” “collar,” and “an inhabitant of Africa.”

Spicomellus is the oldest known ankylosaur and the first found in Africa. It’s also a creature with no known analogue, living or dead. “If you feel your own ribs, there’s muscles over the top of them that allow your arms to move,” says Susannah Maidment, the palaeontologist at London’s Natural History Museum who led the research on Spicomellus. “What were they doing with their muscles when their ribs clearly had spikes above the skin?” 

Spicomellus ended up in the U.K. museum through the legally complex commercial trade in Moroccan fossils. After passing through the hands of several Moroccan wholesalers, the rib bone reached Moussa Direct, a U.K.-based fossil dealer that sold the specimen to the museum.

Initially museum staff thought the bone was part of the Moroccan stegosaur Adratiklit, since it came from the same area in the country’s Atlas Mountains. But Maidment and her colleagues soon realised that the fossil belonged to something new—making it much more significant. The Natural History Museum then established an agreement with Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fez, Morocco, to research the fossil together.

Maidment’s team traced the fossil’s steps back through the supply chain to the original dig site, which she visited in 2019. Study co-author Driss Ouarhache, a geologist at the Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University, also visited the site in 2020 to collect crucial geological data. According to Maidment, Ouarhache’s university is building a new museum, which will include space to house future fossils from Spicomellus’s site.

2. Australia’s biggest known dinosaur

Deep in the outback of Australia’s southwestern Queensland province, the Mackenzie family has spent generations running a sheep and cattle ranch near the small community of Eromanga. In 2004, teenager Sandy Mackenzie found signs that the ranch was once home to ancient titans.

From 2006 onward, the Mackenzies and a team led by Queensland Museum palaeontologist Scott Hocknull periodically excavated bonebeds found on the ranch—and they uncovered Australia’s biggest known dinosaur. 

Nicknamed “Cooper” after a nearby creek, the animal’s fossils spent more than a decade undergoing scientific study, including 3-D scans of the bones’ surfaces. That long-running analysis, published in June in the journal PeerJ, confirms that the roughly 95-million-year-old dinosaur is a new species, called Australotitan cooperensis

Australotitan is a titanosaurian, a subgroup of the long-necked sauropods that includes the biggest animals that ever walked on land, such as Argentina’s gigantic Patagotitan. Australotitan’s upper leg bones were at least 6.2 feet long apiece, and the full animal is estimated to have weighed anywhere between 26 and 82 tons in life.

The dinosaur’s remains now reside in the new Eromanga Natural History Museum, which the Mackenzies themselves founded.

3. The exquisite Mexican dinosaur with a comma-shaped crest

In this artist’s depiction, two Tlatolophus walk along Cretaceous shorelines in what is now southern Mexico.
Photograph by Illustration by Marco A. Pineda

In 2005 José and Rodolfo López Espinoza stumbled upon an amazing fossil in southern Mexico’s Coahuila Province: the mostly complete tail of a dinosaur that lived some 72 million years ago. A team of Mexican palaeontologists visited the site in 2013 to excavate the remains, uncovering more of the creature in the process, including its skull. Unveiled in Cretaceous Research in May, the dinosaur was one-of-a-kind.

Tlatolophus galorum is a type of herbivorous dinosaur called a lambeosaur. The dinosaur is so named because its dramatic crest resembles the tlahtolli, a comma-like symbol in Aztec art that stands for “word” in the Nahuatl language. The species name galorum combines two family names, Garza and López, to honour people who aided with the fossil’s collection.

Tlatolophus probably stretched about 26 feet from snout to tail and stood about 6.5 feet tall at the hip. Based on its well-preserved skull, scientists think that the animal was a close cousin of the iconic crested lambeosaur Parasaurolophus, which are seen drinking from a lake near the beginning of the movie Jurassic Park.

Tlatolophus expands the diversity of known crest shapes, which likely played a major role in the dinosaurs’ social lives, in part by affecting the sound of their calls.

4-5. The Isle of Wight’s “hell heron” and “riverbank hunter”

In this artist's depiction, wildfire smoke clouds the skies above a Cretaceous Isle of Wight, providing a dramatic backdrop for two newfound spinosaurids: Ceratosuchops inferodios (foreground) and Riparovenator milnerae (background).
Photograph by Illustration by Anthony Hutchings

Today, the southwestern coast of the U.K.’s Isle of Wight is a picturesque seascape framed by sandstone cliffs. But more than 125 million years ago, this vista was a savanna-like valley cut through with rivers and floodplains—a fitting home for two hulking dinosaurs with sleek, crocodile-like skulls.

Described in the journal Scientific Reports in September, fossils found on the island revealed two new types of spinosaurid, an enigmatic group of large predatory dinosaurs that includes the iconic “swimming dinosaur” Spinosaurus.

Ceratosuchops inferodios translates to “horned, crocodile-faced hell heron,” inspired by the theory that spinosaurids were riverbank predators like today’s herons. Riparovenator milnerae means “Milner’s riverbank hunter,” a tribute to British spinosaurid expert Angela Milner. Each dinosaur was probably about 26 feet long and roughly 6.6 feet tall at the hip.

Ceratosuchops and Riparovenator add crucial knowledge about the poorly understood spinosaurids, shedding light on the group’s evolutionary origins. Most of the oldest spinosaurids lived in what’s now Europe, which suggests the group’s ancestral homeland was in the Northern Hemisphere. (Read more about Ceratosuchops and Riparovenator’s scientific significance.)

6. A toothless pipsqueak from Brazil

In November a Brazilian research team unveiled a remarkable toothless dinosaur in the journal Scientific Reports. The fossil creature, called Berthasaura leopoldinae, is the most complete fossil of its kind and age ever found in Brazil. It is named for two influential Brazilian women: Bertha Maria Júlia Lutz, a zoologist and pioneering women’s rights advocate, and Brazil’s first empress, Maria Leopoldina, who played a pivotal role in securing the country’s independence. 

Berthasaura was found in rocks between 125 million and 100 million years old. At about 1.5 feet long, the animal would have been fairly small and agile. Its beak was seemingly built for nibbling plants and possibly small prey. Other theropod groups had beaks like modern birds, including the toothless “ostrich mimic” ornithomimids, but Berthasaura belongs to the ceratosaurs—a group of normally toothed, meat-eating dinosaurs.

The first known toothless ceratosaur, Limusaurus, hails from China, so finding a totally different one in South America means that toothlessness likely evolved at least twice independently among ceratosaurs. Berthasaura highlights the diverse dietary strategies among this group, deepening our knowledge of how ancient dinosaurs eked out a living.

7. A strange Chilean dinosaur with a blade-like tail weapon

About 73 million years ago in what's now southern Chile, a newfound species of club-tailed dinosaur lived and died in a river delta rich with plant life, shown here in this artist's depiction.
Photograph by Illustration by Mauricio Álvarez

More than 72 million years ago, the river deltas of Chilean Patagonia were home to a tough little dinosaur with a unique tail weapon: a mass of fused bone resembling a jagged cricket bat. “It’s entirely unprecedented,” Alexander Vargas, a palaeontologist at the University of Chile, said of the tail.

The fossil skeleton, unveiled in December in the journal Nature, belongs to a newfound type of small armoured dinosaur called Stegouros elengassen. The creature is named for its bizarrely shingled “roof tail” and an armoured beast in the mythology of the Patagonian Aónik’enk people. Its novel tail weaponry is now named the macuahuitl, after a bladed club wielded by the Aztec.

Stegouros is a bizarre anatomical mosaic. The dinosaur’s skull, teeth, and club-like tail are classically ankylosaur, resembling Ankylosaurus and other late armoured dinosaurs. However, the dinosaur’s slender limb bones and pelvis resemble those of stegosaurs such as Stegosaurus, which had been extinct for tens of millions of years by the time of Stegouros. (See how Stegouros may shake up the armored dinosaurs’ family tree.)

Stegouros also fills in an important evolutionary gap. Very few armoured dinosaurs have been found within the lands that once made up Gondwana, an ancient supercontinent that started breaking apart during the age of dinosaurs. Before Stegouros, only two armoured dinosaurs had been found in what was once southern Gondwana, and neither is as complete as the newly described animal.

8-9. Two huge dinosaurs found in China’s pterosaur gold mine

The rocky outcrops near Hami, a city in northwestern China’s autonomous Xinjiang region, are best known for their incredible fossils of pterosaurs, flying reptiles that lived alongside the dinosaurs. But now researchers have found dinosaur bones within these sediments for the first time—and they belong to two never-before-seen species.

These bones, described in August, came from two types of sauropods, or long-necked dinosaurs. One, Silutitan sinensis, is named after the Chinese Mandarin word for the Silk Road, and the other, Hamititan xinjiangensis, pays tribute to the discovery site.

The two dinosaurs were enormous. The distinctive neck vertebrae of Silutitan, the only fragments of the animal found so far, are each between 18 and 21.5 inches long. To compare, the longest individual neck vertebrae in modern giraffes are less than 11 inches long. Hamititan is known from a series of tail bones that are each at least eight inches long, and the animal’s tail was made of dozens of these bones.

Silutitan and Hamititan add to our knowledge of the sauropods that lived in what is now Asia during the early Cretaceous period, from 145 million to 100 million years ago. The discovery also refines scientists’ picture of how sauropod dinosaurs spread out and diversified across ancient Earth.

10. A Japanese dinosaur from the Mesozoic Era’s last chapter

In 2004 an amateur fossil hunter named Shingo Kishimoto was looking through the rocks in a cement quarry on Japan’s Awaji Island when he came across a remarkable find: the bones of a dinosaur that lived more than 71 million years ago.

That fossil, described in April, is the second dinosaur from Japan that lived during the Maastricthian age, which lasted from 72 million until 66 million years ago—right up until the asteroid-driven extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous period. The dinosaur, Yamatosaurus izanagii, is named for an ancient term for part of the Japanese archipelago, as well as Izanagi, a deity in Japanese mythology.

Yamatosaurus is a hadrosaur, a broad group of “duck-billed” herbivores that includes Tlatolophus, the dinosaur with a comma-shaped head crest. Yamatosaurus falls within a “ghost” branch of the family tree that split off about 95 million years ago, very early in hadrosaurs’ existence. 

The fossil helps reveal that hadrosaurs belonging to the family tree’s first branches, such as Yamatosaurus, were widespread across what’s now Asia and eastern North America. However, they didn’t abound in western North America or Europe, where later-branching cousins such as Tlatolophus roamed. The finding suggests that eastern Asia may have given refuge to some of the oldest branches of the hadrosaurid family tree, even as other lineages in the group continued to diversify throughout the late Cretaceous.

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