Newly discovered dinosaur’s horns look ‘like something a heavy metal rocker would wear’

Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news on fascinating discoveries, scientific advancements and more.

For more than a year, visitors at the Museum of Evolution in Maribo, Denmark, have been in for a treat: admiring a previously unknown species of dinosaur that didn’t have a name.

The placard next to the animal’s large, wonderfully ornate skull — reminiscent of a Triceratops — simply read, “New dinosaur under study, stay tuned!”

Now, five years after the specimen’s discovery, that dinosaur finally has a name: Lokiceratops rangiformis.

“This was found in northern Montana, about 3 miles south of the US-Canada border,” said Joseph Sertich, a paleontologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Colorado State University, and co-leader of the study that is unveiling these findings, published Thursday in the journal PeerJ.

“It’s an area that’s known for producing horned dinosaurs. In fact, there are four other species of horned dinosaurs known from this particular region,” Sertich said. “So when we started working on it, we assumed that it was going to be one of those four — we were completely shocked to find out that it was a totally new species.”

A ‘success story’

The fossil was found in an area of North America that was separate from the rest of the continent when Lokiceratops was alive, about 78 million years ago, and formed a large island called Laramidia. The dinosaur lived among similar horned species in swamps and floodplains along the eastern shore of the island, according to the new research.

“The fossil was discovered on private land in 2019 by Mark Eatman, who is a commercial paleontologist,” Sertich said. “He goes out, he digs up fossils, eventually to sell them.”

Eatman has unearthed other important specimens in the past, including one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever discovered. He found that fossil entangled with a Triceratops, hence its nickname, “dueling dinosaurs.” First spotted in 2006, it was purchased by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh after several attempts to sell it to private buyers and legal battles over its status. The museum put it on display in late April.

Lokiceratops is a “success story,” Sertich said, because a museum purchased it (for an undisclosed sum) straight out of the ground. “Oftentimes these fossils will disappear into private hands. As scientists, we don’t know where they go, they just disappear. The public doesn’t get to see them, scientists don’t get to study them, new species don’t get new names. They’re essentially lost,” he said.

“But not in this case. When it ends up at a museum, a fossil can be studied forever in perpetuity by scientists. And it’s also put on display, so that the public can see it and enjoy it.”

Fossil skull bones of Lokiceratops were reconstructed and put on display at the Museum of Evolution in Maribo, Denmark. - Museum of Evolution
Fossil skull bones of Lokiceratops were reconstructed and put on display at the Museum of Evolution in Maribo, Denmark. - Museum of Evolution

Lokiceratops has been on display at the Museum of Evolution since March 2023. The specimen was nicknamed Loki, foretelling the full taxonomic name — Lokiceratops rangiformis — which is both an homage to the Norse god Loki and a reference to the range of shapes found on the dinosaur’s skull, the telltale sign it was a species entirely new to science.

“Initially, it looked like a known dinosaur named Medusaceratops. But as we reassembled the skull, the number of horns and the shapes of the horns indicated that it was a different species,” Sertich said, noting that the horns show an asymmetry that is found today in the antlers of caribou and reindeer.

A Triceratops cousin

Lokiceratops has obvious similarities with the famous Triceratops, but the newly named species lived about 12 million years earlier and belongs to a separate lineage, Sertich said. Fossils of the four other species of similar horned dinosaurs with which it shared its habitat were discovered in the same area. Three of them have been named — Medusaceratops, Albertaceratops and Wendiceratiops — and a fourth one is of uncertain classification.

“All these dinosaurs are generally like Triceratops in that they have horns on the face,” Sertich said. “Lokiceratops in particular has horns just like Triceratops over the eyes, but they bend off to the sides instead of pointing forward.”

Study authors Brock Sisson (left) and Joseph Sertich (top, right) and technician Ben Meredith use casts of the real bones to reconstruct the skull of Lokiceratops. - Mark Loewen
Study authors Brock Sisson (left) and Joseph Sertich (top, right) and technician Ben Meredith use casts of the real bones to reconstruct the skull of Lokiceratops. - Mark Loewen

The other feature of horned dinosaurs that’s unique is the frill, the big shield that extends from the back of the head over the neck. Different types of horned dinosaurs have distinct horns along the edge of that frill.

“Triceratops has very small triangular horns, almost imperceptible,” Sertich said, “but this dinosaur and many of its close relatives have huge, paddle-shaped horns at the back, along with smaller horns on the edges of the frill.”

The fossil belongs to a dinosaur that would have been roughly the size of a large rhino when it died, according to Sertich, and the skull ornaments would have been used to attract a mate, intimidate a rival or more generally for identification or recognition among its own species.

Eatman discovered about 75% of the skull, along with some parts of the hips, limbs and shoulder bones. However, so far only the skull has been on display at the Museum of Evolution. It also hosts a skeleton of an Allosaurus, a large meat-eating dinosaur similar to T. rex, and attracts about 300,000 visitors a year.

A reproduction of the skull, along with a full sculpture of the head, fleshed out with skin and based on what researchers think the dinosaur might have looked like, will go on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City starting Thursday.

Like a heavy metal rocker

Paleontologists who were not involved with the study expressed their enthusiasm about the find.

It’s a remarkable discovery of a dinosaur with a real personality and attitude, said Steve Brusatte, personal chair of paleontology and evolution at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

“Its headgear looks like something a heavy metal rocker would wear onstage. It is a member of the same group as Triceratops but has its own style, as do the dozens of other horned dinosaurs that have been found recently,” Brusatte said. “The horns and frills of these dinosaurs were their badges of identity, their billboards for attracting mates and intimidating rivals. And each new discovery seems stranger and weirder than the last.”

Lokiceratops is another remarkable expression of sexual experimentation in dinosaurs, according to David Norman, a professor of vertebrate paleobiology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

“The larger and more decorous, perhaps even colorful the ornamentation, the more potentially attractive the owner might appear to potential mates,” Norman said. “So, rather like the case of the extraordinary birds of paradise, sexual selection can lead to the development of extremely flamboyant, even bizarre, features.”

This study is a very cool description of yet another horned dinosaur from the late Cretaceous Period, and there is no doubt that it belongs to something new, said Tyler Lyson, a paleontologist and a curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “I’m amazed at just how many horned dinosaurs, all with wonderfully ornate horns and frills, there were during this interval of time,” he said via email. “The bodies of these horned dinosaurs are very similar, yet their heads are adorned with some wild head gear.”

Similar appendages are found on the heads of horned lizards, Lyson added, except in these horned dinosaurs, they are attached to multiton bodies.

“It’s also fun, and hopefully inspiring, that so many new dinosaurs are still being discovered here in North America, which has been intensely prospected and studied over the past hundred-plus years,” he said. “Who knows what else is out there waiting to be discovered.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at