New dinosaur with sail-like structure on its back discovered in Spain

A newly discovered species of dinosaur that inhabited what is now northeastern Spain roughly 125 million years ago had a distinctive sail-like structure on its back, research published in the Wednesday edition of the open-access scientific journal PLOS One has revealed.

The creature—which according to a statement has been named Morelladon beltrani—was a four-legged, medium-sized, herbivorous styracosternan ornithopod that grew to about six meters long and 2.5 meters high, lead author José Miguel Gasulla of the Grupo Biología Evolutiva (UNED-UAM) and his colleagues explained.

Morelladon beltrani was described based on the discovery of a partial skeleton composed mainly of dorsal and sacral vertebrae and pelvic bones at the Arcillas de Morella Formation in Castellón, Spain, the study authors said. They also found a pelvic bone, a thigh bone, and teeth.


The dorsal vertebrae of the sail-back dinosaur. Credit: Gasulla et al.

Sail structure may have helped regulate heat, store food

Of course, the most notable feature of the new dinosaur was the tall neural spines on its dorsal vertebrae—the function of which can only be speculated upon at this point. The two foot tall sail-like structure was formed by a series of bony spines protruding out the creature’s back.

“The sail could help in heat exchange – thermoregulation – focused on releasing excess body heat into the environment, like the ears of the modern-day elephants, or as a storage place for fat to be used during periods of low food supply,” paleontologist Fernando Escaso of the National University of Distance Education’s Evolutionary Biology Group in Spain told Reuters.

Alternatively, he and his colleagues believe the “sail” might have been used in order to attract potential mates. As Escaso explained, such structures appear periodically throughout the history of vertebrate evolution, often times in groups which are not closely related to each other, such as the reptilian Arizonasaurus, the amphibian Platyhystrix, and the mammalian Dimetrodon.

Morelladon beltrani was found in the same area and comes from the same basic time frame as its relatives, Iguanodon bernissartensis and Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis, the research team noted. The discovery, Escaso said, “shows an interesting rise of the iguanodontoid diversity in southern Europe,” particularly in the eastern Iberian landmass about 125 million years ago.


Feature Image: Carlos de Miguel Chaves