Over a round of beers, Yale paleontologist Nicholas Longrich came up with an unconventional name for the dinosaur species he discovered: “Mojoceratops.”
Longrich, a postdoctoral associate in geology and geophysics professor Jacques Gauthier’s laboratory, officially dubbed the creature “Mojoceratops perifania” in a paper in the July issue of the Journal of Paleontology. Although the dinosaur was originally believed to be another species called Chasmosaurus, Longrich noticed minute differences in the skulls of two specimens that helped him to conclude they were a separate species.
Rachel Racicot, a third-year graduate student working in Gauthier’s laboratory, said people have been using more unconventional ways of naming new species, and Longrich got away with “Mojoceratops” by saying that “mojo” referred to a talisman commonly used in early 20th-century African-American folk culture to boost sex appeal. “Ceras” is Greek for horn, and “ops” is Greek for face, she added. Longrich said the dinosaur’s name was apt since the heart-shaped frill on its head was probably used to attract mates.
Most dinosaurs are usually differentiated by a distinct physical aspect of their appearance, said Adam Behlke, another third-year graduate student in Gauthier’s laboratory.
“You’re supposed to use Latin and Greek names, but this just seemed more fun,” Longrich said in a press release. “You can do good science and still have some fun, too. So why not?”
While studying the dinosaur fossil collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2008, Longrich noticed a skull with a distinctive frill that matched the skull of a specimen thought to be a Chasmosaurus. Upon further investigation of the skulls, Longrich realized the skull was not a Chasmosaurus, but a new species. Although other dinosaurs in Mojoceratops’ family also have frills, its frills are the most conspicuously heart-shaped.
A hippopotamus-sized plant eater in the same family as the famous Triceratops, Mojoceratops appeared about 75 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period. Tyler Lyson, a fifth-year graduate student in Gauthier’s laboratory, said there were very diverse populations of horned dinosaurs during this period that looked very similar except for differences in their frill, which is why Mojoceratops was placed in the species Chasmosaurus before Longrich’s research.
“This is a classic problem in paleontology because all we have are the bones or pieces of bones,” Lyson said.
But the debate may not yet be resolved, Lyson said. While Longrich’s paper asserted that the differences in the skulls were wide enough to classify Mojoceratops as a new species, it also acknowledged that there would need to be a larger sample size to finally resolve the issue.
The Mojoceratops fossils were found in Cananda’s Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces.