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Scientists had a heck of a time getting the remarkable fossil of a dinosaur they dubbed "Hellboy" out of the hard limestone along a Canadian river bank where it was entombed for 68 million years, but the diabolic task proved gratifying.
The horned dinosaur boasted an exotic set of facial horns and spines around the edge of the bony frill at the back its skull. "This new animal is definitely one of the weirdest horned dinosaurs," said paleontologist Caleb Brown of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta. "How weird it is really only becomes fully apparent when you compare it to its close relatives, in which case it stands out like a sore thumb."
Brown and his colleagues officially named the fossil Regaliceratops peterhewsi, meaning "royal horned face" and honoring geologist Peter Hews, who found it. But they nicknamed it "Hellboy," because its stubby horns above the eyes resembled the comic-book character of the same name — and because of the hellish time they had getting it out of the rock.
"We did have an earlier, politically incorrect name for it, but with great effort we managed to stop ourselves using it after a few months," Royal Tyrrell Museum paleontologist Donald Henderson said.
Regaliceratops, similar in size to today's largest rhinos, was estimated at 16 feet (5 meters) long, 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall at the hips, and weighing about 1.5 tons. "Think of it like a big SUV," Brown said.
The fossil was found in 2005 along the Oldman River in southwestern Alberta, with the tip of the snout sticking out of the cliff. Rather than being squashed flat like many fossils, the skull was in remarkable three-dimensional preservation.
Regaliceratops lived near the end of the age of dinosaurs. It possessed a large conical horn over its nose and a pair of small, forward-curving horns over its eyes that were puny compared to those of its bigger close relative, Triceratops. Seven bony spines in triangular and pentagonal shapes formed a halo around the edge of its large shield-like frill.
"The complete frill looks like a crown formed around the face of the animal," Brown said. Nearly the entire skull, but none of the rest of the skeleton, was found.
The research appears in the journal Current Biology.
Update for 5 p.m. ET June 4: The research paper includes an unusual acknowledgment at the end: "C.M.B. would specifically like to highlight the ongoing and unwavering support of Lorna O’Brien. Lorna, will you marry me?"
Lead author Caleb M. Brown reports that O'Brien has already said yes to his proposal, based on her reading of the paper before publication. "I showed her a version on the weekend," Brown told NBC News. He said there was "very little ceremony" involved — but it's good to know that the paleontologist has passed successfully through one of life's most important peer reviews.