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The face of a star. (Art by Danielle Dufault/Royal Ontario Museum)

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There is No Dino, Only Zuul: Something Strange in the Jurassic Neighborhood

Last week, a refrigerator was opened, and a strange four-legged creature emerged  to wreak havoc on the paleontology world. Zuul had arrived. Though ankylosaurids, with their instantly recognizable armor and tail clubs, have oft appeared in media featuring dinosaurs, they are still quite mysterious. It is for this reason that scientists are excited by the discovery of the 75-million-year old Zuul (or maybe they’re just possessed by an ancient, Mesopotamian demigod).

Zuul crurivastator was discovered in the Coal Ridge Member of the Judith River Formation in Montana. In the paper describing it, authors by Dr. Victoria M. Arbour and Dr. David C. Evans – both of the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto – found that the ankylosaur’s skull, with its bony horns and protrusions, bears a striking resemblance to that most famous of hellhounds, Zuul from Ghostbusters. It’s this Hollywood-ready face that helped identify Zuul as its own taxon.

In addition to having a skull that was seemingly less-arched than many of its relatives (the authors acknowledge this could be due to the fossilization process, AKA “crossing the streams”), Zuul has a unique arrangement of caputegulae (a word referencing the almost scale-like structures adorning ankylosaur skulls) that differentiates it from close relatives like Anodontosaurus, Scolosaurus, and Dyoplosaurus.

Zuul Size Comparison (Art by Danielle Dufault/Royal Ontario Museum)

While Zuul may have gotten its genus name from the skull, it’s the dangerous tail club that earned it the species name crurivastator, meaning “destroyer of shins.” Indeed, Zuul is a formidable dinosaur, its skeleton the most complete of any ankylosaurid found in North America. The tail club, including the 13-vertebrae “handle” in the tail measures a whopping 210 cm (6’10”), giving Zuul crurivastator the ability to keep a potential predator (or Peter Venkman) well at bay.

Perhaps what is most exceptional about Zuul, however is its level of preservation. Not only is it one of the most complete ankylosaur finds, being the first in North America with both its skull and tail club, it also bears some preservation of soft tissue. This includes some scale impressions, as well as impressions from the sheaths of the many bony protrusions running along Zuul‘s tail, giving a detailed look into the armor that protected this fascinating animal.

As far as other strange things in the neighborhood, the Coal Ridge Member of the Judith River Formation where Zuul was found has not yielded a large array of dinosaurs (two Triceratops relatives, Mercuriceratops gemini and Spiclypeus shipporum, notwithstanding). One has to imagine that this is because Zuul crurivastator was too busy breaking shins and taking names while searching for the Keymaster.

If you’d like to keep Zuul and other paleontology goodness in your Twitter feed, add the following:
Dr. Victoria Arbour (@VictoriaArbour)
Dr. David Evans (@DavidEvans_ROM)
Danielle Dufault (@MesozoicMuse)
Royal Ontario Museum (@ROMToronto)


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