Move over platypus, a recently discovered dinosaur may have bested you for the strangest combination of physical features. Two hundred million years ago, a two-foot- long, beaked biped covered in quills scampered about an area that is now part of South Africa.
The dinosaur's discoverer is paleontologist Paul Sereno, of the University of Chicago. Sereno has dubbed the critter Pegomastax africanus. He describes the find in the journal ZooKeys today, as part of a larger review of the new species' dinosaur family, the Heterodontosaurids.
Sereno also details the dinosaur's peculiar dental anatomy. P. africanus bore oversized fang-like canines —an odd feature for a vegetarian. A still extent animal, however, might provide clues to their use. Fanged deer such as the water deer (aka- vampire deer) use their tusks in self-defense or when battling other deer. The beak, meanwhile, may have made nabbing fruits and berries easier—much like a modern parrot's beak.
Not content to merely imagine the wee beasties, University of Chicago paleoartist Tyler Keillor sculpted a layered and lifelike model of Heterodontosaurus,* a toothy, bristly relative of P. africanus. As you can see in the time-lapse video, below, he began with a resin model of the Heterodontosaurus's skull then built up muscle and flesh using plastilene clay and silicone rubber. To incorporate the dinosaur's prickly defenses, Keillor crafted a foam Heterodontosaurus and poked in layers of fishing-line to serve as bristles. Glass eyes and acrylic paint complete the picture.
"At first, I didn't think the model would be all that visually interesting," Keillor says. "But by the time one combines a beak, tusks, cheeks, quills, and scales, it ends up being quite a frightful little beast!"
Keillor consulted Sereno as well as the anatomy of living creatures—particularly birds and crocodiles—in building his model. He notes that the fishing wire he used corresponds to the width of bristle impressions left on fossils surrounding a heterodontosaurid's remains.
*Correction (10/15/2012): Original text described the model as Pegomastax africanus. However, as too little is known about the new species to build a model, the artist has sculpted a relative of P. africanus, Heterodontosaurus.