Aquilops: The Eagle-Faced Dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous Period

Imagine, if you will, a journey back in time to the Early Cretaceous period. Picture a landscape teeming with life, a world untouched by human influence. A small creature scurries through the underbrush, its beaked face scanning the environment for food. This is the Aquilops, a dinosaur whose name translates to “eagle face,” a fitting moniker for a creature with such a distinctive snout.

The Aquilops is a fascinating character in the grand narrative of prehistoric life. Despite its small size, it holds a significant place in our understanding of dinosaur evolution. As we delve into the world of the Aquilops, we’ll uncover the story of its discovery, its unique characteristics, and its place in the grand timeline of prehistoric life.

Aquilops Key Facts

Aquilops pronunciationah-kwih-lops
Meaning of nameEagle face
Type SpeciesAquilops americanus
When it Lived109.0 to 99.6 MYA
PeriodEarly Cretaceous
EpochMiddle Albian to Late Albian
Length1.8 to 2.0 ft
Height1.2 ft
Weight0.002 tons
MobilityMoved on two legs, or all four
First Discovery1997 by Scott Madsen
Location of first findMontana, USA
First Described by2014 by Andrew Farke, W. Desmond Maxwell, Richard Cifelli and Mathew Wedel
HolotypeOMNH 34557

Aquilops Origins: Taxonomy, Timeline, and Discovery

Aquilops by Nobu Tamura

The Aquilops, whose name is derived from the Latin “aquila” for “eagle” and the Greek “ops” for “face,” is a captivating creature from the past. Its name reflects its most distinctive feature—a beaked face that bears a striking resemblance to that of an eagle. This unique characteristic sets it apart from many of its dinosaur contemporaries.

In addition to belonging to the Ceratopsia group, the Aquilops is a member of the Ceratopsid family. Its genus is Aquilops, and the type species is Aquilops americanus. Therefore, this classification places it within a group of herbivorous dinosaurs known for their beaked faces and frilled necks.

The Aquilops lived during the Early Cretaceous period, specifically from the Middle Albian to Late Albian epoch. This places its existence between 109 to 99.6 million years ago, a time when the Earth was undergoing significant changes in climate and geography.

The first discovery of the Aquilops was made in 1997 by paleontologist Scott Madsen in Montana, USA. However, it wasn’t until 2014 that it was first described by American paleontologists Andrew Farke, W. Desmond Maxwell, Richard L. Cifelli, and Matthew J. Wedel. However, this gap between discovery and description is not uncommon in paleontology, as the process of extracting and studying fossils is often a lengthy one.

Fossil Evidence

The first and only known specimen of this dinosaur was found by Scott Madsen in 1997 in Montana, USA. At first, it was thought to be a specimen of Zephyrosaurus, but further examination revealed it to be a new species entirely. This partial skull, found in Carbon County in southern Montana, was the first of its kind, marking a significant moment in the field of paleontology.

It wasn’t until 2014 that this fossil was officially described by a team of paleontologists including Andrew Farke, W. Desmond Maxwell, Richard L. Cifelli, and Matthew J. Wedel. This team undertook the task of studying the fossil in detail, eventually determining that it represented a new species within the Ceratopsia group.

The Aquilops fossil is particularly notable due to its well-preserved state. Despite being over 100 million years old, the fossil retains many of its original features, allowing scientists to gain valuable insights into the physical characteristics and lifestyle of this ancient creature. The fossil evidence of Aquilops is limited to this single specimen, but it has nonetheless provided a wealth of information about this unique dinosaur.

Aquilops Size and Description

The Aquilops is a fascinating creature, not just for its unique characteristics, but also for its size. Despite being a member of the Ceratopsia group, known for their large, frilled dinosaurs, the Aquilops was relatively small.

Short description of Aquilops

More than just being a small dinosaur, it had a body shape that was compact and agile. Its most distinctive feature was its beaked face, which gave it its name. It had a short neck and a long tail, which it likely used for balance. Its limbs were robust, indicating that it was a capable runner. The Aquilops moved bipedally, on two legs, a trait that is common among smaller dinosaurs. The skin of the Aquilops is not well known, but it is likely that it had a covering of scales, like many other dinosaurs.

Size and Weight of Type Species

Aquilops size
IJReid, Andrew A. Farke, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The estimated body length of Aquilops is 2.0 ft with  a weight of approximately 0.002 tons. This size estimate is based on the fossil evidence available, which includes a well-preserved skull that measures 84.2 mm in length. It’s important to note, however, that the fossil specimen is believed to be from a subadult individual, so the full-grown size of the Aquilops may have been slightly larger.

The Dinosaur in Detail

The beaked face of the Aquilops, the feature that earned it its name, was a unique adaptation among its dinosaur brethren. This beak, reminiscent of an eagle’s, was not just a defining characteristic but a survival tool, enabling it to efficiently consume the plant matter that made up its diet.

Another intriguing aspect of the Aquilops is its antorbital fenestra, a skull opening that was twice as long as it was tall and had a pointed rear below the eye socket. This is a feature not commonly seen among dinosaurs, further setting the Aquilops apart from its contemporaries.

Despite its size, the Aquilops was likely a nimble creature, its compact and agile body allowing it to navigate its environment with ease. This agility would have been a key survival trait in the Early Cretaceous period, a time when the Earth was home to a wide array of predators.

The Aquilops in its Natural Habitat and Environment

It lived during the Early Cretaceous period, a time of significant environmental change. The western part of North America was its home—a paleocontinent known as Laramidia. The climate was warm, and sea levels were rising, resulting in a world rich in vegetation and diverse ecosystems.

As an herbivore, it would have relied heavily on the abundant plant life for sustenance. Its beaked face, a unique adaptation among dinosaurs, would have been particularly useful in this regard, allowing it to efficiently consume a variety of plant materials.

Its bipedal locomotion would have given it a speed advantage over many other herbivores, enabling it to quickly escape from predators. It’s also possible that the Aquilops lived in groups, as many herbivorous dinosaurs did to provide additional protection from predators.

Its senses would have played a crucial role in its survival. While we don’t know much about its specific sensory capabilities, it’s likely that it had keen eyesight and a strong sense of smell, which would have helped it find food and avoid predators.

Interesting Points about Aquilops

  1. It is the oldest and most primitive neoceratopsian known from North America.
  2. Despite being a member of the Ceratopsia group, known for their large, frilled dinosaurs, it was relatively small.
  3. Its beaked face is its most distinctive trait, setting it apart from many other dinosaurs of its time.
  4. It had a unique skull opening, known as the antorbital fenestra, which is not common among dinosaurs.
  5. It was a bipedal dinosaur, meaning it moved on two legs, a trait that is common among smaller dinosaurs.
  6. Its small size and agile nature would have allowed it to have a significant impact on its environment. By consuming plant matter, it would have helped to shape the landscape around it, contributing to the overall biodiversity of its ecosystem.

Contemporary Dinosaurs

This dinosaur would have shared its world with an intriguing cast of contemporaries. These fellow Laramidian dinosaurs were integral parts of a complex ecosystem, their lives interwoven in a delicate balance of survival and competition.

Consider the Deinonychus, a dinosaur significantly larger than the Aquilops. This predator, with its sharp claws and swift movements, might have posed a considerable threat to our main dinosaur. But the Aquilops, small and agile, could have used its size to its advantage and nimbly navigated the terrain to evade such predators. This dynamic paints a vivid picture of the constant dance between predator and prey, a testament to the survival instincts of the Aquilops.

Then there was the Dryptosaurus, another larger contemporary. Unlike the Deinonychus, the Dryptosaurus was not as swift, but its size and strength could have made it a formidable presence. The Aquilops, in its resourcefulness, might have relied on its keen senses and quick reflexes to steer clear of this potential threat, further illustrating its adaptability in a world of giants.

Lastly, we turn our attention to the Tenontosaurus, an herbivorous dinosaur like the Aquilops. Despite being of a similar diet, the Tenontosaurus was considerably larger. Their size difference likely meant they grazed at different levels, allowing them to coexist without direct competition. This relationship underscores the intricate balance within their shared ecosystem, each species playing its part in maintaining the harmony of their prehistoric world and challenging the Aquilops in their own ways.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does the name Aquilops mean?

The name translates to “eagle face,” a reference to its distinctive beaked face.

When did it live?

It lived during the Early Cretaceous period, specifically from the Middle Albian to Late Albian epoch, which is approximately 109 to 99.6 million years ago.

What did it eat?

As an herbivore, it would have consumed a variety of plant materials.

How was it discovered?

The first and only known specimen was discovered in 1997 by paleontologist Scott Madsen in Montana, USA

How big was it?

It was a small dinosaur, with an estimated body length of up to 2.0 ft and a weight of approximately 0.002 tons.


This article was last fact checked:Joey Arboleda, 06-10-2023

Featured Image Credit: Nobu Tamura, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons