When scientists needed a name for a newfound dinosaur with wicked horns and protruding spikes, they knew exactly who to call.
Researchers christened the discovery Zuul after the uncannily similar monster in the 1984 classic Ghostbusters. After the name popped into her head, "we couldn't resist," says Victoria Arbour of Canada's Royal Ontario Museum.
Like its movie counterpart, Zuul the dinosaur had large horns on its head and smaller spikes on its face. The Cretaceous Zuul was a vegetarian, stuffing down greenery to maintain its 5,500-pound bulk. The celluloid Zuul, on the other hand, served the forces of destruction.
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Still, Zuul the dinosaur carried superior weaponry — its long, spiked tail, with a massive knob of bone at the tip. This "tail club" could have smacked around a tyrannosaur intent on having Zuul for dinner. Zuul also might have wielded it against rivals of its own kind.
The tail club inspired the second part of the animal's full scientific name: Zuul crurivastator, which means Zuul, Destroyer of Shins. The animal makes its scientific debut in a study published by Arbour and her museum colleague David Evans in this week's Royal Society Open Science.
The dinosaur lived some 75 million years ago in what are now the badlands of northern Montana. In Zuul's day, the area was a lush landscape swarming with dinosaurs, turtles and crocodile-like creatures. A fossil-hunting company digging up a different dinosaur in 2014 accidentally uncovered Zuul. Arbour and Evans's museum acquired the fossil, and the scientists realized they had something special on their hands.
Zuul was a type of ankylosaurid, massive plant-eaters armed with tail clubs. North American ankylosaurids are usually found in bits and pieces, with fragments often too small to pinpoint the animal's species, says Shoji Hayashi of Japan's Okayama University of Science, who was not part of the study. But the fossil from Montana included the whole skull and the entire tail as well as the rest of the body. It is by far the most complete ankylosaurid ever found in North America.
Even better, part of Zuul's body was mummified, preserving the fingernail-like sheaths that covered its bony body armor. The level of preservation is "astonishing," Hayashi says, and should allow researchers to learn more about dinosaur skin and color.
The fossil is "just incredible," agrees Andrew Farke of California's Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, who wasn't involved in the study. "This is really going to be a keystone for understanding the evolution of this group of ankylosaurs in North America."
Imaging of the inside of the skull could reveal details about the animal's brain, such as which senses it relied on most heavily, says Peter Dodson of the University of Pennsylvania, who also wasn't involved in the study.
Zuul's torso and legs are still encased in a block of rock, which will take several years to chip off. But, the dinosaur is already painting a more accurate picture of ankylosaurids. Sharp, pointy bone plates run the entire length of Zuul's tail, showing that North American ankylosaurids, not just their Asian counterparts, were heavily armored nearly down to their tail tips. Adults like the new find "probably weren't going to get eaten by too many other animals, and this is why," Arbour says. "You've got these great spikes."
Spikes were useful but not necessarily pretty. Dinosaurs of this kind were "grotesque," Dodson says, and Zuul is "no exception. … Only a mother could love an ankylosaur."
"Beauty," responds Arbour, "is in the eye of the beholder."