EDMONTON -- Researchers at the University of Alberta say a dinosaur skull found in Alberta in 2015 could change the way they evaluate past and future dinosaur discoveries.

The skull is that of a Styracosaurus, a horned dinosaur that was over five metres long with a fan of long horns. Researchers have nicknamed it Hannah.

Hannah was discovered northwest of Dinosaur Provincial Park in 2015.

Paleontologists say they have learned a lot from Hannah’s horns because they aren’t symmetrical. In fact, the two sides of the skull are so dramatically different, researchers say they would have concluded they were from different species if they had only found isolated halves.

Hannah's skull

Hannah's skull, seen from all sides. The jacket used to recover Hannah’s skull weighed 2500 kilograms—requiring a helicopter to retrieve from the field! Image courtesy of Scott Persons.

"When parts of one side of the skull were missing, paleontologists have assumed that the missing side was symmetrical to the one that was preserved," said Scott Persons, who discovered Hannah. "Turns out, it isn’t necessarily. Today, deer often have left and right antlers that are different in terms of their branching patterns. Hannah shows dramatically that dinosaurs could be the same way.”

"The skull shows how much morphological variability there was in the genus," said paleontologist Robert Holmes. "Like the antlers of modern deer and moose, Hannah shows that the pattern of dinosaur horns could vary significantly—meaning some fossils that were once assumed to be unique species will have to be re-evaluated."

Researchers have also teamed up with the U of A’s Faculty of Engineering to do a 3D laser scan on the skull. This will allow researchers all over the world to download the 3D model and inspect it in detail.

"This is the future of paleontological collections: digital dinosaurs," said Persons.