Bizarre Dinosaurs Shed Light on Adaptation

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 14, 2003
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Dinosaurs were weird. Some had horns growing from their foreheads like mythological unicorns. Others had claws as long and dangerous as rusty pitchforks. Several had spikes around their necks that made them look like temporally displaced punk rockers.

Paleontologists believe that these horns, claws, and spikes in addition to towering necks, feathered limbs, pointy fingers, and shrunken arms had purpose. Discovering what those purposes were provides paleontologists insight to the range of adaptive strategies throughout evolution.

"Some bizarre adaptations can give new insight we didn't have before on some big questions," said Philip Currie, curator of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. "They certainly give a lot of information on behavior."

For example, Currie said that many of the horned, spike-necked, and other dinosaurs with ornamental frills lived in herds, and these oddball features were displays to attract mates or scare off potential competition within the herd.

Today, the dinosaurs that get labeled as bizarre may not be any stranger than the horned ceratopsians, long-necked sauropods, or meat-eating tyrannosaurs—let alone a giraffe or elephant—but they are a break from what humans already know, and thus represent a new piece to the evolutionary puzzle.

"Some of the dinosaurs we think of as bizarre today—Carnotaurus, Shuvuuia, Mononykus—if they had been found 100 years ago and just this year someone found the first T. rex, we'd probably think of them as normal and T. rex as weird," said Thomas Holtz, a paleontologist with the department of geology at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Jim Kirkland, a paleontologist with the Utah Geological Survey in Salt Lake City, said that as the first dinosaurs were discovered in the late 1800s and early 1900s—such as Othniel Charles Marsh's 1879 discovery in Colorado of Brontosaurus (which has since been renamed Apatosaurus)—people did not think things could get any stranger.

"In those days, people didn't believe in extinction," he said. "They thought that somewhere hiding in the depths of Africa those animals are living."

Today it is generally accepted as fact that all dinosaurs other than those that might be their close relatives—birds—went extinct about 65 million years ago, most likely from a series of catastrophic events triggered by an asteroid or comet impact on Earth. But although the dinosaurs are extinct, paleontologists are discovering more dinosaur fossils than ever before. Some of them are really quite strange.

Bizarre Dinosaurs

Near the top of most paleontologists' list of the strangest dinosaurs are ones that fall under the suborder of theropods, which were fast-moving, two-footed, meat-eating animals with clawed fingers. They lived from the mid-Triassic to the Cretaceous (about 220 to 65 million years ago) and include such well-known beasts as Tyrannosaurus rex.

Among the strangest of the theropods was a type of dinosaur called the therizinosaurs. When the first huge sickle-like claws were found in Mongolia in 1948, scientists thought it was a giant turtle. Other fossils found more recently led to its classification as a strange form of theropod in 1993, said Currie.

"They have huge, sharply pointed claws more adapted for meat eating, but they have teeth that are leaflike, adapted for plants or maybe fish," he said. Some paleontologists think the claws were used for ripping apart termite nests to feed on the insects; others think the dinosaurs were herbivores.

Other odd features of therizinosaurs include birdlike hips and long ostrichlike necks. Recent finds include impressions left by feathers, which helps their grouping with theropods—the possible ancestral relatives of birds.

"Therizinosaurs look like dinosaurs built by committee," said Holtz. "There are bits and pieces made by every animal."

Other interesting theropods on Holtz's list include Shuvuuia and Mononykus from Mongolia. These chicken-sized dinosaurs with small, beaky heads and long necks had the unusual characteristic of short arms and only one functional finger. "No one has come up with a reasonable explanation for these forelimbs," said Holtz.

Another dinosaur on Kirkland's list is Utahraptor, a giant lizard-like dromaeosaur that lived about 100 million years ago during the early Cretaceous period. Kirkland's recent work on Utahraptor shows that it had huge, powerful legs with clawed feet, which it used to kick down and puncture the hides of the dinosaurs it ate.

"Nothing had the kick force it had," said Kirkland. "It could rip through a hide an inch thick or more."

Living at the same time as Utahraptor was a dinosaur that belonged to the tanklike armadillo shaped ankylosaurs called Gastonia. It had enormous spikes on its shoulders and armored plates along its neck, body, and tail, making it what Kirkland calls the most well protected dinosaur that ever lived.

"It makes a lot of sense that co-existing with Utahraptor would be the most heavily armored dinosaur," he said. "They formed part of an ecosystem that was stable and maintained itself for probably several million years."

Mark Norell, curator and chairman of the division of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said that another weird dinosaur is a sauropod from Argentina called Amargasaurus that lived during the early Cretaceous period.

Amargasaurus was 33 feet (10 meters) long and was built mostly like a typical sauropod: a four-legged, heavy bodied herbivore with a small head and long neck and tail. Oddly, though, it had two rows of spines growing out along its neck, body, and tail that may have been encased in skin to form a huge sail that regulated body heat or served as an ornament to attract mates or ward off predators.

"Dinosaurs in general were anatomically a lot more diverse than most people give them credit for," said Norell. "You never can expect what you are going to find next."

More National Geographic News Stories on Dinosaurs:
Robotic Dinosaur
Dino Dung: Paleontology's Next Frontier?
Do They Really Look Like That? The Science of Dino Art
Dinosaur Footprints: Tracks Tell Prehistoric Secrets
Four-Winged Dinosaurs Found in China, Experts Announce
Utah Dinos May Have Been Killed By Drought
Cuban Dinosaur: First Confirmed Remains Discovered
Dinosaur Cannibal?—Mystery in New Mexico
Tetrapod Fossil Found—First Ever in Asia
New Picture of Dinosaurs Emerging
Fossil Implies Our Early Kin Lived in Trees, Study Says
Weird Buck-Toothed Dinosaur Found
Dinosaur Tracks Preserved on Scottish Island
Dinosaur Tracks Shed Light on Sauropod Evolution
Comets May Have Led to Birth and Death of Dinosaur Era
Fossil of Dog-Size Horned Dinosaur Unearthed in China
Tyrannosaurus rex Was a Slowpoke
Researchers Rethink Dinosaur Die Off Scenario
Researchers Melt Polar Dinosaur Mysteries
Scientist's Finds Spur New Thinking on Dino Evolution
Dino-Era Vomit Fossil Found in England
Study Paints New Picture of Dinosaur's Nose
Skeleton of New Dinosaur "Titan" Found in Madagascar
"Tidal Giant" Roamed Coastal Swamps of Ancient Africa
"Feathered" Fossil Bolsters Changing Image of Dinosaurs
Oddly Angled Teeth Make Masiakasaurus Stick Out
New Find: Pterosaur Had Strange Crest, Fishing Style
Dinosaur Beak Probably Used to Strain Food, Not Kill Prey

Additional Dinosaur Resources from National Geographic:

Paul Sereno: National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Dinosaur Hunter
Wanted: Albertosaurus
Dinosaur Eggs
Destinations: Dinosaur National Monument


Use this National Geographic News article in your classroom with these Xpeditions lesson plans and student activity:
K-2: Dinosaur Bodies
3-5: How Do Scientists Find Dinosaur Fossils?
6-8: The Science of Digging Up Dinosaurs
9-12: The Evolution of Dinosaurs Over Geologic Time
K-2: Those Fussy Dinosaurs!
9-12: Physical Characteristics of Places: The Fossil Record
Activity: A Dinosaur's Neighborhood

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