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.

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