November 26, 2012
Stegosaurus was a weird dinosaur. We’ve known that for well over a century, but, as Darren Naish has often pointed out, Stegosaurus was strange even compared to its Jurassic relatives. The dinosaur’s arrangement of broad, alternating plates is a departure from the arrangements of smaller plates, back spikes and accessory spines seen on many other stegosaurs, including the perplexingly well-armed Gigantspinosaurus sichuanensis.
Ornamented with a double row of short, narrow plates along its back, the roughly 160-million-year-old Gigantspinosaurus generally resembled other stegosaurs from Late Jurassic Asia, such as Tuojiangosaurus. But, as you might be able to guess from the dinosaur’s name, the feature that immediately sets Gigantspinosaurus apart from similar species is a enormous hooked spine that jutted out from behind the shoulder blade. These striking spikes were found close to their life position on the first skeleton of this dinosaur to be found–erroneously attributed to Tuojiangosaurus, before being redescribed as Gigantspinosaurus in 1992–although their exact orientation isn’t entirely clear. Did the shoulder spikes curve straight backward, or were they tiled slightly upwards? And, more significantly, how did such prominent ornaments evolve? No one knows.
As yet, we know relatively little about the natural history of Gigantspinosaurus. The dinosaur has a name, and skin impressions have helped researchers restore what the stegosaur looked like, but many aspects of the spiky herbivore’s biology remain mysterious. In the grand scheme of stegosaur evolution, though, the ornamentation of Gigantspinosaurus has sometimes been taken as evidence that similar forms had shoulder spikes. In addition to paired spikes along its tail, the Late Jurassic stegosaur Kentrosaurus possessed an extra pair of spikes along its side. These were originally placed over the hips, but, due to the discovery of Gigantspinosaurus, some researchers have argued that the spikes truly belong at the shoulders.
Frustratingly, paleontologists have yet to find a Kentrosaurus skeleton with side spikes in place. But the discovery of Gigantspinosaurus doesn’t necessarily mean that its cousin Kentrosaurus had the same arrangement. Among stegosaurs, the two genera were relatively distantly related, and it’s entirely possible that more than one side spike arrangement evolved. As paleontologist Heinrich Mallison has argued, the hips of Kentrosaurus seem to possess areas where the spikes could have articulated, and this arrangement would be consistent with the dinosaur’s ornamentation pattern–small plates at the front give way to spikes along the stegosaur’s back and tail. Indeed, the side spikes on Kentrosaurus more closely resemble the same structures along the dinosaur’s back and tail and the shoulder spike of Gigantspinosaurus. If Kentrosaurus had plates up front and serially homologous spikes along the back, then why shouldn’t the hip spikes remain a reasonable hypothesis? Together, Gigantspinosaurus and Kentrosaurus might represent different alternatives in the stegosaur armory.
November 20, 2012
Dinosaur giants are among the most famous Mesozoic celebrities. Yet the dinosaur growth spurt didn’t start just as soon as Eoraptor and kin evolved. For most of the Triassic, the first act in their story, dinosaurs were small and gracile creatures, with the first relatively large dinosaurs being the sauropodomorphs of the Late Triassic. Even then, Plateosaurus and kin didn’t come close to the truly enormous sizes of their later relatives–such as Diplodocus and Futalognkosaurus. Discerning when dinosaurs started to bulk up is difficult, however, and made all the more complicated by a set of enigmatic bones found in England.
The fossils at the heart of the in-press Acta Palaeontologica Polonica study, as described by University of Cape Town paleontologist Ragna Redelstorff and coauthors, have been known to researchers for a long time. During the mid-19th century, naturalists described at least five large, incomplete shafts found in the Late Triassic rock of southwest England’s Aust Cliff. Two of these fossils were later destroyed, but, drawing from the surviving specimens and illustrations of the lost bones, paleontologist Peter Galton proposed in 2005 that they came from large dinosaurs that lived over 200 million years ago. In particular, two of the bones resembled stegosaur bones, which would have extended the origin of the armored dinosaurs further back than previously thought.
Not everyone agreed with Galton’s proposal. The bone shafts could be from as-yet-unknown sauropods, some paleontologists argued, while other researchers pointed out that the lack of distinctive features on the bones were unidentifiable beyond the level of “tetrapod” (the major group of vertebrates descended from fish with limbs, similar to Tiktaalik). The bones came from big creatures–possibly more than 20 feet long, based on comparisons to other fossils–but the identity of the Aust Cliff animals is unknown.
Since the outside of the bone shafts provide so little information about their identity, Redelstorff and collaborators looked to the microstructure of two specimens for new clues. While the histological evidence appears to show that the sampled bones belonged to the same species, the authors argue, each individual shows different growth strategies. One bone shaft came from a slightly bigger, rapidly growing individual, while the smaller bone represents an older animal that regularly experienced temporary halts in growth (visible as lines called LAGs in the bone). Why this should be so isn’t clear, but Redelstorff and coauthors suggest individual variation, differences between the sexes or ecological factors as possible causes.
But what sort of animals were the Aust Cliff creatures? When the researchers compared their sample with three kinds of dinosaurs–sauropods, archaic sauropodomorphs and stegosaurs–and Triassic croc cousins called pseudosuchians, the pseudosuchians seemed to be the closest match. Indeed, while the researchers concluded that the “Aust Cliff bones simply do not offer a good match with any previously described histologies,” the specimens appeared to share more in common with those of croc-line archosaurs than with dinosaurs.
This isn’t to say that the Aust Cliff animals were definitely large psuedosuchians, like the recently named Smok. As the researchers point out, the specimens contained a type of bone tissue not previously seen in pseudosuchians–either these animals were not pseudosuchians, or these pseudosuchians were a previously unknown histology. And, Redelstorff and collaborators point out, the bones might be attributable to a sauropodomorph named Camelotia that is found in the same deposits. Studying the bone microstructure of Smok and Camelotia for comparison would be a logical next step in efforts to narrow down the identity of the Aust Cliff animals. Until then, this early “experiment” in gigantism–as Redelstorff and colleagues call it–remains an unresolved puzzle.
Still, the study highlights the importance of building a deep database of paleohistological samples. Had the researchers sampled just one bone, they may have come to the conclusion that all bones of that type would exhibit the same life history–either rapid, continuous growth or a stop-and-go pattern, depending on which they studied. Together, the bones show variations in the natural history of what is presumably the same species, which brings up the question of how quirks of environment, biology and natural history are recorded in bone. If we are going to understand the biology of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, we need to cut into as many bones as we can to understand how variable and biologically flexible the creatures truly were.
Redelstorff , R., Sander, P., Galton, P. 2012. Unique bone histology in partial large bone shafts from Aust Cliff (England, Upper Triassic): an early independent experiment in gigantism. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica http://dx.doi.org/10.4202/app.2012.0073
August 2, 2012
There’s no shortage of dinosaur myths. Paleontologist Dave Hone recently compiled a list of eight persistent falsehoods over at the Guardian–from the misapprehension that all dinosaurs were huge to the untenable idea that Tyrannosaurus could only scavenge its meals–but there was one particular misunderstanding that caught my attention. For decades, popular articles and books claimed that the armor-plated Stegosaurus and the biggest of the sauropod dinosaurs had second brains in their rumps. These dinosaurs, it was said, could reason “a posteriori” thanks to the extra mass of tissue. It was a cute idea, but a totally wrong hypothesis that actually underscores a different dinosaur mystery.
Dinosaur brain expert Emily Buchholtz outlined the double brain issue in the newly-published second edition of The Complete Dinosaur. The idea stems from the work of 19th-century Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh. In an assessment of the sauropod Camarasaurus, Marsh noticed that the canal in the vertebrae over the dinosaur’s hips enlarged into an expanded canal that was larger than the cavity for the dinosaur’s brain. “This is a most suggestive fact,” he wrote, and, according to Buchholtz, in 1881 Marsh described a similar expansion in the neural canal of Stegosaurus as “a posterior braincase.”
Sauropods and stegosaurs seemed like the perfect candidates for butt brains. These huge dinosaurs seemed to have pitiful brain sizes compared to the rest of their body, and a second brain–or similar organ–could have helped coordinate their back legs and tails. Alternatively, the second brain was sometimes cast as a kind of junction box, speeding up signals from the back half of the body up to the primary brain. That is, if such an organ actually existed. As paleontologists now know, no dinosaur had a second brain.
There are two intertwined issues here. The first is that many dinosaurs had noticeable expansions of their spinal cords around their limbs–a feature that left its mark in the size of the neural canal in the vertebrae. This isn’t unusual. As biologists have discovered by studying living species, the enlargement of the spinal cord in the area around the limbs means that there was a greater amount of nervous system tissue in this area, and dinosaurs with larger expansions around the forelimb, for example, probably used their arms more often than dinosaurs without the same kind of enlargement. The expansion of the neural canal can give us some indication about dinosaur movement and behavior.
But the so-called “sacral brain” is something different. So far, this distinct kind of cavity is only seen in stegosaurs and sauropods and is different than the typical expansion of the neural canal. There was something else, other than nerves, filling that space. Frustratingly, though, we don’t really know what that something is.
At the moment, the most promising idea is that the space was similar to a feature in the hips of birds called the glycogen body. As sauropod expert Matt Wedel has pointed out, this space stores energy-rich glycogen in the hips. Perhaps this was true for the sauropods and stegosaurs, too. Again, though, we hit a snag. We don’t really know what the glycogen body does in birds–whether it helps with balance, is a storehouse for nutritious compounds that are drawn upon at specific times or something else. Even if we assume that the expansion in dinosaurs was a glycogen body, we don’t yet know what biological role the feature played. Dinosaurs didn’t have hindbrains, but the significant spaces in the hips of stegosaurs and sauropods still puzzle paleontologists.
July 8, 2011
Kentrosaurus was a dinosaur you wouldn’t want to mess with. This smaller cousin of Stegosaurus, found in the Late Jurassic deposits of Tanzania, was armed with a formidable array of paired spikes along its tail. (And, in one of my favorite bits of fossil terminology, the spiked tails of stegosaurs are known as “thagomizers.”) Get hit with a tail like that and you’d be turned into an instant shish kebab. But just how much damage was the tail of Kentrosaurus capable of inflicting?
Late last year paleontologist Heinrich Mallison presented a revised look at the mechanics of Kentrosaurus. Among other findings, Mallison reported that Kentrosaurus was a fairly flexible dinosaur. When under attack, for example, Kentrosaurus may have thrown its head back to keep an attacker in its sights, and this armored dinosaur may have also bowed its forelimbs to better support itself while swinging its tail about. Now, in a follow-up to last year’s paper, Mallison has published the results of an investigation into how flexible and powerful Kentrosaurus‘ spiked tail itself may have been.
To experiment with Kentrosaurus, Mallison created virtual models of the dinosaur’s skeleton. This provided the framework on which muscles could be reconstructed and the forces generated by the tail could be estimated. Of particular importance was Mallison’s reconstruction of the dinosaur’s tail muscles. Rather than give Kentrosaurus a thin tail typical of many dinosaur illustrations, Mallison reconstructed the creature with a deep, thick tail that would have generated more power but would have also been quite heavy.
As it turns out, Kentrosaurus was a heavy hitter. According to Mallison’s models, the spikes at the tip of the dinosaur’s tail could have hit their target at a top speed of over 40 meters per second, and Kentrosaurus could have swung its tail at a speed in excess of 10 meters per second in a 75 degree arc. “At this speed,” Mallison writes, “the spikes could penetrate deeply into soft tissues or between ribs and were able to shatter bones.” He adds: “Penetrating impacts at 10 m/s created forces greater than those sufficient to fracture a human skull.” Ouch.
For more on Kentrosaurus defense, check out Mallison’s own post on the subject at the Palaeontologia Electronica blog.
Mallison, H. (2011). Defense capabilities of Kentrosaurus aethiopicus Hennig, 1915 Palaeontogia Electronica
June 22, 2011
Since I moved out West, I have been seeing dinosaurs everywhere. They are plastered on billboards, are the symbols of gas stations and—as I found out when I stopped by Salt Lake City’s Hatch Family Chocolates—sold as delicious chocolate morsels. When I stopped by the local confectionery they were selling these old-school sauropod and stegosaur tidbits. I don’t have to tell you they were good. NOM!