The Shapes of Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs are so weird and wonderful that it’s difficult to imagine humans dreaming up such fantastic animals. And yet, nature has produced so many forms within the dinosauria (many of them still waiting in the rock for us to find) that we are continually bemused and bewildered by the ancient creatures.
Dinosaurs sported plates, frills, spikes, horns, club tails, whip tails, head crests, body armor, feathers, quills, beaks, giant talons, and spinal sails. It is no wonder that artists, filmmakers, and the public have been drawn to dinosaurs for more than a century and a half. Many of the new species that are just being described are even more bizarre than their well-known cousins.
Let’s take a look just at the ceratopsians. Triceratops is one of the most popular dinosaurs, but the horned dinosaurs are a diverse group. Their main body plan is roughly the same–a quadrupedal trunk with strong legs and a relatively short tail. Their jaws were incredibly powerful. But the arrangement of the horns and spikes on their head frills varies widely.
Just within this one dinosaur family, we find tremendous diversity. The “duck-billed” hadrosaurs shared similar variables, with a body plan consistent across the group but wildly different head crests. These were used for display and, with hollowed out innards, acted as trombones (and various other wind instruments) to call for potential mates. It’s difficult not to draw modern analogues with behavior like elk bugling during the annual rut.
The ceratopsians didn’t bugle. They probably weren’t using their horns for self-defense either–at least primarily. Like most of today’s antlered creatures, Triceratops and its brethren most likely used their horns for courtship displays and tussling with rivals. Judging by the imagery above, there must have been a lot of titanic squabbles back in the Cretaceous.
What we find, then, is a greater number and range of dinosaur species than many people presume. With a new dinosaur species described, on average, about once every two weeks or so, we are discovering so many new dinosaurs that it’s difficult for many of us to keep up. Our dreams and imaginations will always fall short of the dinosaurian reality. We’ve only begun to unlock their mysteries and the riddles behind their strange shapes.