BERKELEY — Paleontologists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Museum of the Rockies have wiped out two species of dome-headed dinosaur, one of them named three years ago – with great fanfare – after Hogwarts, the school attended by Harry Potter.
Dracorex (upper left) and Stygimoloch (upper right) are not distinct dome-headed dinosaurs, but young and nearly sexually mature, respectively, members of the species Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis, according to a new study by paleontologists from UC Berkeley and the Museum of the Rockies. (Holly Woodward/Montana State University)
Their demise comes after a three-horned dinosaur, Torosaurus, was assigned to the dustbin of history last month at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in the United Kingdom, the loss in recent years of quite a few duck-billed hadrosaurs and the probable disappearance of Nanotyrannus, a supposedly miniature Tyrannosaurus rex.
These dinosaurs were not separate species, as some paleontologists claim, but different growth stages of previously named dinosaurs, according to a new study. The confusion is traced to their bizarre head ornaments, ranging from shields and domes to horns and spikes, which changed dramatically with age and sexual maturity, making the heads of youngsters look very different from those of adults.
"Juveniles and adults of these dinosaurs look very, very different from adults, and literally may resemble a different species," said dinosaur expert Mark B. Goodwin, assistant director of UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology. "But some scientists are confusing morphological differences at different growth stages with characteristics that are taxonomically important. The result is an inflated number of dinosaurs in the late Cretaceous."
Goodwin and John "Jack" Horner of the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman, are the authors of a new paper analyzing North American dome-headed dinosaurs that appeared this week in the public access online journal PLoS One.
Unlike the original dinosaur die-off at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, this loss of species is the result of a sustained effort by paleontologists to collect a full range of dinosaur fossils – not just the big ones. Their work has provided dinosaur specimens of various ages, allowing computed tomography (CT) scans and tissue study of the growth stages of dinosaurs.
"What we are seeing in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana suggests that we may be overextended by a third," Horner said, a "wild guess" that may hold true for the various horned dinosaurs recently discovered in Asia from the Cretaceous. "A lot of the dinosaurs that have been named recently fall into that category."
The new paper, published online Oct. 27, contains a thorough analysis of three of the four named dome-headed dinosaurs from North America, including Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis, the first "thick-headed" dinosaur discovered. After that dinosaur’s description in 1943, many speculated that male pachycephalosaurs used their bowling ball-like domes to head-butt one another like big-horn sheep, though Goodwin and Horner disproved that notion in 2004 after a thorough study of the tissue structure of the dome.
Many paleontologists now realize that the elaborate head ornaments of dinosaurs, from the huge bony shield and three horns of Triceratops to the coxcomb-like head gear of some hadrosaurs, were not for combat, but served the same purpose as feathers in birds: to distinguish between species and indicate sexual maturity.
"Dinosaurs, like birds and many mammals, retain neoteny, that is, they retain their juvenile characteristics for a long period of growth," Horner said, "which is a strong indicator that they were very social animals, grouping in flocks or herds with long periods of parental care."