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Bony head ornaments signal some supersized dinosaurs

Accents like bumps and horns on theropod skulls linked to evolution of bigger bodies

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1:46pm, January 25, 2017
dino heads

WORK IT  Theropod dinosaurs display a wide variety of bony ornaments protruding from their skulls, including bumps (Tyrannosaurus rex, top left), horns (Carnotaurus sastrei, bottom left) and crests (Anzu wyliei, top right). But relatives of modern birds (Troodon formosus, bottom right) instead donned feathers similar to those used by modern birds for flight. Dinosaurs are not to scale.  

Dinosaur fashion, like that of humans, is subject to interpretation. Bony cranial crests, horns or bumps may have served to woo mates or help members of the same species identify one another. While the exact purpose of this skull decor is debated, the standout structures tended to come with an even more conspicuous trait: bigger bodies.

Terry Gates, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and colleagues noticed an interesting trend in the fossil record of theropods, a group of dinosaurs that includes Tyrannosaurus rex and the ancestors of birds. Bigger beasts often sported skeletal headgear.

Across the family tree, Gates and his team analyzed 111 fossils dating from 65 million to 210 million years ago, and the trend held true. It makes sense: “Dinosaur size matters in terms of how they will be visually talking to one another,” says Gates. “When you’re

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