Sep 07, 2017 I Brett Tingley

Dinosaur Spikes May Have Been ‘Status Symbols’, Not Armor

Remember all those creepy old stop-motion B-movies featuring dinosaurs fighting? In every one, there’s usually a triceratops or stegosaurus fending off a hungry Tyrannosaur by using its bony spikes and spines. Those images are firmly ingrained in most of our minds when we think of ‘armored’ dinosaurs, yet a controversial new study is making waves in the paleontological world by claiming those conceptions are false. According to the new research, those spikes and spines might not have been used for fighting at all. Is nothing sacred?

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A fossil of the ankylosaur species Borealopelta markmitchelli, the dinosaur used in this research.

The study was written paleontologist Caleb Brown of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Canada. Brown’s controversial theory is that the spiky protrusions and bony plates found protruding from many species of dinosaurs’ bodies were not used for protection or as weapons as has been previously believed, but that these bony protrusions served as a type of ‘status symbol’ much in the same way deer antlers do.

The placement of these spines around some species' heads suggests they may have been used in social signaling.

In his article in Current Biology, Brown argues that when compared to other known defensive features, many dinosaur’s “armor” appears to have served a different purpose:

The distinct pigmentation and enlarged keratinous sheath of the parascapular spine suggest that this particular spine may have functioned more predominantly in display. When combined with data indicating highly species-specific morphology of the parascapular spines of other taxa, this suggests that the extensive elaboration of these spines may be attributable to sociosexual display.

In his research, Brown argues that dinosaurs' spiny and spiky protrusions were used primarily to attract mates and communicate status to other individuals. The theory is based on the arrangement of certain dinosaur’s plates and spikes and the thickness of the soft-ish keratin which covered them. Were those protrusions used solely for protection, they would likely be composed of denser bone and wouldn’t be clustered so specifically around the head like the antlers of deer and other horned mammals are.

The dino ladies sure do love a good set of spines.

Of course, this study is based solely off of one specimen, and it is just a theory at this point. Plenty of wilder theories about dinosaurs have come and gone over the years. If the flying spaghetti monster didn’t intend dinosaurs to use their spikes for fighting, why’d he make them so pointy?

Brett Tingley
Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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