Despite my interests in dinosaur behaviour I have rather managed to avoid the question of pachycephalosaurs so far and with a couple of nice photos on cue it seemed a good time to discuss this at least superficially. I don’t think this clade has actually even been mentioned here at any point so this is longer overdue.
Since I try to cover even the basics of archosaur palaeontology on here I should probably give a bit of background to these bone heads (as they are occasionally know – the literal translation of the name being thick headed reptiles). Pachycephalosaurs are a group of ornithischian dinosaurs closely allied to the ceratopsians (the horned dinosaurs) and with them make up the large and important clade the Marginocephalae. They were herbivorous bipeds that only spanned a relatively small range of sizes from small to medium (compared to many of their relatives) with the largest genus, Pachycephalosaurus, being up to around 5 m long.
Obviously their most prominent characteristic is the massively thickened skull roof and the occasional fringe of spines and knobs that run around the crown of the skull. What these were actually used for has long been contested with the most obvious suggestion being that these were used to fight with, either with each other or to attack other animals (like predators). Evidence has gone backwards and forwards over this with papers saying the head could not have absorbed impacts of fighting, or could have done, that they would clash heads or would not and would target flanks and that these were ornamental or not. In short, the only real consensus is that there is no real consensus as yet.
This may come as a surprise as despite the obvious controversial nature of many questions in palaeontology many are at least close to a consensus or the evidence has started to tip decisively but here this is not really the case. Part of the problem is likely to be the sparsity of material – pachycephalosaurs are not known from many good specimens at all (half a dozen are known from only skulls, partial skulls, or just the domes) and some aspects of their anatomy are thus not well understood. Combined with the relative lack of interest in this clade (since almost everyone seems to prefer theropods) it is perhaps less of a surprise.
The lack of material in Europe especially and the fact that the group is not half as well known as the ‘classics’ like tyrannosaurs and ceratopsians, and their relative small size means that they rarely make it into dinosaur halls outside North America so I was pleased to see two different displays of them in Japan – the first time I’d actually seen any. At the top we have a butting pair from Tokyo and below the front/side and back of a skull from Fukui (both images used with permission). I hope more research goes into this area as it is genuinely fascinating and covers various aspects of mechanics, ecology and behaviour that integrate well and of course the application of data and studies from living animals would be especially useful.
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