So yesterday I looked at the groups of Protoceratops specimens and the inference that at least one population of P. andrewsi tended to form groups throughout ontogeny. I also commented on how this was put in really conservative terms – I carefully avoided using the term ‘social’ and didn’t extrapolate up to other populations, species or genera, let alone entire clades. This is an area I’ve commented on before, but in this paper take a more detailed look at social behaviour and what we can and cannot say about extinct dinosaurs.
The first point to make is about the terms themselves. Look through the literature and discussions of dinosaur behaviour and you will see the term ‘social’ especially thrown around but often without a specific definition or context. Unfortunately this is really unhelpful as, although there is no strict definition out there, it does cover a multitude of different magnitudes of behaviour and seems often to be used to mean little more than ‘in a group’. This really needs cleaning up, and we need to be much more careful and specific – you can find a whole group of grizzly bears together fishing out salmon, but I’d not call them social (if anything they are antisocial the vast majority of the time) and this is a far cry from the social groups formed by say chimps or meerkats which are almost always together and have constant interactions. A group of dinosaurs together does not inherently mean some form of social group with say hierarchies, social bonding, shared responsibilities etc. and could be a simple as asocial animals coming together to breed, migrate, avoid some natural disaster or other effect. Separating out say truly eusocial animals like molerats from bears or some crocs which will tolerate each other under some circumstances is going to be hard given the limitations of the fossil record, and is probably impossible most of the time.
On top of that, individuals can form groups for part of their lives, switch between solitary and group living at different stages (ontogenetic or annual), and can be wildly different between populations of a single species, let alone other members of the genus or family. Groups can be all male, all female, equal ratios, harems, mixed adults and juveniles, or all of single cohorts. The net result of course is that conservatism I mentioned before. Taking a trackway or a mass mortality event or set of nests and saying “hadrosaurs were social” is a terrible idea, and I think most of the time the best we can and should say is “this species has some gregarious tendencies”.
Now I should make clear two things. First off, I don’t think that this means we have no evidence for sociality in dinosaurs or that many were not social, merely that (as with a great many behaviours) the evidence is profoundly limited in the fossil record. Given how diverse dinosaurs were and the sheer number of mass mortality sites etc. many species I am sure were social or at least tended to aggregate into groups, but picking an individual genus and saying “this is the social one” based off one or two mass mortalities that probably span different species, times, places etc. is probably a poor inference. Secondly I also think we can make good inferences for some species – multiple mortalities that are from different seasons, evidence of strong social interactions like display structures or intraspecific combat, inferences from other very close relatives showing similar patterns can probably build up to make a pretty strong pattern, but this would still not rule out some individuals being solitary or complex switches between different systems.
So, if we are at least seeing some degree of gregariousness within some populations (and as before, I think we can make a decent case for Protoceratops) why might this be happening? Another interesting aspect of this is that when we do have mass mortalities of dinosaurs they are very often exclusively of juveniles. Given how rare juvies are generally, it should be a bit odd that a rare event of a mass mortality should trap juveniles. There are adult only groups and mixed groups for various dinosaurs, but there are plenty that are of only subadults, or younger animals, and these may have multiple mixed age groups, while still all being juveniles.
Now both juveniles and adults would come together for some reasons like feeding, migration, natural disasters like drought, or perhaps long-term parental care. We would also expect to see adults come together to breed and nest, but that won’t apply to the little ones, so what effect might drive juveniles together but not adults? One obvious factor is predation. Yes, again this is an area I have heavily trodden before but juveniles of almost all species are much more vulnerable to predators that are mature animals. Adults are better at recognising threats, forage in better areas and for less time, and are typically either faster or better equipped to fend off attacks too.
One thing that can really benefit juveniles however is vigilance. Their long foraging times in poor areas means they are often not spending much time looking out for threats. Hanging around in a group though means that at least someone is generally keeping an eye out, (and as a bonus if you are found, at least the predator may eat the guy next to you, rather than attacking you). Adults may even keep juveniles away from them since as well as competing for food, but actually drawing in predators and so creating danger, so we might expect juvies to bunch up, when the adults may be less fussed. I would expect juvenile ankylosaurs for example to hang around in groups when their armour is little protection against a big tyrannosaur, but the adults might be largely immune and so would not need this effect to help them. Plenty of studies on extant species show that groups form, or increase in size, when there are more predators around and so this would fit the patterns we see here – juveniles are likely to stick together at times when adults may not because they want to avoid being eaten.
So overall we suggest that juveniles of dinosaurs might have formed aggregations, (and in some species where the adults were largely solitary) as a defence against predation (or at least as a major driver of it) but that this does not necessarily imply strong social interactions, merely the formation of groups. We need to separate out much more carefully what we mean by the term ‘social’ and start being much more specific about what that word means and degrees of social interactions, group formation, gregariousness and the like. Conflating multiple different terms (or leaving them so broad and undefined as to cover almost anything) does no one any favours – we can’t compare and contrast different specimens or make meaningful statement about what they might have been doing. We can call migration, group hunting, group formation, nesting together, and parental care social behaviours if we want to, but it’s worth separating them out and we need to do just that if we want to have meaningful discussions about what these animals did and did not do.