Thursday, September 23, 2010

The dinosaur hunters

I guess most kids, at some time in their growing-up years, become fascinated with dinosaurs and consider what it would be like to spend their lives digging in hot, dry, out-of-the-way places around the world, looking for their quarry. In this, I was like most kids. I wanted to be a dinosaur hunter when I grew up. Not just any old dinosaur hunter, but a world-famous dinosaur hunter, the kind that gets invited onto late night television shows to banter with the host.

Well, that dream, like many others, went astray. I never got to go on a dinosaur dig, but I still like to read about those who do and watch those Discovery Channel shows about them.

These days, there is plenty to read about. If it's Thursday, there must be news of another new dinosaur species having been found. This week, we dinosaur fans get a bonanza - not one but two new species have been found in the wilds of the Utah desert.

Both of the new dinosaurs are rhinoceros-sized animals and seem to have been closely related to that well-known beast from my childhood, Triceratops. But instead of having three horns on their huge heads, one of the two (Utahceratops gettyi) had five horns, and the other (Kosmoceratops richardsoni), the smaller of the two, had fifteen horns! Now that's just showing off if you ask me.

The horns on both of the animals ranged in length from about 6 inches to 1 foot. But the question arises, what could have possibly been the evolutionary advantage to the animals of having such elaborate growths on their heads? At some point, it seems that the number of such growths would have a diminishing return, becoming an encumbrance rather than an enhancement.

The stock answer of the paleontologists is that it was all about sex. Even as the antlers on the deer of today are used to attract mates or to intimidate sexual competitors, these elaborate sets of horns, too, were used to advertise the individual's health, strength, and sexual potency.

But fifteen??? That's one horny dinosaur!

Stand-by for next week's amazing discovery when a dinosaur with 18 horns is found.

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