Monday, April 22, 2013

The Thagomizer of Stegosaurus (Stegosaurus Week)

This Saturday at the Morrison Natural History Museum in Morrison, Colorado, we will be celebrating Stegosaurus Day, in honor of Colorado's state fossil!  (To learn more, click HERE to be redirected to the Facebook page of the Morrison Natural History Museum!)  So, in honor of Stegosaurus Day, The Natural World is going to have ourselves a little Stegosaurus Week!  Each day, we are going to be looking at a different aspect of Stegosaurus, and today, we are going to be looking at the tail spikes on the tail of Stegosaurus, nicknamed the thagomizer!  What were they used for?  Did they actually use their tail spikes for defense?  And how about that funky name: where did the term "thagomizer" come from?  Well, learn those answers and more in today's post for Stegosaurus Week!

Remember IN THE LAST POST OF STEGOSAURUS WEEK when we mentioned paleontologist Ken Carpenter and his very complete and articulated Stegosaurus skeleton?  Well, in 1993, when Carpenter was presenting his findings, he first used the term "thagomizer" to describe the tail and spikes of Stegosaurus.  Without even knowing its backstory, it seems like a fitting name: but its true origin is even more interesting!  For those of you who have enjoyed Gary Larson's fantastic "The Far Side" comic strip, then you may already know where we are heading with this!  One of my favorite "Far Side" strips is the one above, and, interestingly, it is from this strip that Ken Carpenter got the name "thagomizer!"

Now, one question that has stumped paleontologists for years is, how were the spikes arranged on the thagomizer?  Nowadays, we know that there were two sets of spikes, and they are thought to have been about 180 degrees from each other, forming a horizontal line.  (For a more complete discussion, see the last post in our Stegosaurus Week series, entitled THE GENUS STEGOSAURUS THROUGH TIME.)  But other questions stumped paleontologists, too.  For example: what was the thagomizer used for?  It definitely looks like a very apt defensive weapon, but for a long time, paleontologists had no clues to help them figure out whether defense was actually the answer.

One source of evidence that Stegosaurus and other stegosaurs were using their thagomizers to defend themselves is that many of the spikes have broken tips.  Now, just because a fossil is broken, doesn't necessarily mean that it was broken during the animals life.  Paleontologists can tell whether or not a bone was broken during the life of the animal by looking to see whether the bone shows any signs of healing.  If the fossilized bone shows signs of "remodeling," then the bone broke during the life of the animal, and then started to heal while the animal was still alive.  Following the death of an animal, if somehow a bone becomes broken, it's not going to heal: the animal is already dead!  In a study that examined 51 tail spikes of Stegosaurus, researchers found that about 10% of these spikes had broken tips whose bone had started to grow back.  So clearly, these spikes weren't just for show, and were actually being used for something.

The best evidence that paleontologists have right now that indicates that Stegosaurus was using its thagomizer to defend itself against predators is an Allosaurus tail vertebrae with a hole in it: a hole exactly matching the kind of hole that a thagomizer would have made!  What's very interesting about this fossil is that, while damaged bone in the vicinity of the hole shows signs of healing (indicating that the Allosaurus survived, at least for a little while, following its encounter with Stegosaurus, and that the damage to the vertebrae was not post-mortem), the hole itself doesn't seem to have healed at all.  This has caused some paleontologists to hypothesize that part of the tough outer sheath that would have surrounded the tail spikes in life, probably making them sharper and pointier, of a Stegosaurus became stuck in the tail vertebrae, remaining lodged within the tail vertebrae of that particular Allosaurus, until the animal died!
Another picture that I took at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science of an Allosaurus attacking a Stegosaurus adult and juvenile
Want to learn more about Stegosaurus and it's relatives? Well, check out the Homebase for Stegosaurus Week HERE to partake in more of the festivities!

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