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During Growth, Dinosaur Skull Changed Shape

March 31, 2010

The skull of a juvenile sauropod dinosaur, rediscovered in the collections of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, illustrates that some sauropod species went through drastic changes in skull shape during normal growth. University of Michigan paleontologists John Whitlock and Jeffrey Wilson, along with Matthew Lamanna from the Carnegie Museum, describe their find in the March issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The fossil offers a rare chance to look at the early life history of Diplodocus, a 150 million-year-old sauropod from western North America.

“Adult sauropod skulls are rare, but juvenile skulls are even rarer,” said Whitlock, a Ph.D. candidate in the U-M Museum of Paleontology. “What we do know about the skulls of sauropods like Diplodocus has been based entirely on adults so far.”

“Diplodocus had an unusual skull,” said Wilson, an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and an assistant curator at the U-M Museum of Paleontology. “Adults had long, square snouts, unlike the rounded or pointed snouts of other sauropods. Up until now, we assumed juveniles did too.”

The small Diplodocus skull, however, suggests that major changes occurred in the skull throughout the animal’s life.

“Although this skull is plainly that of a juvenile Diplodocus, in many ways it is quite different from those of the adults,” Whitlock said. “Like those of most young animals, the eyes are proportionally larger, and the face is smaller. What was unexpected was the shape of the snout””it appears to have been quite pointed, rather than square like the adults. This gives us a whole new perspective on what these animals may have looked like at different points in their lives.”

The researchers believe these changes in skull shape may have been tied to feeding behavior, with adults and juveniles eating different foods to avoid competition. Young Diplodocus, with their narrower snouts, may also have been choosier browsers, selecting high quality plant parts.

The discovery also highlights the importance of museum collections for paleontological research.

“Fossils like this are a great example of why natural history museums like ours put so much time and effort into caring for our collections, said Lamanna, an assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “This little Diplodocus skull was discovered in 1921, and more than 80 years passed before we recognized its significance. If the Carnegie Museum hadn’t preserved it for all that time, the important insight it has provided into the growth and ecology of this dinosaur would have been lost.”

The actual juvenile Diplodocus skull, as well as a fully restored, mounted skeleton of an adult, are on display in Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibition.

Funding was provided by the U-M Department of Geological Sciences and the Geological Society of America.

Whitlock JA, Wilson JA, Lamanna MC. 2010. Description of a nearly complete juvenile skull of Diplodocus (Sauropoda: Diplodocoidea) from the Late Jurassic of North America. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30: 442″“457.

Image Caption: Diplodocus carnegii adult and juvenile feeding, Reconstruction illustration: Mark A Klingler / Carnegie Museum of Natural History

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