Published: December 2007

Big Bad Bizarre Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs Feature

Extreme Dinosaurs

A bizarre gallery of Mesozoic monsters prompts John Updike to ask: What has evolution wrought?

By John Updike
Art by Pixeldust Studios

Before the 19th century, when dinosaur bones turned up they were taken as evidence of dragons, ogres, or giant victims of Noah's Flood.

After two centuries of paleontological harvest, the evidence seems stranger than any fable, and continues to get stranger. Dozens of new species emerge each year; China and Argentina are hot spots lately for startling new finds. Contemplating the bizarre specimens recently come to light, one cannot but wonder what on earth Nature was thinking of. What advantage was conferred, say, by the ungainly eight-foot-long (2.4 meters) arms and huge triple claws of Deinocheirus? Or, speaking of arms, by Mononykus's smug dependence on a single, stoutly clawed digit at the end of each minimal forearm? Guesses can be hazarded: The latter found a single stubby claw just the thing for probing after insects; the former stripped the leaves and bark from trees in awesome bulk. A carnivorous cousin, Deinonychus, about the size of a man, leaped on its prey, wrapped its long arms and three-fingered hands around it, and kicked it to the death with sickle-shaped toenails.

Tiny Epidendrosaurus boasted a hugely elongated third finger that served, presumably, a clinging, arboreal lifestyle, like that of today's aye-aye, a lemur that possesses the same curious trait. With the membrane they support, the elongated digits of bats and pterosaurs enable flight, and perhaps Epidendrosaurus was taking a skittery first step in that direction. But what do we make of such apparently inutile extremes of morphology as the elaborate skull frills of ceratopsians like Styracosaurus or the horizontally protruding front teeth of Masiakasaurus knopfleri, a late Cretaceous oddity recently uncovered in Madagascar by excavators who named the beast after Mark Knopfler, the lead singer of the group Dire Straits, their favorite music to dig by?

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