EGU Blogs

Erlikosaurus, the little dinosaur experiment

The evolutionary line from theropod dinosaurs is absolute. There is no question that this is one of the greatest stories that life on Earth has ever told us, But evolution is not linear; it’s chaotic. It’s bizarre. Along this theropod line, dinosaurs were experimenting – they were the evolutionary scientists of their time.

One of the weirdest things that theropods did was become herbivores again – this is exceptionally odd when we consider that they’re the cousins of epic carnivores like Tyrannosaurus and Deinonychus.

Therizinosaurs were one of these groups of hipster dinosaurs. Not content with a life dining on raw steak, they actually estranged themselves and became ecological innovators, eventually turning herbivorous.

But how did this happen? Was morphological change a driver of dietary change, or vice versa?

Wonderful restoration of Erlikosaurus (source)

Wonderful restoration of Erlikosaurus (source)

One of the most notable aspects of change is the reduction in teeth in these dinosaurs, coincident with the development of a horny beak covering the tip of the snout, called a rhamphotheca. This is quite similar to modern birds, which have beaks instead of teeth, with serrated edges giving what is known as an ‘edentulous’ appearance. Sort of like pseudo-teeth.

Modern palaeo-techniques provide cool opportunities to explore the evolutionary significance of these bizarre adaptations in therizinosaurs. A new study by the Bristol palaeo research team used a method called CT-scanning, usually associated with medicine, to digitally reconstruct the skull of the therizinosaur Erlikosaurus andrewsi. Then, using a pretty ace technique called finite-element analysis, they were able to investigate the biomechanical functions of the skull, even using restored soft tissues.

Original specimen, digital reconstruction, and digital restoration with soft tissues (Lautehschalger et al., in press)

Original specimen, digital reconstruction, and digital restoration incorporating missing morphology (Lautehschlager et al., in press)

A series of these digital models were examined, using different reconstructions of the rhamphotheca and different hypothetical biting scenarios. The most significant find was that mechanical stress increases the further bites are simulated towards the back of the mouth.

This, combined with other lines of evidence suggests that the rhampotheca may have developed in a stress-limiting role. For example, there are no wear facets on Erlikosaurus’ teeth, usually indicative of food processing; low tooth replacement rates suggesting that they were not used as much; and that the upper and lower jaw did not occlude (like we have to increase chewing efficiency).

In a broader evolutionary perspective, the development of the rhampotheca and herbivory has some interesting implications. Birds are thought to have developed their keratinous beaks in a weight-saving role to aid flight. Therizinosaurs are within the same group, Maniraptoriformes, as birds, or more specifically the group Avialae. As such, it appears that dinosaurs were highly experimental with beaks and edentulism around this evolutionary period, and diversified into a range of functions.

As to whether this morphological adaptation was the driver of a herbivorous lifestyle, or vice versa, well, the jury is still out on that one.


Lautenschlager, S. et al. (2014) Edentulism, beaks and biomechanical innovations in the evolution of theropod dinosaurs, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access link)

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Jon began university life as a geologist, followed by a treacherous leap into the life sciences. He spent several years at Imperial College London, investigating the extinction and biodiversity patterns of Mesozoic tetrapods – anything with four legs or flippers – to discover whether or not there is evidence for a ‘hidden’ mass extinction 145 million years ago. Alongside this, Jon researched the origins and evolution of ‘dwarf’ crocodiles called atoposaurids. Prior to this, there was a brief interlude were Jon was immersed in the world of science policy and communication, which greatly shaped his views on the broader role that science can play, and in particular, the current ‘open’ debate. Jon tragically passed away in 2020.

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