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Dinosaur Turnover

Canada's Dinosaur Park Formation is an exceptionally rich fossil boneyard, but what drove the evolution of the different dinosaurs found there?

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The AMNH skeleton of Styracosaurus, one of the dinosaurs from the upper zone of the Dinosaur Park Formation. Image from Brown and Schlaikjer, 1937 via Wikipedia.

Dinosaurs didn’t all live at the same time. Not counting the avian species that have thrived during the last 65 million years, dinosaurs proliferated throughout the world during a span of over 160 million years. As I’ve pointed out before, it’s amazing to think that less time separates us from Tyrannosaurus than separated Tyrannosaurus from Stegosaurus.

Even within specific geologic formations, not all the dinosaurs found in those layers lived side by side. Dinosaur-bearing strata accumulated over millions and millions of years and record both ecological and evolutionary changes. Look closely enough, and you can even see particular communities of dinosaurs give way to different assemblages. In an in-press Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology paper, Jordan Mallon and colleagues have done just that.

Canada’s Dinosaur Park Formation is one of the most spectacular slices of Late Cretaceous time found anywhere in the world. Spanning approximately 76.5 to 74.8 million years ago, the formation has yielded lovely specimens of dinosaurs such as the crested hadrosaur Corythosaurus, the spiky ceratopsid Styracosaurus, the lithe tyrannosaur Gorgosaurus, the heavy-armored ankylosaur Euplocephalus and many others. Not all of these dinosaurs were neighbors, though. Since 1950, at least, paleontologists have recognized that some kinds of dinosaurs are restricted to certain slices of the formation, and the dinosaur community changed over time. Mallon and co-authors decided to have another look at the dinosaur turnover, focusing on the large herbivores and investigating what might have shook up the dinosaur populations during the time the Dinosaur Park Formation was being laid down.

The paleontologists identified two broad divisions in the Dinosaur Park Formation, which they call “megaherbivore assemblage zones.” Each zone lasted roughly 600,000 years each. There are a lot of names here, so bear with me. In the lower zone, the horned dinosaur Centrosaurus and the crested hadrosaur Corythosaurus are found throughout; other dinosaurs restricted to this half of the formation include the ceratopsid Chasmosaurus russelli, the hadrosaurs Gryposaurus and Parasaurolophus, and the ankylosaur Dyoplosaurus.

Yet there are some dinosaurs that first appear in the lower zone and persist into next one. The ceratopsid Chasmosaurus belli, the ankylosaur Euoplocephalus and the hadrosaurs Lambeosaurus clavinitialis and Lambeosaurus lambei show up in the lower zone but pass through into the second zone as well. And, as with the lower swath, there were dinosaurs that were only found in the second zone. The hadrosaurs Prosaurolophus and Lambeosaurus magnicristatus, as well as the horned dinosaurs Styracosaurus, Vagaceratops and a pachyrhinosaur, are only found in the upper zone.

So the big picture is that the lower zone is characterized by Centrosaurus and Corythosaurus, the upper zone is distinguished by Styracosaurus and Prosaurolophus, and there are some dinosaurs–such as Lambeosaurus and Chasmosaurus–that are smeared across the two. As the researchers note, it’s even possible to break down the two halves into even smaller subsets, although the picture gets a little muddier at these levels.

What does all this evolutionary dinosaur shuffling mean? Other researchers have proposed that the Dinosaur Park Formation represents a series of turnover pulses–after a period of stability, rapid ecological change wiped out some dinosaurs while creating opportunities for a new community. The now-vanished Western Interior Seaway has been invoked as a possible mechanism for this. As this shallow sea, which once split North America in two, expanded and encroached further inland, the area of the Dinosaur Park Formation became a mostly coastal, muddy, swampy habitat. This may have put pressure on some forms of dinosaur while providing opportunities for others. As the seaway fluctuated, the attendant changes would have altered the environment and therefore affected dinosaur populations.

According to Mallon and collaborators, though, there’s no strong evidence for the turnover pulse hypothesis. We simply don’t have the resolution to tell how closely certain dinosaurs were tied to particular habitats or niches, and shifts in ecology would have influenced dinosaur evolution. Other possible influences–such as dinosaurs migrating to the area from elsewhere, or the evolution of one species into another within the formation–are also frustratingly unclear. As the researchers state, “Whether the appearance and disappearance of the megaherbivorous taxa of the was due to evolution, migration, or to a combination of these factors, is difficult to determine.” We don’t yet know what drove the alterations in the formation’s dinosaur communities.

Aside from the ongoing mystery about what caused the changes between the two zones, the revised look at the Dinosaur Park Formation also raises a few questions about dinosaur ecology. Despite the shifts in dinosaur communities, the paleontologists note, there were about six to eight different megaherbivorous dinosaur species living alongside each other. That’s a lot of big herbivores on the landscape, especially since the hadrosaurs and ceratopsids may have formed huge herds. Such vast, hefty dinosaur communities would have required a large amount of vegetation, and the disparate megaherbivores were in competition with each other for food. In order to live alongside one another, then, we can assume that there was some kind of niche partitioning–the dinosaurs were adapted to have restricted diets or live in particular habitats as a result of their competition for resources. How exactly this happened, though, requires further study into the ecology and evolution of these dinosaurs.

And there was something else that caught my eye. The new study focused on the megaherbivores, but what about the large carnivores? The large tyrannosaur Gorgosaurus was also present in the Dinosaur Park Formation and was rejected by the researchers as a zone marker because this theropod ranges throughout the formation. Think about that for a moment. We can see a significant amount of change and turnover among the big herbivores, but one of the large carnivores stays the same throughout the entirety of the formation. Why should this be so? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the ornamentation and headgear of hadrosaurs and ceratopsids changed quite a bit, but their general body plans were conservative–a Gorgosaurus could take down a Corythosaurus just as well as a Lambeosaurus.

Likewise, I wonder if the same pattern might hold true elsewhere. The Kaiparowits formation of southern Utah, laid down around the time of the Dinosaur Park Formation further north, also hosts an array of hadrosaurs, ceratopsids and ankylosaurs, but there seems to be just one large dinosaurian predator, the tyrannosaur Teratophoneus. (The giant alligator cousin Deinosuchus was another megacarnivore in the Kaiparowits.) We need more fossils to be sure, but perhaps, like Gorgosaurus, the short-snouted Teratophoneus remained the same as different large herbivores came and went. If this turns out to be the case, the lack of an arms race between predator and prey would be further evidence that the ornamentation of ceratopsids and other dinosaurs had more to do with decoration and combat among each other than defense.

Indeed, the new study of the Dinosaur Park Formation lays some important groundwork for future studies. Paleontologists are currently investigating and debating why the roughly 75-million-year-old dinosaurs from Alberta are different from the roughly 75-million-year-old dinosaurs from southern Utah. What factors drove the diversity and disparity of these dinosaurs across the latitudes, and who really lived alongside whom? So far, the Dinosaur Park Formation is the best-sampled slice we have, and there is much work to be done. With any luck, and a few more decades of careful sampling, we’ll be able to put together an intricate picture of how dinosaurs lived and evolved during this brief span of Late Cretaceous time.

Reference:

Mallon, Jordan C., Evans, David C., Ryan, Michael J., Anderson,, & Jason S. (2012). Megaherbivorous dinosaur turnover in the Dinosaur Park Formation
(upper Campanian) of Alberta, Canada Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2012.06.024

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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