G is for Gigantspinosaurus

Gigantspinosaurus had enormous shoulder spikes, but what were these ornaments used for?

A restoration of Gigantspinosaurus.
A restoration of Gigantspinosaurus. Art by Conty, image from Wikipedia

Stegosaurus was a weird dinosaur. We’ve known that for well over a century, but, as Darren Naish has often pointed out, Stegosaurus was strange even compared to its Jurassic relatives. The dinosaur’s arrangement of broad, alternating plates is a departure from the arrangements of smaller plates, back spikes and accessory spines seen on many other stegosaurs, including the perplexingly well-armed Gigantspinosaurus sichuanensis.

Ornamented with a double row of short, narrow plates along its back, the roughly 160-million-year-old Gigantspinosaurus generally resembled other stegosaurs from Late Jurassic Asia, such as Tuojiangosaurus. But, as you might be able to guess from the dinosaur’s name, the feature that immediately sets Gigantspinosaurus apart from similar species is a enormous hooked spine that jutted out from behind the shoulder blade. These striking spikes were found close to their life position on the first skeleton of this dinosaur to be found–erroneously attributed to Tuojiangosaurus, before being redescribed as Gigantspinosaurus in 1992–although their exact orientation isn’t entirely clear. Did the shoulder spikes curve straight backward, or were they tiled slightly upwards? And, more significantly, how did such prominent ornaments evolve? No one knows.

As yet, we know relatively little about the natural history of Gigantspinosaurus. The dinosaur has a name, and skin impressions have helped researchers restore what the stegosaur looked like, but many aspects of the spiky herbivore’s biology remain mysterious. In the grand scheme of stegosaur evolution, though, the ornamentation of Gigantspinosaurus has sometimes been taken as evidence that similar forms had shoulder spikes. In addition to paired spikes along its tail, the Late Jurassic stegosaur Kentrosaurus possessed an extra pair of spikes along its side. These were originally placed over the hips, but, due to the discovery of Gigantspinosaurus, some researchers have argued that the spikes truly belong at the shoulders.

Frustratingly, paleontologists have yet to find a Kentrosaurus skeleton with side spikes in place. But the discovery of Gigantspinosaurus doesn’t necessarily mean that its cousin Kentrosaurus had the same arrangement. Among stegosaurs, the two genera were relatively distantly related, and it’s entirely possible that more than one side spike arrangement evolved. As paleontologist Heinrich Mallison has argued, the hips of Kentrosaurus seem to possess areas where the spikes could have articulated, and this arrangement would be consistent with the dinosaur’s ornamentation pattern–small plates at the front give way to spikes along the stegosaur’s back and tail. Indeed, the side spikes on Kentrosaurus more closely resemble the same structures along the dinosaur’s back and tail and the shoulder spike of Gigantspinosaurus. If Kentrosaurus had plates up front and serially homologous spikes along the back, then why shouldn’t the hip spikes remain a reasonable hypothesis? Together, Gigantspinosaurus and Kentrosaurus might represent different alternatives in the stegosaur armory.

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