The dinosaur that looked like a rooster

Everything known about the appearance and behaviour of one of the most populous dinosaurs of the late cretaceous period could be thrown out following a discovery by an international team of scientists.

The researchers from the universities of Alberta in Canada, Bologna in Italy and New England in Australia found a rare, mummified specimen of the duck-billed dinosaur called Edmontosaurus.

But to their amazement, the dinosaur’s head was adorned with a fleshy comb, similar to that of a rooster.

It was the first time a ‘soft tissue display structure’ has been identified on a dinosaur and the scientists say this could mean that many of the popular images of dinosaurs, from movies to the plastic toy variety, could require a makeover.

The duck-billed dinosaur or hadrosaur was the most common dinosaur in North America between 75 and 65 million years ago. They were gentle herbivorous giants – about 12 metres long – and filled a similar ecological role to kangaroos or deer today.

The researchers say nobody has ever suspected that dinosaurs may have had combs like roosters, because the evidence of soft tissue usually decays before fossilisation.

“An elephant’s trunk or a rooster’s comb might never fossilise because there is no bone in them,” says Dr Phil Bell, a lecturer in earth sciences at the University of New England.

“This discovery is equivalent to learning for the first time that elephants had trunks. We have lots of skulls of Edmontosaurus, but until now there have been no clues to suggest they might have had a big fleshy crest.”

Working in the field excavating a site near Grande Prairie in Alberta, Bell recalls the moment he made the discovery at the point of his chisel:

“While we had found skin impressions on parts of the fossil’s body, we had no clues that a fleshy structure might have adorned the skull. When I put a chisel into the top of the skull and found the crest I realised that, based on what we thought we knew, it wasn’t meant to be there.”

Bell says the significance of this discovery may not be limited to this one species of dinosaur: “We have lots of skulls of Edmontosaurus but nothing to suggest this find so there's no reason that other strange fleshy structures couldn't have been present on a whole range of other dinosaurs including T. Rex or Triceratops.”

He says it is hard to say exactly what evolutionary purpose the combs served, but similar appendages on roosters and other male birds are used to ‘get the girls’.

“We could imagine a pair of Edmontosaurus sizing each other up, bellowing and showing off their head gear to see who would come out as the dominant male and who would take charge of the herd,” Bell says.

“We may never know exactly, but it is a reminder of how much is still out there for us to learn about these fabulously bizarre creatures.”