About dinosaurs we usually have studies about their large sizes, their speed, the strength of their bites or their claws and what type of food they had. But it is more difficult to approach texts that tell us details about their behavior, among other things, because we only have fossils to study these extinct animals and behavior is not something that usually leaves a mark. Therefore, scientists can only cling to a few clues and comparisons with living animals to speculate about some pivotal moments in the life of the dinosaurs. Every living being tries to fulfill a cycle in which it is born, grows, reproduces and dies. The third of these tasks is the subject that concerns us in this article. Specifically the courtship phase. How did dinosaurs bond? The answer could lie in today’s birds.
a very old dance
Each species has its own ritual of seduction. The success of a species is measured in its reproductive capacity, which is why it is a vital aspect that occupies an important space in the behavior of animals during their adult life. In order to arouse the attention of the females, the lions display their manes, the peacocks display their feathers, the rams show the strength of their horns and the birds offer dances and various rituals that make up a spectacle of nature. Feathers, wings and crests combined with movements are the flirtation of animals to win the prize of a mate with whom to procreate.
Birds are technically dinosaurs. So specialists cling to evolution to theorize about possible behaviors and peculiarities of anatomy in dinosaurs intended for courtship. And that’s how a group of researchers identified dinosaur footprints as the trail of flirtatious attempts 100 million years ago .
“We search for and find footprints of carnivorous and herbivorous dinosaurs together with an international research team. So we accidentally found more than 50 mating marks in the rocks of the Dakota Formation in western Colorado. These ancient markings are similar to those made by today’s birds in their scratching ceremonies: males show their willingness to mate by digging false nests for potential mates.”
This was explained by Martin Lockley, professor of geology and paleontologist at the University of Colorado in Denver, who led a study published in the journal “Scientific Reports”.
“These are the first places where evidence of dinosaur mating courtship rituals has been discovered and the first physical evidence of mating behavior. These huge markings – some as long as a bathtub – fill a gap in our understanding of dinosaur behavior. And we will continue to look for more such brands.”
We are looking at marks left by dinosaurs in “exhibition arenas”, areas used for courtship that we can see in many modern birds that nest on the ground. Only these marks are sized for theropods up to four meters in length. These carnivorous dinosaurs, the same group that Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor belong to, walked on two legs and obviously didn’t use them just to hunt their prey. During the mating season they would enter into a phase of frenetic activity to seduce the females and we now know that they could have a typical behavior in current birds , similar to the scratching ceremony.
“The evidence from the markings has significant implications: there is physical evidence that prehistoric courtship play is similar to that of birds today. And the birds do it near the places where they finally end up nesting. So the fossil markings are a clue that rutting dinosaurs mated here millions of years ago and then nested nearby.”
All equipment to woo
And these markings are not just talked about as obvious symbols of dinosaur courtship. It is thought that any conspicuous anatomical element could have implications for mating . Paleontologists have already assumed that the bony structures shown by dinosaur species such as the protoceratops could have a defensive as well as a sexual function. Skulls have been found with protuberances in which wounds similar to those that can be seen on the horns of mountain goats after a confrontation to gain the acceptance of the females appeared. This idea even extends to feathers and wings . We have research suggesting that dinosaurs developed wings and feathers before learning to fly, and the goal may have been to be more attractive.
Of course, there are critical voices with these theories. Thomas Holtz of the University of Maryland argued that we cannot rule out that the mentioned markings are due to causes other than mating . That is why paleontologists hope to find more traces that will allow them to build a better idea about the behavior of dinosaurs when mating. Still, Holtz acknowledges that:
“Whatever behavior is recorded here, it is an expression of the fact that dinosaurs, like all animals, did more than just hunt and attack and devour and fight and all those other behaviors that popular culture attributes to them.”
Granda, J. 2016. Dinosaur mating rituals were similar to those of modern birds. lavanguardia.com.
Lockley, M. et al. 2016. Theropod courtship: large scale physical evidence of display arenas and avian-like scrape ceremony behaviour by Cretaceous dinosaurs. Scientific Reports 6, 18952. DOI: 10.1038/srep18952.
Scaliter, J. 2016. How to flirt with a dinosaur. quo.eldiario.es.