JOURNAL ARTICLE

Extreme cranial ontogeny in the upper cretaceous dinosaur pachycephalosaurus

John R Horner, Mark B Goodwin
PloS One 2009, 4 (10): e7626
19859556

BACKGROUND: Extended neoteny and late stage allometric growth increase morphological disparity between growth stages in at least some dinosaurs. Coupled with relatively low dinosaur density in the Upper Cretaceous of North America, ontogenetic transformational representatives are often difficult to distinguish. For example, many hadrosaurids previously reported to represent relatively small lambeosaurine species were demonstrated to be juveniles of the larger taxa. Marginocephalians (pachycephalosaurids + ceratopsids) undergo comparable and extreme cranial morphological change during ontogeny.

METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Cranial histology, morphology and computer tomography reveal patterns of internal skull development that show the purported diagnostic characters for the pachycephalosaurids Dracorex hogwartsia and Stygimoloch spinifer are ontogenetically derived features. Coronal histological sections of the frontoparietal dome of an adult Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis reveal a dense structure composed of metaplastic bone with a variety of extremely fibrous and acellular tissue. Coronal histological sections and computer tomography of a skull and frontoparietal dome of Stygimoloch spinifer reveal an open intrafrontal suture indicative of a subadult stage of development. These dinosaurs employed metaplasia to rapidly grow and change the size and shape of their horns, cranial ornaments and frontoparietal domes, resulting in extreme cranial alterations during late stages of growth. We propose that Dracorex hogwartsia, Stygimoloch spinifer and Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis are the same taxon and represent an ontogenetic series united by shared morphology and increasing skull length.

CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Dracorex hogwartsia (juvenile) and Stygimoloch spinifer (subadult) are reinterpreted as younger growth stages of Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis (adult). This synonymy reduces the number of pachycephalosaurid taxa from the Upper Cretaceous of North America and demonstrates the importance of cranial ontogeny in evaluating dinosaur diversity and taxonomy. These growth stages reflect a continuum rather than specific developmental steps defined by "known" terminal morphologies.

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