Tyrannosaurus rex is the ultimate in Mesozoic clickbait. You could even say that the dinosaur's a real tyrant, casting a large shadow over the hundreds of other dinosaurs that could benefit from some time in the spotlight. So even though paleontologist Stephan Lautenschlager included T. rex in his recent study on dinosaur bites, I don’t want to talk about the tyrant lizard king much. I want to focus on a different lizard.
Long time readers know that I have a soft spot for Allosaurus. The 150 million year old dinosaur was the top carnivore of the Late Jurassic, reaching sizes to rival that of the later T. rex and was much more common than its toothy neighbors Ceratosaurus and Torvosaurus. And as estimated by Lautenschlager, Allosaurus also had one of the most impressive bites of all time.
Working from virtual models of Tyrannosaurus, Allosaurus, and the herbivorous theropod Erlikosaurus fitted with digital jaw muscles based on the anatomy of buzzards and alligators, Lautenschlager estimated the optimal and maximum gapes for the three dinosaurs. Contrary to what you might expect from the hordes of cgi dinosaurs that stomp across basic cable science channels, these dinosaurs were able to deliver their best bites when their jaws were open about 28 degrees, not flung to their maximum extent. (Erlikosaurus, which was more on the vegetarian side of the spectrum, had an optimal gape of about 20.5 degrees.)
When it came to just how wide the dinosaurs could drop their jaws without tearing up their own jaw muscles, though, Lautenschlager found that Allosaurus significantly surpassed ol’ T. rex. While Tyrannosaurus could open its mouth an impressive 63.5 degrees, the maximum Allosaurus gape came out to 79 degrees.
The figures of Lautenschlager’s yawning dinosaurs reminded me of an idea Bob Bakker put forward in the late 90’s. Allosaurus, in Bakker’s view, was the dinosaurian equivalent of a saber-toothed cat, using a wide gape and strong neck muscles to slash at prey rather than deliver a devastating chomp like T. rex. While the paper was more qualitative and speculative than Lautenschlager’s work, Bakker was nonetheless right that Allosaurus was capable of an astonishingly wide gape.
But why? That’s a little more difficult to suss out, especially since it’s easy to be misled by our love of extreme dinosaur traits and habits.
First off, most of the recent work on Allosaurus feeding has focused on a particular specimen and species. That’s MOR 693 – Big Al to you and me – and while it’s often called Allosaurus fragilis in papers, the dinosaur is actually an older, more slender-skulled species whose official name has yet to be published. This is important because, as Mark Loewen showed in his dissertation on the carnivore, the skull of true Allosaurus fragilis flared out more towards the back, giving them more space for powerful jaw muscles. How this would have affected bite performance hasn’t been given the same attention Big Al has enjoyed.
It’s also worth noting that Allosaurus might have had multiple killing techniques. Maximum gape and optimal gape, as Lautenschlager found, are not the same. Exceptionally wide bites would have actually been weaker than those when the dinosaur held its jaws at optimal tension. In short, Allosaurus would have delivered its best bites with a smaller gape. (And the same would have been true for Tyrannosaurus, which could throw open its jaws impressively wide, too.) Why the dinosaurs was able to really open wide, then, might support something Bakker previously suggested. If Allosaurus really did attack with a wide gape, the dinosaur could have used its strong neck muscles to drive its toothy upper jaw at prey like some kind of biological “war club.” More of a slash than a bite.
So why was Allosaurus capable such an unusual bite? Could it be true that Allosaurus was capable of such wide gapes because they were going after larger prey? That was Bakker’s contention. The big gape made Allosaurus a specialized “brontosaur killer” capable of taking down the surplus of giant sauropods that plodded around the floodplains of the Jurassic west. As dramatic as such visions are, though, there are a few problems with envisioning Allosaurus jumping onto the back of an adult Diplodocus and slicing out massive chunks of flesh.
Even if Allosaurus really did slice at sauropod hides in the way Bakker and others have suggested, though, taking down a full-grown sauropod would have been no simple task. Sauropod necks, for example, were not noodles just begging to be bitten through, but, as Mike Taylor and colleagues recently pointed out, were “constructed from tough elements including the often robust cervical ribs, bony laminae, ligaments, and tendons.” Decapitation is never as easy as the movies make it look.
And while “Clash of the Titans” dominates paleoimagery, such confrontations were probably rare. Like many modern carnivores, Dave Hone and Oliver Rauhut wrote, carnivorous dinosaurs likely targeted hatchlings and juveniles. (And this might explain why finding baby dinosaurs is so difficult!)
Not to mention that Bakker’s chosen analogues for Allosaurus – the sabercats – didn’t target the biggest prey on the landscape. Geochemical signatures in bones pulled from the La Brea asphalt seeps indicate Smilodon pursued bison and camels, not giant sloths or mammoths, and, in a recent review of Ice Age ecosystems, Blaire Van Valkenburgh and colleagues found that large herbivores are vulnerable to carnivores when they’re juveniles. A Homotherium den in Texas littered with the bones of young mastodons attests to the fact that these sabercats typically targeted juvenile giants rather than risking injury and death under the feet of the adults. The same was probably true for Allosaurus, especially since sauropod dinosaurs laid multiple eggs at a time and the landscape may have been flooded with naive young dinosaurs when hatching season rolled around.
So we’re left with the perpetual paleontological problem of what an animal could have done and what it actually did. Perhaps Allosaurus both bit at its prey and swung its skull like a tooth-studded hatchet, making it a more versatile predator and perhaps explaining why it’s apparently so much more common in Morrison Formation rocks than any of its competitors. And that makes me feel sorry for the baby sauropods that walked into the fern-covered floodplains and conifer stands of the Late Jurassic world. Imagine hearing the snap of a twig, turning at the sound to see the sky blocked out by a set of serrated teeth swinging down on you from above.
Bakker, R. 1998. Brontosaur killers: Late Jurassic allosaurids as sabre-tooth cat analogues. Gaia. 15: 145-158
Coltrain, J., Harris, J., Cerling, T., Ehleringer, J., Dearing, M., Ward, J., Allen, J. 2004. Rancho La Brea stable isotope biogeochemistry and its implications for the palaeoecology of late Pleistocene, coastal southern California. Palaeo. doi: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2003.12.008
Hone, D., Rauhut, O. 2010. Feeding behavior and bone utilization by theropod dinosaurs. Lethaia. doi: 10.1111/j.1502-3931.2009.00187.x
Lautenschlager, S. 2015. Estimating cranial musculoskeletal constraints in theropod dinosaurs. Royal Society Open Science. doi: 10.1098/rsos.150495
Loewen, M. 2009. Variation in the Late Jurassic theropod dinosaur Allosaurus: ontogenetic, functional, and taxonomic implications. University of Utah dissertation.
Snively, E., Cotton, J., Ridgely, R., Witmer, L. 2013. Multibody dynamics model of head and neck function in Allosaurus (Dinosauria, Theropoda). Palaeontologia Electronica. 16 (2): 1-29
Taylor, M., Hone, D., Wedel, M., Naish. 2011. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00824.x
Van Valkenburgh, B., Hayward, M., Ripple, W., Meloro, C., Roth, V. 2015. The impact of large terrestrial carnivores on Pleistocene ecosystems. PNAS. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1502554112
[This post was originally published at National Geographic.]