How Dinosaurs Mated and Reproduced

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Birds do it, and bees do it--and although we don't know how, how often, or for how long, dinosaurs had sex, too. The reason dinosaur mating is such an enduring mystery is that it's hard to picture a five-ton Tyrannosaurus Rex male putting the moves on an even bigger female, or a pair of Triceratops not goring themselves on each others' horns as they attempt to perpetuate the species. Add the fact that male and female genitals don't tend to persist in the fossil record, and the average paleontologist knows less about dinosaur sex than a second-grader knows about the human variety.

To show how huge a mystery dinosaur sex remains, it's only in the past few years that scientists have been able to distinguish between male and female dinosaurs of the same genus--and even these interpretations aren't accepted by the entire scientific community. Logically, there's every reason to believe that female dinosaurs had bigger hips than males, since females had to carry and lay eggs. Also, there's good evidence that the frills of male ceratopsians were bigger than those of females--large frills being a sexually selected characteristic that helped males to attract mates.
Dinosaur Sex - Reasoning by Analogy with Modern Mammals

Since there aren't any living specimens available for observation, one way to explore the sex life of dinosaurs is to extrapolate back from the largest land animals alive today--elephants and giraffes. With their long necks and squat trunks, giraffes are shaped a bit like smallish sauropods; the way they have sex is that the male approaches the female from behind, keeps his neck low to the ground (so as not to put undue stress on his heart), and does his business very quickly. Elephant males--which vaguely resemble mid-sized hadrosaurs--also approach females from the rear, and they don't linger on the act, either.

The trouble is, reasoning by analogy can only take us so far. As big as it may seem to us, a male giraffe is tiny compared to a full-grown Brachiosaurus; it's hard to imagine even a healthy female successfully bearing its 50-ton weight. And a big reason full-grown elephants can mate at all is that their tails are laughably tiny; imagine the logistics that would be involved with the long, heavy, bulky tail of a Parasaurolophus female.

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