More than half of a millennium ago, Aztec warriors brandished a weapon called a macuahuitl, a wooden club with jagged obsidian blades embedded on its sides, to inflict gruesome wounds on enemies in close combat.
A newly identified armored dinosaur that inhabited the Patagonian region of Chile did much the same thing to ward off predators about 74 million years ago, with a tail resembling a macuahuitl, scientists said on Wednesday.
The four-legged plant-eating creature, named Stegouros elengassen, exemplifies the arms race that unfolded during the age of dinosaurs to acquire new traits to survive in a perilous world.
It also sheds light on the evolution of highly successful tank-like dinosaurs in the Ankylosaurus genus.
Stegouros lived in what is now South America’s southernmost tip during the Cretaceous Period in the twilight of the dinosaur era.
It was small relative to other armored dinosaurs, at about 2m long.
Photo: Fundacion Azara/Handout via Reuters
Stegouros possessed a beak-like mouth for cropping plants. Its back and sides were studded with bony structures called osteoderms that served as a coat of armor.
Its tail is utterly unique among dinosaurs. It is relatively short with fewer vertebrae than other armored dinosaurs.
The tail’s back half is covered by a frond-like structure composed of seven pairs of flattened fused bony elements with craggy edges sticking outward.
“We can only imagine how might Stegouros have used this weapon — and tail-swinging side to side as self-defense mechanism is a good guess,” said vertebrate paleontologist Sergio Soto, a University of Chile doctoral student and lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.
“The macuahuitl was an Aztec war club used in close combat by warriors, probably in a similar way to a sword, causing massive damage to the opponent. The tail weapon of Stegouros roughly resembles a macuahuitl,” study coauthor and University of Chile vertebrate paleontologist Alexander Vargas added.
“Uncovering a new type of tail weaponry in armored dinosaurs was a huge surprise for our team. When you imagine discovering a new type of armored dinosaur, you do not expect to find a morphology so dissimilar to those already known?” Soto said.
Stegouros retained some traits of the earlier stegosaurs, showing that southern ankylosaurs diverged from their northern cousins early on, he said.
Soto called Stegouros the “Rosetta Stone” of southern hemisphere ankylosaurs because it has enabled scientists for the first time to decipher their anatomy.
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