Armored dinos may have used their tail clubs to bludgeon each other

Tanklike armored dinosaurs probably pummeled each other — not just predators — with huge, bony knobs attached to the ends of their tails. Thanks to new fossil findings, researchers are getting a clearer understanding of how these rugged plant eaters may have used their wicked weaponry.

Many dinosaurs known as ankylosaurids sported a heavy, potentially microwave-sized tail club. This natural sledgehammer has long been considered by both scientists and artists as a defensive weapon against predators, says Victoria Arbour, a paleontologist at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, Canada.

Fossil evidence for tail clubs’ targets was largely lacking, until Arbour and her colleagues chipped more rock away from the same skeleton they used to describe a new armored dinosaur, Zuul crurivastator, in 2017 (SN: 6/12/17).

The dinosaur had five broken spikes on its sides. The team’s statistical analyses showed the damaged spikes clustered in specific regions of the body. If a large carnivorous dinosaur made these injuries, says Arbour, they’d likely be more randomly distributed and include bite and scratch marks.
Instead, the injuries are more consistent with clubbing, the researchers report December 7 in Biology Letters.

Armored dinosaurs’ tail clubs start out either absent or too tiny to mount a major defense, and they get proportionally larger with age. Similar growth patterns occur in some modern animal weaponry like antlers. It’s possible that tanklike dinosaurs sparred with each other for mates, food or territory much like male deer and giraffes do today.

And that tail could also be useful in a pinch. “Having a tail club you can swing around at the ankles of a two-legged predator is a pretty effective weapon,” says Arbour.

“Ankylosaurs are often portrayed as stupid, loner dinosaurs,” she adds. The findings “show that they probably had much more complex behaviors than we give them credit for.”

These are our favorite science books of 2022

Books about the pandemic. Books about the ancient past. Books about outer space. These were a few of Science News staff’s favorite reads. If your favorite didn’t make this year’s cut, let us know what we missed at

Vagina Obscura
Rachel E. Gross
W.W. Norton & Co.

For centuries, scientists (mostly males) have ignored female biology, and women’s health has suffered. But researchers are finally paying attention, as Gross explains in this fascinating tour of what little is known about female anatomy (SN: 4/9/22, p. 29).

The Song of the Cell
Siddhartha Mukherjee

Patient stories and conversations with scientific luminaries enliven this tale of cell biology’s past, present and future, and how advances in the field have reshaped medicine (SN: 11/5/22, p. 28).

David Quammen
Simon & Schuster

In this portrait of the coronavirus and the scientists who study it, Quammen investigates some of the most pressing questions about the pandemic, including whether or not the coronavirus could have accidentally escaped from a lab (SN: 9/24/22, p. 28).

Joseph Osmundson
W.W. Norton & Co.

This wide-ranging collection of essays is a meditation on society’s complicated relationship with viruses. In pondering SARS-CoV-2, HIV and more, Osmundson calls for more equitable access to medical care (SN: 7/16/22 & 7/30/22, p. 36).

The Milky Way
Moiya McTier
Grand Central Publishing

This absorbing “autobiography,” written from the perspective of the Milky Way (a very sassy Milky Way), draws on mythology and astronomy to persuade readers that our home galaxy deserves respect and admiration (SN: 9/10/22, p. 28).

A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman
Lindy Elkins-Tanton
William Morrow

In this moving memoir, Elkins-Tanton recounts her journey to becoming a planetary scientist and leader of a NASA asteroid mission. Her struggles with childhood trauma and sexism in her career lay bare the barriers that many women in science still face (SN: 8/13/22, p. 26).

An Immense World
Ed Yong
Random House

So much of the world is beyond the grasp of human perception, but this safari through animal senses helps readers imagine what we’re missing (SN: 7/16/22 & 7/30/22, p. 36).

How Far the Light Reaches
Sabrina Imbler
Little, Brown, & Co.

By drawing parallels between their own life and the stories of bobbit worms, octopuses, sperm whales and other deep-sea dwellers, Imbler muses on such weighty themes as adaptation, survival and sexuality.

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs
Riley Black
St. Martin’s Press

The basic story of the downfall of nonbird dinosaurs is familiar: They were killed off by an asteroid that slammed into Earth 66 million years ago. Using the most up-to-date science, Black fleshes out this tale, painting a vivid portrait of life before and after this apocalypse (SN: 4/23/22, p. 28).

The Rise and Reign of the Mammals
Steve Brusatte
Mariner Books

The perfect follow-up to Black’s book on how the Age of Dinosaurs ended is this sweeping history of how the Age of Mammals began. Brusatte traces the origins of the evolutionary innovations that have made mammals so successful (SN: 6/18/22, p. 28).

Jennifer Raff

Exactly how and when humans first came to the Americas is still unsettled science. But Raff gathers archaeological and genetic evidence to piece together a convincing scenario. She also points out past mistreatment of Indigenous communities by geneticists and calls on researchers to do better and foster more collaborations (SN: 2/12/22, p. 29).

Bethany Brookshire

So-called pests are a human invention, argues Brookshire, a former staff writer for Science News for Students (now Science News Explores). In coming face to face with rats, feral cats, pythons and even elephants, Brookshire teases out the various social factors that cause people to deem certain animals a nuisance (SN: 12/3/22, p. 26).

A parasite makes wolves more likely to become pack leaders

A parasite might be driving some wolves to lead or go solo.

Wolves in Yellowstone National Park infected with Toxoplasma gondii make more daring decisions than their uninfected counterparts, researchers report November 24 in Communications Biology. The wolves’ enhanced risk-taking means they are more likely to leave their pack, or become leaders of their own.

“Those are two decisions that can really benefit wolves, or could cause wolves to die,” says Connor Meyer, a field biologist at the University of Montana in Missoula. The findings reveal a parasite’s potent ability to influence a wolf’s social fate.

Disease is often considered important for wildlife, mostly in the context of killing its host, Meyer says. “We have evidence now that just being infected with a certain parasite — Toxoplasma — can have pretty major implications for wolf behavior.”
Single-celled T. gondii has a track record of altering animal behavior. Its most important hosts are cats, which provide a breeding ground for the parasite in their small intestine. The parasite offspring hitch a ride on feline feces. Other animals then ingest the parasite, which then manipulates its new hosts’ behavior by tweaking certain hormones, making the hosts bolder or more aggressive. Infected mice, for example, can fatally lose their fear of cats, allowing the parasite to infect more hosts once the mice are consumed (SN: 1/14/20).

In Yellowstone National Park, many wolves are also infected with T. gondii, recent research has shown. So Meyer and colleagues wondered if gray wolves (Canis lupus) in the park showed any parasite mind-bending of their own.
Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. Ongoing study of the park’s packs meant that the researchers had access to about 26 years’ worth of blood samples, behavioral observations and movement data for 229 of the park’s wolves.

The team screened the wolf blood for antibodies against T. gondii parasites, which reveal an infection. The researchers also noted which wolves left their pack — usually a family unit consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring — or became a pack leader.

Both are high-stakes moves for a wolf, Meyer says.

Infected wolves were 11 times as likely as noninfected wolves to disperse from their pack, the team found, and about 46 times as likely to eventually become leaders. The findings fit in with T. gondii’s apparent ability to boost boldness across a wide range of warm-blooded life.
The study fills a crucial gap in the Toxoplasma pool of knowledge, says Ajai Vyas, a neurobiologist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who was not involved with the study.

“Most of the earlier work has been done in the lab,” Vyas says. But there are limitations to that approach, especially for re-creating how animals experience the effects of the parasite in their natural environment. Such research has “become almost like studying whale swimming behavior in backyard pools; [it] does not work very well.”

Wolves’ enhanced boldness may even form a feedback loop, the team proposes. The researchers found that not only do cougars (Puma concolor) in the park carry the parasite, but wolves’ infection rates were highest when the animals’ ranges overlapped with the park’s densest aggregations of cougars. Infected wolf leaders may be more likely to bring pack members into riskier situations, including approaching cougar territories, making additional infections more likely.

The feedback-loop idea is “very fascinating,” but more research is needed to confirm it, says Greg Milne, an epidemiologist at the Royal Veterinary College in London, who was not involved with the study. Such research may involve determining if infected wolves are more likely to migrate into an area with more cougars.

“I think people are just starting to really appreciate that personality differences in animals are a major consideration in behavior,” says study coauthor Kira Cassidy, a wildlife biologist at the Yellowstone Wolf Project in Bozeman, Mont. “Now we add a parasite-impacting behavior to the list.”

Next, the team is interested in examining the long-term consequences of a T. gondii infection, and whether infected wolves make better leaders or dispersers than uninfected wolves.

It’s also not known how infection impacts survival and reproduction rates, Cassidy says. “Infection may very well be detrimental in some ways and advantageous in others.”