Romantic Weaponry

Why this creature borrowed 

Neptune's trident for a nose.

Walliserops trifurcatus wasn't like the other trilobites. It wielded an immense, flat-bladed trident, projecting from its front like an oversize hood ornament and conjuring the three-tipped tool attributed to the Greek god Poseidon and his Roman equivalent Neptune.

In a new study, two scientists argue that the three-inch-long creature's trident served as a weapon for jousting with rival males over some 400 million years ago.

Sexual selection - anatomical traits that merge through millenniums of accumulation of a species' romantic whims - produce some of the strangest features in animals.

Sometimes, they're decorations to attract a female's eye, like a peacock's tail feathers. Occasionally they're for dueling, as males battle one another for access to females, as in deer antlers.

Since its description in 2001 after discovery in Morocco, some researchers have suggested that Walliserops' three-bladed-fork was a defensive weapon.

But the researchers noted a Walliserops specimen on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science that grew to maturity with a deformed trident.

Wild animals with serious deformities in their feeding or defensive mechanisms generally don't survive to adulthood. But malformed sexual selection structures are different.

'' They don't actually hinder survival,'' said Alan D. Gishlick, a paleontologist at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and an author on the study. ''A peacock with a bunch of dull, short feathers might even live longer. They just don't help you mate.'' [ Asher Elbein ]


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