Long-necked giant sauropods scarfed down fast-food feasts

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nothing in the dinosaur world was quite like the sauropods. They were huge, some unbelievably gigantic, the biggest animals ever to lumber across the land, consuming everything in sight. Their necks were much longer than a giraffe’s, their tails just about as long and their bodies like an elephant’s, only much more so.

Wide-eyed first-graders are not the only ones fascinated by sauropods, particularly those outsize friends Apatosaurus (formerly known as Brontosaurus), Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus. Scientists are redoubling their study of the unusual biology of these amazing plant-eaters. They are asking questions not unlike, in spirit, those of schoolchildren.

By what physiological strategy of heart, lungs and metabolism were the largest of sauropod species able to thrive over a span of 140 million years? How did they possibly get enough to eat to grow so hefty, to lengths of 15 to 150 feet and estimated weights of up to 70 tons? A mere elephant has to eat 18 hours a day to get its fill. Even in the Mesozoic era, there were only 24 hours in a day.

For more than seven years, a group of German and Swiss scientists has made a concerted effort to test the limits of body size in terrestrial vertebrates and, in the process, try to answer these and other questions related to the enigma of sauropod gigantism. Findings by many other scientists have been reviewed and analyzed, then tested with new experiments and more observations.

“We actually have been re-engineering a sauropod,” said P. Martin Sander, a paleontologist at the University of Bonn and leader of the research team. “We are looking for physical advantages it had over other large animals and assessing various hypotheses.”

One clear explanation has emerged: These were the ultimate fast-food gourmands. Reaching all around with their long necks, these giants gulped down enormous meals. With no molars in their relatively small heads, they were unequipped for serious chewing. They let the digestive juices of their capacious bodies break down their heaping intake while they just kept packing away more chow.

This was seemingly the only efficient way for sauropods to satisfy their appetites and to diversify into some 120 genera, beginning more than 200 million years ago. They eventually dominated the landscape for a long run through the Cretaceous, only to die out with all non-avian dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

For more information related to dinosaurs, visit rareresource.com.


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