Nav: Home

Scientists explain evolution of some of the largest dinosaurs

March 29, 2016

Scientists from the University of Liverpool have developed computer models of the bodies of sauropod dinosaurs to examine the evolution of their body shape.

Sauropod dinosaurs include the largest land animals to have ever lived. Some of the more well-known sauropods include Diplodocus, Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus. They are renowned for their extremely long necks, long tails as well as four thick, pillar-like legs and small heads in relation to their body.

To date, however, there have been only limited attempts to examine how this unique body-plan evolved and how it might be related to their gigantic body size. Dr Karl Bates from the University's Department of Musculoskeletal Biology and his colleagues used three-dimensional computer models reconstructing the bodies of sauropod dinosaurs to analyse how their size, shape and weight-distribution evolved over time.

Evolutionary history

Dr Bates found evidence that changes in body shape coincided with major events in sauropod evolutionary history such as the rise of the titanosaurs. The early dinosaurs that sauropods evolved from were small and walked on two legs, with long tails, small chests and small forelimbs. The team estimate that this body shape concentrated their weight close to the hip joint, which would have helped them balance while walking bipedally on their hind legs.

As sauropods evolved they gradually altered both their size and shape from this ancestral template, becoming not only significantly larger and heavier, but also gaining a proportionally larger chest, forelimbs and in particular a dramatically larger neck.

The team's findings show that these changes altered sauropods' weight distribution as they grew in size, gradually shifting from being tail-heavy, two-legged animals to being front-heavy, four-legged animals, such as the large, fully quadrupedal Jurassic sauropods Diplodocus and Apatosaurus.

The team found that these linked trends in size, body shape and weight distribution did not end with the evolution of fully quadrupedal sauropods. In the Cretaceous period - the last of the three ages of the dinosaurs - many earlier sauropod groups dwindled. In their place, a new and extremely large type of sauropod known as titanosaurs evolved, including the truly massive Argentinosaurus and Dreadnoughtus, among the largest known animals ever to have lived.

Front heavy

The team's computer models suggest that in addition to their size, the titanosaurs evolved the most extreme 'front heavy' body shape of all sauropods, as a result of their extremely long necks.

Dr Bates said: "As a result of devising these models we were able to ascertain that the relative size of sauropods' necks increased gradually over time, leading to animals that were increasingly more front-heavy relative to their ancestors."

Dr Philip Mannion from Imperial College London, a collaborator in the research, added: "These innovations in body shape might have been key to the success of titanosaurs, which were the only sauropod dinosaurs to survive until the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, 66 million years ago."

Dr Vivian Allen from the Royal Veterinary College London, who also collaborated in the research, added: "What's important to remember about studies like this is that there is a very high degree of uncertainty about exactly how these animals were put together. While we have good skeletons for many of them, it's difficult to be sure how much meat there was around each of the bones. We have built this uncertainly into our models, ranging each body part from emaciated to borderline obesity, and even using these extremes we still find these solid, trending changes in body proportions over sauropod evolution."
-end-
The full paper, entitled 'Temporal and phylogenetic evolution of the sauropod dinosaur body plan', has been published by Royal Society Open Science and can be found here once the embargo has lifted.

An animation by co-author Dr Peter L Falkingham (Liverpool John Moores University) of the three-dimensional computer model can be found here.

University of Liverpool

Related Evolution Articles:

Prebiotic evolution: Hairpins help each other out
The evolution of cells and organisms is thought to have been preceded by a phase in which informational molecules like DNA could be replicated selectively.
How to be a winner in the game of evolution
A new study by University of Arizona biologists helps explain why different groups of animals differ dramatically in their number of species, and how this is related to differences in their body forms and ways of life.
The galloping evolution in seahorses
A genome project, comprising six evolutionary biologists from Professor Axel Meyer's research team from Konstanz and researchers from China and Singapore, sequenced and analyzed the genome of the tiger tail seahorse.
Fast evolution affects everyone, everywhere
Rapid evolution of other species happens all around us all the time -- and many of the most extreme examples are associated with human influences.
Landscape evolution and hazards
Landscapes are formed by a combination of uplift and erosion.
New insight into enzyme evolution
How enzymes -- the biological proteins that act as catalysts and help complex reactions occur -- are 'tuned' to work at a particular temperature is described in new research from groups in New Zealand and the UK, including the University of Bristol.
The evolution of Dark-fly
On Nov. 11, 1954, Syuiti Mori turned out the lights on a small group of fruit flies.
A look into the evolution of the eye
A team of researchers, among them a zoologist from the University of Cologne, has succeeded in reconstructing a 160 million year old compound eye of a fossil crustacean found in southeastern France visible.
Is evolution more intelligent than we thought?
Evolution may be more intelligent than we thought, according to a University of Southampton professor.
The evolution of antievolution policies
Organized opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schoolsin the United States began in the 1920s, leading to the famous Scopes Monkey trial.

Related Evolution Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#SB2 2019 Science Birthday Minisode: Mary Golda Ross
Our second annual Science Birthday is here, and this year we celebrate the wonderful Mary Golda Ross, born 9 August 1908. She died in 2008 at age 99, but left a lasting mark on the science of rocketry and space exploration as an early woman in engineering, and one of the first Native Americans in engineering. Join Rachelle and Bethany for this very special birthday minisode celebrating Mary and her achievements. Thanks to our Patreons who make this show possible! Read more about Mary G. Ross: Interview with Mary Ross on Lash Publications International, by Laurel Sheppard Meet Mary Golda...