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Sauropods: Feats of Engineering

September 30, 2014

On October 11, 2014 the NC Museum of Natural Sciences will open its special exhibition doors for our new traveling exhibit, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs. The exhibition explores how scientists study fossils and living animals to understand sauropod biology, and what we can learn from these extinct animals about what it means to be big; like, really BIG. For those like me who are not a dinosaur expert by any means, I did some background research on what exactly a sauropod is.  When we hear the term dinosaur it might evoke mental images of voracious beasts like Tyrannosaurus rex or a Velociraptor. However, the sauropods, while viewed as gentle giants, and sometimes even regarded as stupid creatures, have a very complex story that is intriguing and impressive.

Described as ‘feats of engineering,’ the largest sauropod dinosaurs weighed close to 100 tonnes — almost ten times the record weight of a modern elephant. Sauropods therefore include the largest land animals ever to have lived. They were a very successful herbivorous group, arising in the early Jurassic and surviving for around 140 million years. Fossil footprints show that sauropod dinosaurs traveled in herds. Notable sauropods include Diplodocus, Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus) and the record-breaking heavyweight Argentinosaurus, which may have recently lost its title to the newly discovered Dreadnoughtus.

Alamosaurus

Alamosaurus, author: Bogdanov, 2006.

The World’s Largest Dinosaurs will give visitors a chance to learn more about sauropods and their giant stature, but the real highlight and centerpiece of the exhibit is Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis (Mah-MEN-chi-SAWR-us ho-CHOO-an EN-sis). One hundred and sixty million years ago, Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis lived in what is now China. Mamenchisaurs were not the largest sauropods, and — immense as she is — the specimen in the exhibit is not the largest mamenchisaur. She and her relatives have at least one big distinction, though: they have the longest necks for their body size of any dinosaur known.

By looking at the fossils, paleontologists were able to determine that Mamenchisaurus was a giant sauropod with a very long neck — among the longest of any animal that has ever lived. Measuring up to 11 meters, the neck was almost half the overall length of the animal. Its long neck and its tail were held in position by a series of ligaments anchored at the hip — a bit like a suspension bridge. Mamenchisaurus would have walked with its stiff neck held almost horizontal. All the vertebrae of its neck, body and tail were hollow and light, while its leg bones were quite solid. This kept its center of gravity low, which helped the animal maintain its balance.

"Mamenchisaurus in Japan" by Kabacchi - Mamenchisaurus - 03Uploaded by FunkMonk. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mamenchisaurus_in_Japan.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Mamenchisaurus_in_Japan.jpg

Mamenchisaurus in Japan by Flickr user Kabacchi: Mamenchisaurus – 03. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Like all sauropods, Mamenchisaurus was a plant-eater. Its spoon-shaped teeth were not for chewing, but were used like a rake to strip leaves off plants. These were swallowed into its huge vat-like stomach. Its long neck allowed it to reach food otherwise inaccessible to an animal with such a huge body. Mamenchisaurus, like all herbivores, would have had to eat almost continuously to get enough nutrition to sustain its massive body.

The exhibit is more than just replica dinosaurs posed in dioramas, it explores deeper questions about dinosaur research. The last four decades have witnessed a change in how dinosaurs are studied. Scientists no longer examine just the structure of the skeletons and the relationships among these fascinating animals, but have started inquiring about their biology. How did dinosaurs move? What were their circulatory systems like? How did they feed? How did they breathe? Many of these questions involve soft tissues and organs that are never preserved in fossils, so paleontologists have to draw on other scientific disciplines to interpret the evidence they do have.

And this exhibit does exactly that. Drawing on the latest science that looks in part to existing organisms to understand these extinct giants, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs will answer such intriguing questions as how an extremely large animal breathes, eats, moves, and survives by illuminating how size and scale are related to basic biological functions. It is definitely an exhibit too BIG to miss out on!

 For more information about sauropods:

 

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