Research reveals Walking with Dinosaurs may have it wrong

15 August 2013

New ostrich study illuminates sauropod dinosaur movement.

Research associated with the Museum's Earth Sciences department has revealed that sauropod dinosaurs, with their long necks and tails, small heads and thick legs, may have moved in a different way than previously thought.

Matthew Cobley, a master's student working with Museum palaeontologist Dr Paul Barrett, studied the muscles and soft tissue of ostriches, closely related to the sauropods, to better understand the way sauropod dinosaurs may have moved their necks.

Dr Barrett says that, since palaeontologists usually study the bones of extinct animals, it's easy to underestimate the influence of muscle and cartilage on flexibility and movement. While the general structure of a sauropod is well understood, the issue of neck posture remains contentious.

Largest land animals ever

The study's insight into soft tissue suggests that a sauropod's neck was less flexible than previously estimated. Neck function is important in influencing our understanding of how the dinosaurs foraged (high or low browsing, for example) and therefore functioned on a day to day basis. It also feeds into public perception of what dinosaurs looked like through images and reconstruction in exhibitions, TV programmes and films.

The sauropods are the largest land animals ever to have existed, surviving for around 150 million years. The research could also help explain why sauropods, herbivores that weighed up to 70 tonnes, did so well on Earth for so long. 

TV image of the sauropods

Previous estimates of sauropod neck flexibility were based on the positions of neck vertebrae but didn't allow for the effects of soft tissues, which, according to the study, would have limited flexibility. The original estimates were fed into a computer model, which was used to stimulate movement featured in TV shows, such as the BBC programme Walking with Dinosaurs, so may now not be accurate.

Cobley says his research reminds us that we don't yet understand everything about the dinosaurs.

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