The Dilemma of the Dinosaur Stance: How Did They Hold Their Heads?

By Eliza Strickland | May 28, 2009 2:29 pm

sauropodThe lumbering, long-necked dinosaurs known as sauropods are a staple of natural history museums and gift shops, but a new debate has broken out that challenges the poses of the museums’ life-sized replicas and the toy shops’ plastic figurines. The mighty sauropods Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus are commonly positioned with their long necks stretched before them, but a controversial new study argues that they actually stretched their necks up to the treetops. If sauropods did indeed hold their heads aloft like giraffes, some would have stood almost 50 feet tall.

For the new study, published in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, paleontologist Mike Taylor and his colleagues took the straight-forward approach of studying the x-rays of 10 different groups of vertebrate animals. Says Taylor: “Unless sauropods carried their heads and necks differently from every living vertebrate, we have to assume the base of their neck was curved strongly upwards. In some sauropods this would have meant a graceful S-curve to the neck, and a look different from the recreations we are used to seeing today” [The Australian].

Taylor’s group found that only animals closely related to salamanders, turtles, lizards, and crocodiles carry their necks in a horizontal posture. They noted that necks are nearly vertical in the animals that share the upright leg posture of dinosaurs, namely mammals and birds, the sauropods’ closest living relatives. Scientists had argued against the vertical posture in sauropods, saying that it would require an implausibly steep bend at the base of the neck. However, very sharp bends were seen in ostriches and giraffes, proving that such a physique is possible [The Times].

Yet Taylor’s theory is meeting stiff resistance from some quarters. In another paper recently published in the journal Biology Letters, evolutionary biologist Roger Seymour argues that sauropods would have spent as much as 75 percent of their bodies’ energy to keep their heads held high. Most mammals use about 10 percent of their energy to circulate blood through their bodies. Giraffes use about 18 percent of their energy to keep blood moving through their long, upright necks. “Would the increased availability of food in tall trees be worth the cost? This seems doubtful,” Seymour said. “It would probably make more energetic sense for [sauropods] to feed with their necks close to horizontal” [National Geographic News].

Other experts say it’s conceivable that sauropods held their heads high as they strutted over the primordial plains, but argue that Taylor hasn’t proved his case. Says palaeontologist Paul Barrett: “Sauropods are bizarre…. There is no living animal built in the same way.” So, although the study of living animals’ skeletons is very valuable, he added, “finding a model to explain the biology of these creatures is not that easy” [BBC News].

Related Content:
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80beats: Dinosaur Handprints Show It Could “Hold a Basketball,” Not Dribble
80beats: To Attract Mates, This Dino May Have Shaken a Tail Feather
80beats: How Did the Giant Flying Reptiles of the Jurassic Period Take Off?

Image: flickr / Phillie Casablanca

MORE ABOUT: birds, dinosaurs
  • Matt Wedel

    Taylor’s group found that only animals closely related to salamanders, turtles, lizards, and crocodiles carry their necks in a horizontal posture.

    Actually we found that even living reptiles and amphibians carry their necks elevated above horizontal. This posture is normal for all living terrestrial vertebrates, and we infer that it is primitive for crown-group tetrapods. Birds and mammals carry it to an extreme with neck postures that often approach or exceed vertical (‘exceed’ in the sense that the middle of the neck sometimes leans backward, as in flamingos). This may be important, because birds and mammals have erect limbs (as opposed to sprawling animals like lizards), and so did sauropods and other non-avian dinosaurs.

    For the curious, we have a lot of supplementary information available at our blog. Thanks for your interest!

  • Jo

    If they weren’t feeding from tall trees, then what would have been the purpose of the long neck? Speaking from ignorance here — I know squat about dinosaurs … other than that you should stop moving when the T-rex spots you. 😉

  • Eliza Strickland

    Hi, Matt — thanks for your clarifying comment. I was trying to say that turtles, etc. hold their necks more horizontally than the other animals studied, but I should have made it clear that their necks are still slightly inclined.


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