The world domination achieved by such fearsome bipedal dinosaurs as the T. rex may have been a result of their warm-blooded biology, according to new research. For decades, scientists assumed that because dinosaurs resembled lizards, they were cold-blooded as well, their internal temperature rising and falling with the outside world. However, birds are warm-blooded, and the fact that birds seem to be descended from dinosaurs raises the question of whether their ancestors were as well [LiveScience]. The new study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, examined the anatomy of 14 species of bipedal dinosaurs, and argues that many of them needed more energy to power their massive leg muscles than a cold-blooded metabolism could provide.
Lead researcher Herman Pontzer based his findings on the estimated amount of energy dinosaurs must have expended moving about. Recent research by Dr Pontzer has shown that the energy cost of walking and running is strongly associated with leg length. Hip height – the distance from the hip joint to the ground – can predict the observed cost of locomotion with 98 per cent accuracy for a wide range of land animals [Telegraph]. The research team also used measurements of fossilized leg bones to determine the leg muscle mass of each species, and found that the muscles would have required a great deal of energy during walking and running.
The dinosaurs would have benefited from a warm-blooded metabolism, Pontzer says, because they could have been agile and active even when the temperature dipped, and could have therefore spread through areas with colder climates. But there would also have been a downside: Maintaining a stable internal temperature … costs a lot of energy and requires the animals to feed more regularly [The Guardian]. At any rate, the new results aren’t likely to convince paleontologists who aren’t in the warm-blooded camp, and you can expect the debate to continue.
80beats: Miniature T. Rex Was a Man-Sized Monster
80beats: How Did Dinosaurs Get So Big? Maybe Because They Were Couch Potatoes
DISCOVER: Distinctive Dinosaur Death Throes
DISCOVER: How to Build a T. Rex
Image: PLoS ONE / Herman Pontzer, et al.
Inside the brain of someone who’s learning to juggle, some interesting changes take place. Researchers used MRI scans to study the brains of people before and after a six-week training course in juggling, and say they saw a 5% increase in white matter – the cabling network of the brain [BBC News].
The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, follows up on previous work that found changes in the more famous gray matter of the brain, which consists of the cell bodies of the neurons where processing and computation take place. The white matter, which consists mostly of the axons that stretch away from the cell bodies, can be thought of as the brain’s wiring, and researchers say this is the first time that changes have been observed in the white matter of a healthy adult.
In the past century, jockeys have helped their horses race about six percent faster, thanks to a position on the horse known as the “monkey crouch.” This elevated, squatting stance minimizes the work the horse must do to propel his rider forward, according to a study published in Science.
To analyze the movement of the horse and jockey while racing, scientists attached sensors to the saddle and the jockey’s belt. They found that when a horse runs, it also moves up and down, bringing the jockey along with it. The rider can therefore weigh the horse down or, in the case of the monkey crouch, he can isolate himself from the horse’s motions, and therefore minimize his effect on the horse’s movement. When seated upright, riders act much like sandbags, weighing down the horse and incurring increased mechanical and metabolic costs. But in the crouched … position, a jockey can move relative to the horse and minimize this forward-backward and up-and-down movement [Scientific American].
The sandfish lizard appears to “swim” like a fish through sand, but how exactly the animal does it has long puzzled biophysicists. Now, a study published in Science reveals that the four-legged creature really does swim through sand like it would in water by retracting its legs and undulating its body.
To examine the lizard’s movement, researchers had to peek underground. They did this using X-ray imaging, and found that once the lizard, or skink, has dived beneath the sand, it doesn’t paddle. “When started above the surface, the animals dive into the sand within half a second. Once below the surface, they no longer use their limbs for propulsion — instead, they move forward by propagating a traveling wave down their bodies like a snake,” said study leader Daniel Goldman [LiveScience]. This movement was surprising because previous magnetic resonance imaging studies seemed to suggest that the lizards pushed themselves along using their legs.
Contrary to what scientists previously thought, it’s not only the power of a dog’s muscles that limits how fast the animal can accelerate; instead, it’s the need to keep those front paws on the ground and avoid doing a backflip. Although animals clearly don’t have wheels, the authors have branded this potential imbalance a quadrupedal “wheelie,” according to a study (pdf) published in the journal Biology Letters.
The ability to gain speed quickly is crucial for survival, but there’s a limit as to how rapidly an animal can accelerate. Researchers wondered whether the “wheelie” problem experienced by cars during a drag race could be a factor in four-legged animals’ ability to speed up. They came up with a simple mathematical model… to see how fast a quadruped could accelerate without tipping over backward. The model predicts that the longer the back is in relation to the legs, the less likely a dog is to flip over and the faster it can accelerate. Then the researchers tested the model by going down to the local track, London’s Walthamstow Stadium, and video-recording individual greyhounds as they burst out of the gate in time trials. The acceleration approached–but never exceeded–the limit predicted by the model [Science NOW]. That means that at low speeds, it’s the ability to keep his front end from pitching up that determines a dog’s maximum acceleration.
A hummingbird in love can perform aerial stunts that put fighter pilots to shame. In a new study, researcher Christopher Clark captured the male hummingbird’s daring dives with cameras that can capture 500 frames per second. To get the footage, Clark set out a caged female, or even a stuffed female on a stick, to inspire birds to dive right in front of his video cameras [Science News].
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Clark observed the Anna’s hummingbird, a tiny bird native to the American southwest. In the male’s courtship display he dives down dramatically with his wings pressed to his sides, and then dramatically stretches out his wings and tail feathers to break his momentum and bring him swooping back up into the sky. Clark says that the maneuver sets some records. When measured relative to the length of their bodies, the birds’ top speed, he said, was “greater than [that] of a fighter jet with its afterburners on, or the space shuttle during atmospheric re-entry” [BBC News].
Snakes certainly make it look easy when they slither forward, leaving perfect S-curve tracks behind them, but scientists have long been puzzled by the mechanics of their locomotion. One theory proposed that they propelled themselves by pushing off small twigs and rocks in their paths, but researchers noted that they move equally well across smooth surfaces, like flat rock or desert sand. One researcher who is studying snakes’ motions, David Hu, notes that snakes are champs at escaping across office carpet…. “One snake escaped, and we didn’t know where it was until we got a printer jam,” he says. (The snake was fine.) [ScienceNOW Daily News].
Now, after a series of experiments and some computer modeling, Hu says his team has cracked the case. A snake’s scales, Dr. Hu said, resemble overlapping Venetian blinds, and tend to catch on tiny variations in the surface they lie on. This friction is greater in the forward direction than in sideways directions, as it is with wheels and ice skates. This frictional difference results in the snake’s moving forward as it undulates [The New York Times].
Researchers have learned the universal secret behind the graceful, aerial turns executed by everything from insects to cockatoos. And it’s a surprisingly simple process: To turn left, all a bird has to do is flap its right wing a little bit harder than the left wing. To end the turn, the bird simply returns to flapping its wings in unison [Discovery News]. Researchers hope to duplicate the simple set of motions to create more nimble and acrobatic flying robots.
Though the dynamics probably can’t work at large scales — building-sized robotic birds won’t ever be as agile as a swallow — they could be harnessed in small drones used by explorers or the military. Compared to the average hummingbird or fruit fly, such craft are now clumsy and unstable. “The results will inform all future research into maneuvering flight in animals and biomimetic flying robots” [Wired], wrote biomechanicist Bret Tobalske in a commentary.
Paleontologists believe that majestic pterosaurs ruled the skies during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, soaring overhead on their leathery wings while dinosaurs stomped over the ground below. But researchers recently began wondering how exactly those “winged lizards” lifted off, as some of them weighed more than 500 pounds and were as tall as a giraffe. Last year, researchers tried to figure out how they got off the ground by looking at the largest bird now flying, the albatross. They concluded that anything much bigger couldn’t get off the ground the same way [AP], because the wing muscles wouldn’t be able to generate enough lift. But researcher Mike Habib now says pterosaurs shouldn’t be compared to birds. “The catch is that they are not built like birds,” Habib said [AP].
Habib thinks he has the answer to the pterosaurs’ launching maneuver. When the pterosaurs’ strong wings were folded they created “knuckles” that the animals rested on in four-legged stance, he says, which allowed them to take off in a motion akin to leap-frogging. The back legs kicked off first, Habib says, and then the front legs gave a mighty push to propel them into the air. This procedure would negate the need for launching aids that other paleontologists have suggested, like strong winds, a downslope, or a cliff to jump from. “Using all four legs, it takes less than a second to get off of flat ground, no wind, no cliffs,” Habib said. “This was a good thing to be able to do if you lived in the late Cretaceous period and there were hungry tyrannosaurs wandering around” [LiveScience].
In the primeval forests of Europe, scaly lizards leaped from the treetops and glided safely to the ground, according to a new study. Paleontologists investigated the fossilized remains of two kinds of kuehneosaurs, which were first found in the 1950s in an ancient cave system near Bristol [The Press Association]. They say that the prehistoric reptiles used extraordinary extensions of their ribs to form large gliding surfaces on the side of the body [LiveScience], which were surprisingly effective for the larger of the two species.
Researcher Koen Stein says: “We didn’t think kuehneosaurs would have been very efficient in the air, but all the work up to now had been speculation, so we decided to build models and test them in the wind tunnel in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Bristol. Surprisingly, we found that Kuehneosuchus was aerodynamically very stable” [Telegraph]. Researchers said the Kuehneosuchus could have glided about 30 feet before touching down on the ground, while the Kuehneosaurus, with stubbier “wings,” was more of a parachutist.