The long and short of sauropod grazing

23 March 2011

New research published in Royal Society journal Biology Letters suggests that the extremely long necks of Sauropod dinosaurs such as Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus may have evolved not just to help the dinosaurs reach vegetation high up in tree canopies, but also to scour the ground for the tastiest morsels.

It has often been suggested that these dinosaurs fed in the same way as giraffes, using their long necks to reach leaves high in trees.  However, this suggestion is controversial amongst dinosaur researchers, as some think that this method of feeding would use so much energy that it would be impossible for the giant creatures to feed this way.

The new research uses simple mathematical calculations to show that browsing for vegetation on the ground would actually have been an energetically efficient way for the giant creatures to feed.  Unusually, the scientists took their inspiration from old-fashioned cylinder-style vacuum cleaners.  While the outdated domestic contraptions might initially seem very different to dinosaurs, in fact they share the same physical characteristics of large, difficult to move heavy bodies and long thin necks.  As the researchers suggest, “By analogy to old style vacuum cleaners, the long neck of the Sauropods might have been an adaptation to allow less movement of the exceptionally heavy body of these animals while feeding.”

However, the scientists – based at Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Glasgow – are keen to point out that this doesn’t rule out that the Sauropods used their long necks to browse on both low ground and high vegetation, stating that “It is possible that a given type of Sauropod used both high and low foraging, and experienced selection for a long neck through both mechanisms”.