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Science

Dinosaur Posture Still Wrong, Says Study 226

Posted by kdawson
from the sit-up-straight dept.
An anonymous reader sends along a piece in Cosmos about new dissension to the current prevailing wisdom on dinosaur posture. The researchers admit that blood pressure presents an unresolved obstacle to their model of dinosaur heads held high. "The current depiction of the way giant sauropod dinosaurs held their necks is probably wrong, says a new study. 'For the last decade the reigning paradigm in palaeontology has been that the big sauropod dinosaurs held their necks out straight and their heads down low,' said co-author Matt Wedel, who researches biomechanics at the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California. But 'our research [now] suggests that this view of sauropods is simply incorrect, based on everything we know about living animals,' he said." The researchers worried that some other team might beat them to publication, so obvious did they consider their methodology of looking at living animals to gain insight into the biomechanics of extinct ones.
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Dinosaur Posture Still Wrong, Says Study

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  • TFA Is slashdotted (Score:5, Informative)

    by TinBromide (921574) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @02:45PM (#28185837)
    So they looked at a giraffe and decided that the giraffe may be a suitable long-necked living animal? Unfortunately TFS only says that the horizontal configuration is incorrect, and I can't get to the article to see how they posit that long-necked animals posture themselves. So, I'm suggesting that the long neck is held vertically as a way of gaining extra height for food reach, reaching the ground, and longer range vision without the increased bulk of longer legs, taller body, etc.
  • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @02:55PM (#28185985)

    The with the vertical posture is blood pressure and the energy required to move blood to the head. Supposedly, just moving blood up the neck to the head would require have the dinosaurs energy and a heart 15 times bigger (as a ratio of body mass) than the hearts of other large animals.

  • Informed speculation (Score:5, Informative)

    by MaXintosh (159753) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @02:56PM (#28186003)
    This is all informed speculation - interesting, and it generates a testable hypothesis, but hardly revealing. There's a hundred different ways to go on the issue until they find impressions of soft tissue. The authors (of the paper, not TFA) hedge their bets heavily by saying that IF sauropods are directly comparable to extant taxa... a bet I wouldn't take myself, since sauropods seemed to form a morphoniche we don't see _appreciably_ filled in extant groups (obvious exception excluded).

    For people who want their science undiluted, here's the paper: http://www.app.pan.pl/article/item/app54-213.html [app.pan.pl]
    Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals
    Michael P. Taylor, Mathew J. Wedel, and Darren Naish
    Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 54 (2), 2009: 213-220
  • by whiledo (1515553) * on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @03:15PM (#28186247)

    Yes, it is rather awkward. [youtube.com] Not the best video I've seen, but the best I could find on youtube. I've seen some where it's a much longer drawn out process.

    When you see giraffes doing the neck-slapping thing, you can see how when their necks bend sideways, it's not a continuous curve but rather like a low-grade 3d render of one with vertices at each vertebra.

  • Re:geese (Score:4, Informative)

    by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn.gmail@com> on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @03:16PM (#28186253) Journal

    Re: modern pseudo-analogues -- based upon the geese I raised as a kid, I never could quite grok the 'head-held-low' posture. Geese only hold their heads low to screw or to attack.

    I think it's dangerous to try to compare a two legged winged creature to a four legged creature but from the article:

    They found that reptiles and amphibians held their necks mostly horizontally, while mammals and birds (which are more closely related to dinosaurs and share their upright leg structures) all held their necks vertically.

    Studying the neck movements of living creatures also suggested that sauropods had a greater range of movement than previously thought.

    While scientists had assumed that the dinosaur neck vertebrae overlapped each other by around 50%, that's not true for living creatures like ostriches and giraffes, which can extend their necks till the vertebrae hardly overlap at all.

    And in regards to efficiency of the way they hold their neck:

    It seems very inefficient for a large creature to hold that much weight horizontally away from the body (remember those physics lessons re: levers and distance from the fulcrum?).

    (As the article notes) it's probably a lot harder to have the blood pressure to pump blood all the way up that column to the head. Blood pressure is one of the things they can't explain about their model. The article says, "Estimates of blood pressure also suggested that it would have been very difficult for sauropods to pump their blood up to such a height."

    Dinosaurs are awesome, as most five-year-olds will tell you. Armchair paleontology is fun too. And since we slashdotters are so fond of pretending expertise on subjects we know little about, and TFA seems to be slashdotted, I'm looking forward to a very amusing (but maybe not quite so enlightening) discussion.

    After reading it, the article's not as great as you think. There's plenty of pictures on Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] of the animals depicted both ways.

  • by Useful Wheat (1488675) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @03:28PM (#28186417)

    You need a larger imagination. You have successfully described flying squirrels. I think they fit the category nicely for bats with wings that cannot fly. Go over to wikipedia and look at them for yourself. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_squirrel [wikipedia.org]

    They also have flying possums, but they lack the name recognition (thanks Rocky and Bullwinkle!).

    As an engineer, I have to design pumps to move fluid through pipes, and one of the biggest factors you have is the height at the destination of the fluid. Running this calculation right now, a mere 1 foot of height increase is roughly the same as pumping something an extra 20 feet. Now that might not seem like much, but add 10 feet of height to a line (such as a vein in a neck) and you are looking at 200 feet of pipe.

  • Re:Gravity... (Score:3, Informative)

    by greywire (78262) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @04:50PM (#28187593) Homepage

    It is psychotic. Because they say they don't believe in the science, but then try to come off sounding educated and using science to disprove the science.

    What's really sad is all the people out there who believe them and never do any research themselves to see their pseudo science doesn't jive.

  • by maxume (22995) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @05:34PM (#28188243)

    I'm pretty sure gravity is the problem, not vacuum (just carry some decent amount of water up a flight of stairs if you doubt this).

  • by nyctopterus (717502) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @06:06PM (#28188693) Homepage

    Most people who study the aerodynamics of pterosaurs don't think they would have had a problem flying in today's atmosphere. the thicker atmosphere stuff is definitely fringe science.

  • by nyctopterus (717502) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @06:08PM (#28188729) Homepage

    That is in a forthcoming paper according to their blog SV-POW! [wordpress.com] (Sauropod Vertebra Picture Of the Week.)

  • by Mr. Slippery (47854) <tms.infamous@net> on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @06:09PM (#28188735) Homepage

    it's helpful to consider the possibility that the atmosphere was much thicker [dinosaurtheory.com] back then

    Thicker? Quite possibly. But 370 atmospheres? That link is the best crank science since the Time Cube, man.

  • by Red Flayer (890720) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @06:22PM (#28188901) Journal
    The problem is that "niche" and "morphology" are two perfectly good words in current use, and his meshing of the two doesn't work because the roots describe different systems.

    This is very similar to when non-techies refer to the CPU as the "hard drive". People without knowledge in a field, using real words from that field incorrectly, confuse the issue.

    In this example, "niche" is the role an organism fills in an ecology; this is a function of the ecology. Morphology is the form or structure of an organism. This is a function of the organism. There is no "morphoniche" -- that assumes that there must be a place for a morphology in a given ecosystem; this is not a true assumption. Ecosystems are defined by functionality, not by morphology of the organisms (and yes, while morphology definitely impacts the niche an organism is capable of fulfilling, they are still terms that can't really be combined without distorting them ridiculously).

    Finally, there is a different word he should have used, which is morphospace. This is the actual term used by people who know what they are talking about, and it refers to the possible forms and structures of an organism. He should have stated that we do not have an extant examples of organisms which have similar morphospaces as the giant sauropods.
  • by againjj (1132651) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @06:36PM (#28189039)

    The original paper (at http://www.app.pan.pl/article/item/app54-213.html [app.pan.pl]) basically says that the "osteological neutral pose" (ONP) (basically the pose where the bones make maximal contact with each other) is not necessarily the pose most commonly held. Apparently, the first and only good study of neck and tail position concluded that the then currently accepted pose was unlikely and that ONP was probable, and then every one else simply accepted that without further study.

    The authors went looking at current animal poses and concluded two things. First, in modern animals, ONP is not always the pose held by default, and in fact assuming ONP as default in sauropods has some difficult-to-explain ramifications (though a vertical default does as well). Second, even if ONP is the default pose, there is generally much movement away from that pose for various activities in modern, like drinking and running, and so it is likely that sauropods had that too.

    The authors also, of course, hedge their bets and say that their ideas may be totally off if there is something they aren't aware of, like specialized tendon structure for the neck or other such things.

    In short: the authors say that the conclusion that sauropods have horizontal necks was based on assumptions that are unsound.

    Oh, and TFA:

    BRISBANE: The current depiction of the way giant sauropod dinosaurs held their necks is probably wrong, says a new study.

    "For the last decade the reigning paradigm in palaeontology has been that the big sauropod dinosaurs held their necks out straight and their heads down low," said co-author Matt Wedel, who researches biomechanics at the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California.

    But "our research [now] suggests that this view of sauropods is simply incorrect, based on everything we know about living animals," he said.

    Unrealistic posture

    According to the report in the report in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, sauropods held their necks up in the same way as many living vertebrates, in a swan-like 's' curve, rather than in the horizontal pose commonly shown in everything from museum reconstructions to plastic toys.

    For many decades, scientists supposed that sauropods had long necks so they could browse high in the treetops and depicted them, like giraffes, with their heads held high. But a 1999 Science paper led to a shift in the way sauropods were shown.

    The authors of that paper argued that the habitual pose of an animal's neck could be easily found by lining up the vertebrae in maximum contact, which gave a horizontal pose for most sauropods. Estimates of blood pressure also suggested that it would have been very difficult for sauropods to pump their blood up to such a height.

    Blood pressure problem

    "The problem is, living animals don't hold their necks in that posture," Wedel said. After stumbling across a paper from the 1980s that showed that most land animals held their necks vertically, Wedel's team looked for clues to sauropod posture in X-rays of living animals.

    They found that reptiles and amphibians held their necks mostly horizontally, while mammals and birds (which are more closely related to dinosaurs and share their upright leg structures) all held their necks vertically.

    Studying the neck movements of living creatures also suggested that sauropods had a greater range of movement than previously thought.

    While scientists had assumed that the dinosaur neck vertebrae overlapped each other by around 50%, that's not true for living creatures like ostriches and giraffes, which can extend their necks till the vertebrae hardly overlap at all.

    Their method was so simple that the team was worried someone else would publish the findings before they could. "We did get a bit paranoid... it just seemed so obvious that if you want to know what extinct animals did, you shoul

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @06:48PM (#28189175)

    "Not only that, but I'd conjecture that the long neck must have evolved vertically. The musculature required to hold a long neck like that horizontal must be enormous, and hardly an efficient way of bearing weight."

    Sauropod dinosaurs had a large nuchal ligament running from their shoulders along the top of the neck. IT doesn't usually preserve, but rare specimens have it, and the notch that it sits in is visible on the dorsal side of the vertebrae. It would have supported much of the weight, somewhat like the cable of a suspension bridge (but a one-sided structure). The bones are also remarkably light weight, with substantial internal gas-filled cavities (pneumatic bones) -- rather like the bones of birds. The structure would have been *much* lighter overall than a mammalian equivalent.

  • by TinBromide (921574) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @06:55PM (#28189247)
    As an explanation of my above post, the wings are supporting the body due to the lifting force applied to the wings balancing out the gravity of the torso. The joints lock into place and prevent the wings from forming too much of a V shape. If you've ever broken apart a whole chicken, you'd feel the resistance put in place when you try to put the wings at more than 90 degrees perpendicular from the body. Its the same reason why you can't reach stick your arms straight out from the body at 90 degrees perpendicular to the body (similar to the pose in leonardo da vinci's man-in-circle sketch), and bring them much further back without twisting, the bones prevent it. (I know you can touch your hands behind your back, but that's not the positions birds fly in)
  • by fractoid (1076465) on Tuesday June 02, 2009 @09:46PM (#28190759) Homepage

    Ever held your arm out straight and put a large book on your palm & tried to keep from moving?

    Reptile muscles work differently to mammalian muscles, I believe. That's why reptiles can hold awkward poses for hours at a time, while mammals tend to keep moving. Also, there's a difference between slow and fast muscles - you don't have any trouble holding your head balanced on top of your neck for 12 hours at a time, which actually takes quite a lot of strength. Contrariwise, your arm will contain mostly fast muscle fibres (unless you're a yoga or tai chi master) because it requires more strength on a much lower duty cycle.

  • I am the Mike Taylor that is the lead author of this study. As pointed out by MaXintosh, the paper itself is freely available from the open-access journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, and we urge everyone who's interested to read it for themselves: we kept it short and made efforts to keep it comprehensible to intelligent non-specialists. It's at http://www.app.pan.pl/article/item/app54-213.html [app.pan.pl]

    Also, if the article pointed to here is Slashdotted, there is A LOT of other media coverage out there, including a TV interview, seven radio interviews, at least 25 online news sources and at least 14 blogs. Handily, we've linked them all from a page on our own blog, which you can find at http://svpow.wordpress.com/papers-by-sv-powsketeers/taylor-et-al-2009-on-neck-posture/ [wordpress.com]

    And maybe best, that blog -- Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week -- now has a sequence of seven posts explaining the research in more detail: these too are linked from the page I mentioned, and I think many Slashdotters will find them interesting.

    To respond to a couple of specific points that have been raised in the comments here:

    1. TinBromide though we compared only with giraffes, but in fact we compared with LOTS of animals, including birds, crocs, lizards, turtles, mammals and amphibians. The result were compellingly uniform. Similarly, MaXintosh wrote that "the authors (of the paper, not TFA) hedge their bets heavily by saying that IF sauropods are directly comparable to extant taxa". Well, sort of: we did rather nail our colours to the mast when we wrote "Can the habitual posture of extant amniotes be expected to apply to sauropods? Phylogenetic bracketing strongly supports this hypothesis as the neck posture described by Vidal et al. (1986) is found in both Aves and Crocodylia, the nearest extant outgroups of Sauropoda, as well as in the increasingly remote outgroups Squamata, Testudines and Lissamphibia."

    2. eldavojohn asked "Why are we arguing over which position was the default when it's entirely possible that they utilized both positions" and noted that "There's plenty of pictures on Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] of the animals depicted both ways." It's true, of course, that animals can and do adopt different postures at different times: we make the point in the paper that sauropods had to be able to get their heads down low in order to drink, and could therefore pass through all intermediate postures. What we're talking about here is HABITUAL posture -- they way they spent their time when not actively doing something different. Geese can reach the ground, but they don't spend their lives that way.

    3. A few people mentioned the problem of pumping blood up a high neck to the brain. We can't say too much about this at the moment as we're working on a paper on this subject and don't want to scoop ourselves. However, we do have good reason to think that the blood-pressure problem is not so severe as it's been depicted in Roger Seymour's work (going back as far as 1976, so we're well aware of it!) Sorry if that sounds evasive: hopefully we'll have a more convincing response for you within a year or so.

    4. Finally, we want to be clear that we don't think our paper ends the debate. If anything, it re-opens it, as horizontal-to-dropping sauropod necks have been orthodox for the last decade or so. There's more work to do (but we're on the case!)

    That's all for now -- hope it helps. If you have any more questions, you're welcome to ask, and we'll do our best to answer. The best place to do is probably over on Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, as I and my co-authors each check that several times a day. http://svpow.wordpress.com/ [wordpress.com]

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