Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Answering a truly big question: How did dinosaurs move?

(From this week's iSGTW)

In a memorable scene from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, a Tyrannosaurus rex gallops behind a jeep, close to overtaking it, lunging to take a bite out of Jeff Goldblum — to the horrorified delight of millions of thrill-seeking movie-goers.

Assuming dinosaurs could be resurrected, how realistic would this situation be?

Not very, according to Karl Bates, a researcher in dinosaur locomotion. In fact, our scrawny-armed, prehistoric friend would probably have trouble outrunning a bicyclist. Depending on how fast you run, you may or may not be in trouble if you were on foot.

How does Bates know this?

Because he is a member of the Animal Simulation Laboratory at the University of Manchester, UK, which for over five years has made computer models of prehistoric animals to solve questions about how they moved and what they were capable of doing. This work helps answer how novel structures could help or affect animals, how different walking styles evolved, and how you get from a T-Rex to a modern bird.

Large predatory dinosaurs are his forte, especially the therapods (“beast-foot” dinosaurs believed to be in the lineage of modern birds). For his doctoral thesis, he chose to look into Acrocanthosaurus atokensis. “It is essentially the same size as a T-Rex and looks superficially similar but with big spines along its back,” he said.

It lived 110 million years ago in North America; its fossils have been found in Texas and Oklahoma.

“I picked this dinosaur because it is big, and there are fossil tracks and foot prints that are supposed to be from this dinosaur,” says Bates. “The proportions of its limbs are some of those most different from modern birds: very long thigh and short ankle bones compared with the short thigh and long ankle bones of birds. With these differences, how they would move is a very interesting question.”

Read the full story.

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