What Did The Jurassic Age Diplodocus Eat?
July 31, 2012

Eating Habits Of The Jurassic Age Diplodocus Discovered

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A team of researchers from the University of Bristol, Natural History Museum of London, the University of Missouri and Ohio University report they have discovered the eating habits of the Jurassic age dinosaur, the Diplodocus.

Found nearly 130 years ago, the eating habits of the giant herbivore were still largely uncertain until now. Understanding these habits could provide insights into extinct ecosystems and today's modern animal giants as well.

"Sauropods tell us about the evolution of gigantism, or giant body size, because they enable us to understand how much range or space giant animals really need to get around, and how much food they need to survive," said Casey Holliday, an assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences at MU. "The findings on sauropods also help us understand today's giant herbivores, such as elephants and giraffes, and how they interact with their environments."

A sauropod dinosaur from the Jurassic period, which was around 150 million years ago, Diplodocus was approximately 170 feet long and weighed more than 12 tons. Its neck alone was about 20 feet in length. Diplodocus was the longest animal to walk the face of the earth.

Sauropods, or "lizard-hipped" dinosaurs, had long necks and tails with small skulls and brains and long peg-like teeth. Their remains have been found on six of the seven continents, the only exclusion being Antarctica. So far, four distinct species have been identified from fossils found in the Morrison Formation of Colorado and Wyoming.

In a study published in Naturwissenschaften, an international natural sciences journal, the team reveals that they created a 3D model of the Diplodocus' 2.5-foot long skull using data from a CT scan.

"Sauropod dinosaurs, like Diplodocus, were so weird and different from living animals that there is no animal we can compare them with," said Mark Young, a doctoral student at the University of Bristol and lead author on the research. "This makes understanding their feeding ecology very difficult. That's why biomechanically modeling is so important to our understanding of long-extinct animals."

They tested their model using finite element analysis (FEA), which is commonly used to aid in mechanical engineering and design of everything from airplanes to orthopedic implants. FEA revealed the stresses that would be placed on the skull from three different eating behaviors: normal biting, "branch stripping" and "bark stripping."

"Since Diplodocus was such a huge animal, its eating habits and behavior have always been a question in the paleontology community," Holiday said. "With the 3D model of the skull, we were able to simulate three eating scenarios using a computer-based analysis to determine the stresses that the skull would experience in each situation."

FEA revealed that "bark stripping" placed a lot of stress on the animal's skull and teeth, which could result in bone damage and broken teeth. The model showed that Diplodocus more likely used "branch stripping," placing its mouth on a branch and pulling all the leaves off at once, putting little to no stress on the teeth and skull.

3D modeling and FEA could prove very useful in determining the behaviors of other extinct animals in the future.

Image 2 (below):  By using a computer to simulate eating behaviors, scientists were able to determine where the dinosaur´s skull would be stressed and, thus, identify how the dinosaur consumed its food. Credit: MU News Bureau