Mystery Solved: How Did Dinosaurs Support Their Gigantic Bodies?

Sauropod Dinosaur

3D paleo-reconstruction of a sauropod dinosaur. Credit: Dr. Andreas Jannel

A study reveals how dinosaurs carried their massive weight.

Researchers have solved a long-standing mystery by figuring out how sauropod dinosaurs, such as the Brontosaurus and Diplodocus, supported their enormous bodies on land.

A team headed by the University of Queensland and Monash University utilized engineering techniques and 3D modeling to digitally reconstruct and evaluate the functionality of various sauropods’ foot bones.

According to Dr. Andréas Jannel, who conducted the study as part of his Ph.D. studies at UQ’s Dinosaur Lab, the researchers discovered that sauropods’ hind feet had a soft tissue pad under the “heel,” cushioning the foot to absorb their enormous weight.

“We’ve finally confirmed a long-suspected idea and we provide, for the first time, biomechanical evidence that a soft tissue pad – particularly in their back feet – would have played a crucial role in reducing locomotor pressures and bone stresses,” Dr. Jannel stated. “It is mind-blowing to imagine that these giant creatures could have been able to support their own weight on land.”

Sauropod Illustration

The sauropods had soft tissue pads to absorb their enormous weight and enable them to walk on land. Credit: Dr. Andreas Jannel

Sauropods were the world’s largest terrestrial animals, roaming the planet for over 100 million years.

They were initially believed to have been semi-aquatic with their enormous weight supported by water buoyancy. However, this hypothesis was disproved after the discovery of sauropod tracks in terrestrial deposits in the middle of the twentieth century.

According to Dr. Olga Panagiotopoulou of Monash University, it had also been believed that sauropods possessed feet similar to those of an elephant today.

“Popular culture – think Jurassic Park or Walking with Dinosaurs – often depicts these behemoths with almost-cylindrical, thick, elephant-like feet,” Dr. Panagiotopoulou said. “But when it comes to their skeletal structure, elephants are actually ‘tip-toed’ on all four feet, whereas sauropods have different foot configurations in their front and back feet. Sauropod’s front feet are more columnar-like, while they present more ‘wedge high heels’ at the back supported by a large soft tissue pad.”

Sauropod Foot Animation

Animation of a hypothetical sauropod’s foot being supported by a soft tissue pad. Credit: Dr. Andreas Jannel

According to UQ’s Associate Professor Steve Salisbury, this is because sauropods and elephants had different evolutionary origins.

“Elephants belong to an ancient order of mammals called proboscideans, which first appeared in Africa roughly 60 million years ago as small, nondescript herbivores, ” Associate Professor Salisbury said.

“In contrast, sauropods – whose ancestors first appeared 230 million years ago – are more closely related to birds. They were agile, two-legged herbivores and it was only later in their evolution that they walked on all fours. Crucially, the transition to becoming the largest land animals to walk the earth seems to have involved the adaptation of a heel pad.”

The researchers now plan to use 3D modeling and engineering methods to make further discoveries.

“I’m keen to apply a similar method to an entire limb and to include additional soft tissue such as muscles, which are rarely preserved in fossils,” Dr. Jannel said.

“We’re also excited to study the limbs and feet of other prehistoric animals. This should allow us to answer different questions about the biomechanics of extinct animals and better understand their environmental adaptations, movement, and lifestyle.”

Reference: “Softening the steps to gigantism in sauropod dinosaurs through the evolution of a pedal pad” by Andréas Jannel, Steven W. Salisbury and Olga Panagiotopoulou, 10 August 2022, Science Advances.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm8280

2 Comments on "Mystery Solved: How Did Dinosaurs Support Their Gigantic Bodies?"

  1. Gator are not birds . They thought it was semi aquatic it was extremely aquatic it has smooth skin like whale mesoeucrocodylia they lack oestederm skin like extreme aquatic turtle allso has gator unique skin tail to help them swim .but the more advance won have heavy armor skin and femur support a more land base they were diverse animal like last living dinosaur modern crocodilian.they rarely came on land like pterosaur a sting ray mimic dinosaur and smooth skin. clearly heavy armor skin won rarely goes into the water .they are 2 species sauropod and are not closely related. one of them is a fake but is a dinosaur the teeth are different and skull size in skull size in dinosaur is a big different. tetanuran theropod skull size is much bigger than 4 finger dinosaur big skull sauropod is close to tetanuran that why sauropod have so much mesoeucrocodylia feature . Super Long neck evolve twice in dinosaur because they are gator that what croc do .the sauropod that never had armor skin never come on land only to lay eggs .other sauropod the tetanuran sauropod the tetanuran looking sauropod early wons allso has smooth skin they had whale nose because they were extremely aquatic the reason for the whale nose they claim it had a trunk like a elephant and seal .

  2. Michael W. Clark | December 18, 2023 at 4:45 pm | Reply

    The Ultimate Bearing Capacity of soft soils at structural failure is about 5,040 lbs per square foot of Sauropod Foot Bottom Surface Area, which reached a maximum of nearly
    16.0 Square foot for the largest foot print. This limits the weight of the largest
    Sauropods to between 80,000 and 81,000 lbs. However, The largest Sauropods displaced
    up to 17 Male African Elephant Volumes of around 5.85 Cubic meters for and Average Large Male African Elephant. 5.85 x 2204.6 x 17 =219247.47 Lbs of Water Weight. To not drown the Sauropod weight has to be less than 219,000 Lbs. Now which weight do you trust, the 80,500 plus or minus 500 lbs from the footprints, or the 219,000 lbs from the Volumetric Displacement in 1.0 gravity that we now live in. 80,500 / 219,000 = 0.36758 to 1.0. Since the Sauropods figured out a way to lighten their necks we can say that they lived in a time when the Earth’s surface gravity was around 40 % of the current surface gravity, so they did not have the bone fracture problems that would be implied by our current surface gravity.

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