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CT Scans Illuminate Dinosaur’s Dining Habits

July 30, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Musculoskeletal Radiology
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How exactly did the dinosaur species known as Diplodocus manage to eat enough to keep up its prodigious weight?

Of course you’ve been wondering. Who hasn’t? Now, thanks partly to CT scans, we think we know.

Diplodocus is one of the classic dinosaurs—long-necked, long-tailed, big-bodied, and enormous. It lived 150 million or so years ago and was apparently common then—or at least its skeletons are among the most common dinosaur remains found today.

It may have reached 115 feet in length and 17 tons in weight. It ate plants. But it had a small head and small, protruding, peg-like teeth present only in the front of the mouth. Therefore, it didn’t chew.

Said Mark Young, PhD:

Sauropod dinosaurs, like Diplodocus, were so weird and different from living animals there is no animal we can compare them with. This makes understanding their feeding ecology very difficult. That’s why biomechanical modeling is so important to our understanding of long-extinct animals.

Dr. Young was a doctoral student at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom when he and other university scientists worked with researchers from the Natural History Museum in London on a study of Diplodocus feeding habits. He was quoted in a news release posted jointly by the university and the museum. Their study was published online July 12 in the journal Naturwissenschaften (The Science of Nature).

The scientists used CT scans of Diplodocus skulls to create a three-dimensional model of a typical skull. They then used finite element analysis, used for designing a wide variety of biomechanical devices, to test three feeding scenerios: normal biting, stripping leaves from tree branches, and stripping bark from trees.

It turned out that the Diplodocus skull was well-adapted for normal biting—chomping down on a bush, for example—and for stripping leaves from branches. The blunt teeth wouldn’t shear through vegetation. Instead, they’d grip the leaves, and then the animal would pull or twist the head to strip them away.

Stripping bark, however, would have produced excessive stress on the teeth and other areas of the skull. Therefore, the researchers concluded, Diplodocus ate leaves and other soft vegetation but not bark. The teeth would have acted like a rake, stripping off mouthfuls that would have been swallowed whole.

So, thanks to CT, we know some specific details about the eating habits of a creature that hasn’t existed for 150 million years. Pretty cool.

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Related seminar: UCSF Neuro and Musculoskeletal Imaging (all-new release)

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