Sauropod Dinosaur Physics

Blood Flow, Blood Pressure, Mouth Size and Food, Eggs Surviving an 80-ton Mother

A number of commonly accepted assumptions about large dinosaurs are not compatible with scientific laws. For example, sauropods grazing from the tops of trees were physiologically impossible, for blood flow reasons. (A heart and circulatory system made of biological cellular tissues cannot pump blood more than about seven vertical feet above the heart, or bring blood back from legs and feet lower than about seven feet below it.).


Leg Strength
Footprints
Procreation
Neck
Sauropod Dinosaur Neck Physics Analysis
Sauropod Dinosaur Mouth Analysis Regarding Cold-/Warm-Blooded
Heart
Brain
Tail
Eggs
Defense
Extinction
Skin
E-mail
Sauropod dinosaur fossils were first found about 100 years ago. Until fairly recently, only a very small number of fossils had been found, and never, until VERY recently, had nearly an entire animal fossil been found. Most true scientists recognize and acknowledge that many assumptions have been necessary toward any understanding of these long lost creatures, so they accept the uncertainties of many of the characteristics that have been attributed to them.

An early dinosaur fossil researcher (Marsh) found much of the fossilized bones of a brontosaurus (in 1879, at Como Bluff), but he did not find a skull. In an unbelievably un-scientific (and scientifically disgusting!) move, he found a skull at a considerable distance away, where no dinosaur fossils had been found, and he claimed that the skull belonged with the skeleton. (He certainly knew that was not true.) For a hundred years, all the display brontosaurs in museums worldwide showed that same (wrong) skull! It has only been in the past several decades that the error (or deception) has been uncovered.

This extensive Research regarding dinosaur physiology was performed beginning April 1996. This presentation was first placed on the Internet in November 1997.

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This is mentioned here for a couple reasons. (1) For as famous as dinosaurs have become, there are amazingly few substantial skeletons that have ever been found, especially before the early 1990s. A Tyrannosaurus Rex was discovered around then that was nearly complete, and it caused a huge stir among dinosaur researchers. (2) The impressive displays that draw millions of visitors to various Museums are virtually never the actual fossils. Worse, in some cases, the display skeletons were based on the finding of a single major bone! In one case, a thigh bone had been discovered early in the 20th Century, and a Museum staff created what they estimated to be the sizes and shapes of all the other bones! In most cases, they used good logic in making such guesses, but technically, they were still guesses. Similarly, several years ago I walked into a retail store that sold only dinosaur related products, because I was naturally curious as to what they could possibly have. Hung from the ceiling, there is a huge swimming dinosaur skeleton, maybe thirty feet long, and PERFECT! I located the shop owner and asked about the validity of it, and he announced that it was THE original fossil, found in Kansas. I pointed out that I noted how perfectly identical the hundred tail vertebrae were, There were no deformations, no imperfections, no signs of wear! At that point, I mentioned that I was somewhat knowledgeable about some dinosaurs, and that I knew for a fact that no absolutely complete skeleton of any plesiosaur-type dinosaur had ever been found, and that the world scientific community would want to examine what was hanging from his ceiling if it was in fact valid. After still insisting that it was an entirely real skeleton, he finally admitted that all of the pieces were actually plaster casts, and that none of it was an actual fossil. In a couple more minutes of critical questions, he finally admitted that the discoverer of it (who was NOT a known dinosaur expert) had only actually found a few fossil bones, one being a tail vertebrae, and that the hundred castings were all cast scale models based on that one found bone.

All this is meant to indicate how little absolute evidence actually exists regarding these very interesting creatures! Books, including textbooks, have always tried to make it seem that EVERYTHING is known about these creatures, where the reality is that very little is actually known! But progress seems to be rapidly progressing. In a valley in Montana, in the past few years, eight different T. Rex fossil sets have been found by an extensive team of researchers and college students. This is a good sign that future knowledge might soon improve!


Popular interest has inspired speculation about quite a number of apparently unusual characteristics of these extinct creatures and has since fueled controversy over these features and the causes for their existences. Little consideration seems to sometimes have been given related to the necessary physical consequences of these speculations and conclusions. Several of these matters will be discussed here.

In some related web-pages, I present a discussion about the necessary size of the mouth of a large dinosaur to be able to ingest enough food for enough energy audit for its size. Some truly huge sauropods are described as having rather tiny mouths, which seems to bring up interesting logical questions! Another related web-page discusses the necessary muscle and tendon strengths necessary in the Mechanical Engineering in a very long neck, when the head might have weighed nearly a ton. To cantilever out that much weight thirty or forty feet or more in front of front legs creates a number ofserious mechanical stresses, and they often seem to challenge current thinking in that the strongest biological muscles and tendons seem unlikely to be able to withstand those levels of stress. Even the vertebrae and the disks between them need some extensive study and explanation! As a consequence of these aspects of Physics, I concluded that the largest of the sauropods could not have been land-dwelling animals and they must have been nearly constantly submerged in a swamp or shallow lake environment to provide the needed temperature aspects of the energy audit. Fully warm-blooded is nearly impossible, but being in a relatively warm swamp or pond could make the energy audit possible.

Most of the following comments are only intended to apply to the very largest of the land-based(?) dinosaurs, called Brontosaurus (Apatosaurus is the same thing), Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, and Camarasaurus, and a few others, collectively referred to as Sauropods. Few of these comments apply to any of the smaller dinosaurs like the velociraptors, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus, etc. The comments regarding blood pressures and flows might apply to T. Rex, because of the 18-foot tall height it would have had when fully erect. (In that regard, the recent findings of many T. Rex fossils in Montana now suggest that the posture of a T. Rex was not as upright as had been commonly thought, and its torso was more horizontal. This would greatly agree with the blood flow considerations described below.)

Great Physical Mass of Brachiosaurs and Leg Structure

Most scientists believe that these sauropods had a living weight of up to 80 tons. (Apatosaurus [Brontosaurus] - 20 to 35 tons; Diplodocus - 11 to 15 tons; Brachiosaurus - around 80 tons) It is fairly simple to estimate the weight of any dinosaur. Nearly all organic materials have densities relatively similar to that of sea water. By measuring and estimating lengths, widths and heights, it is possible to determine the approximate volume of a dinosaur. Multiplying by the density of sea water gives an approximate weight.

As an example, fossils of Brachiosaurus seem to imply that its trunk was around 12 feet in diameter and 20 feet long. Using the method suggested above, and thinking of its trunk as a cylinder, the volume V is given by (PI)*D2/4 * L or about 3.14 * 144/4 * 20 or about 2,260 cubic feet. At 64 pounds per cubic foot (the density of nearly all biological material, essentially that of water), that gives about 145,000 pounds. Add some more for its head, neck, tail and feet, and you have around the 80 tons mentioned above. (That's pretty much how the estimated weights were first identified by the experts!)

That enormous weight, in itself, is amazing but not impossible for a living creature. The modern day Great Blue Whale actually weighs more than this. There have been stories of Great Blues, which have become beached at low tide, and their ribs have allegedly broken under their own weight. This is reasonable. While floating, the buoyancy of the water supports most of its weight, so a moderate-sized bone structure can maintain stability and bodily integrity. But on land, without that buoyancy, it could not survive. This sort of argument has been used regarding the largest sauropods to suggest that they must have lived in swamps or very shallow seas, in order to support their weight.

Other scientists believe that these large dinosaurs lived on dry land, that their legs and muscles were actually strong enough to support and move around this vast weight. Such scientists may be overlooking the fact that the mass we are talking about is equivalent to about 50 automobiles! The leg bones and muscles necessary to support and move this huge weight on dry land would necessarily be near the absolute limits of cell and bone and muscle fiber strength. The estimated mass of the brachiosaurus is on the scale of 20 elephants. Elephants' legs are rather stout to support the several tons of their weight. The proposed dinosaur mass would require MUCH more stout legs, possibly to an unrealistic extent.

For a leg to support four times the weight (on dry land) the leg bones and leg muscles must each be twice as thick (so their cross-sectional areas are four times as great). It doesn't actually matter if those bones are round or oval or square, or if they are solid or hollow. In the case of a brachiosaur that had a body weight of 16 times that of a 10,000-pound elephant, those bones and muscles would all have to be four times the thickness (sixteen times the cross-sectional area) that is present in the elephant. Where the elephant's leg may be about a foot in diameter, the brachiosaurus' legs would therefore have to be about four feet in diameter (if it was to be mobile on land).

Existing fossils do not support such extremely thick legs. The fossils of leg bones are certainly thick, but they are not four times as thick. It is far more likely that the swamp hypothesis has more validity, and that these extremely large dinosaurs would have been susceptible to broken leg bones if they would ever attempt to walk on land. (Medium and small sized dinosaurs did not have this limitation and DEFINITELY were land creatures.)

If such a huge animal had a leg bone break, its possibility of survival would drop to nearly zero. It would no longer have the mobility to go to food sources and it would be immobile and easy prey for many carnivorous predators to attack and kill.

Footprints

A related subject also applies. A human might weigh 200 pounds and have a foot that has an area of 1/4 square foot. While walking, there are times when one foot is in the air. At these times, the entire 200 pounds is supporting on that 1/4 square foot, meaning that there is 800 pounds per square foot pressure between the foot and the surface it is on. On soft or muddy ground, a person's footprints may press a half-inch into the ground, leaving molds of the person's foot after the ground dried out.

The large brachiosaurs appear, due to fossils, to have had feet that had around three square feet area, and at least two of them were probably always in contact with the ground while such a creature would have been walking. The 160,000 pounds of its weight would therefore be supported by six square feet of area of contact between feet and ground. This gives a pressure of around 27,000 pounds per square foot, almost 40 times that of a human and many times that of any known modern creature. Such an animal walking on soft or muddy ground probably wouldn't sink in 40 times as deeply as a person, but certainly very deeply. It is very likely that such footprints would be pits of more than a foot deep, in even moderately soft ground, because of the enormous pressure created from the weight of the creature.

Some fossilized footprints have been found that have been identified as being made by large dinosaurs. These footprints tend to be just an inch or two deep. They still have enough detail to be identified as dinosaur footprints, so they are not shallow, eroded remnants of earlier, deeper ones. This implies that less pressure (weight per square foot) may have been present when the footprints were made (or the ground was extremely hard).

Some of these footprints are found to be spaced a substantial distance apart. Some investigators have compared that to the probable leg-length and similar relationships among modern creatures, and have concluded that the footprints are so far apart that they had to have been made by brachiosaurs or other sauropods RUNNING! For many reasons presented in this essay, such large, massive, cumbersome creatures almost certainly could only move very slowly, if on land. Running would be entirely out of the question. In addition, why would such an animal have ever developed the musculature to be able to run? These giant creatures are believed to be herbivores, so carnivorous pursuit of prey would never be necessary. There would be no value in being able to outrun predators, either. The exertion and energy waste from running would be truly foolish for a creature that already probably had to eat almost continuously to maintain even basic metabolism for 160,000 pounds of cells!

A logical explanation for shallower-than-expected footprints and longer-than-expected stride might exist. If such a creature lived in a shallow sea or swampy environment, where buoyancy supported much of its weight, it's footprints in the sea bottom would be shallower (due to less weight pressure on the foot) and farther apart (due to a floating/swimming effect). Of course, preservation of such footprints represents a problem. The sea would have to remain extremely calm, so the underwater footprints were not immediately obliterated by wave action. The sea floor would have to be some material like clay rather than sand, to better have well-defined impressions. And some sudden supply of additional sediment would have to appear to quickly fill in the footprints such that they could be preserved for us to later find.

Note: The pressures mentioned above are static pressure loads. In each situation, during walking, dynamic variations would also apply which would momentarily substantially increase all of the creatures' footprint pressures. These dynamic effects would be relatively similar for each creature, so the simpler static pressures were used for clarity of discussion.

Procreation

Land-based large dinosaurs also would have had an especially difficult time in procreating. The relatively common male-mounting-a-female would probably be impossible, both for the enormous weight load on the female's rear legs, and for the male's vertical movements' effect on whether blood could get to its brain (discussed below).

This seems to represent additional support for the swamp-based hypothesis for the largest of the dinosaurs.

Long Neck Considerations

As a Snorkel???

One of the initial advantages that was suggested for a long neck in a shallow sea environment was that the creature could walk on a 25 foot deep bottom and still have its head above water for breathing. Eventually, someone realized that the relative air and water pressures involved would physically make inhaling impossible under these circumstances. Even very strong muscles are not strong enough to expand the lungs under that very high pressure. The concept IS still valid for water 5 to 10 feet deep, or during swimming. Swimming would seem difficult but certainly not impossible for this creature, since its legs were probably not very fin-like and therefore probably inefficient. This is why a swamp-type shallow sea environment seems more likely than a deeper lake or sea, so the sauropod could sort of run-swim or walk-swim in general contact with the bottom.

As A Tree Pruner???

These largest dinosaurs are believed to be plant-eaters. The teeth structure suggests this. The lack of claws or other grippers as parts of the forelegs also suggest this, since there would seem no method available to catch and hold prey as a carnivore, except in the mouth. In addition, it's likely slowness of movement would seem to make catching smaller, faster prey very difficult. Considering the nutritional needs of maintaining an enormous number of cells, it seems unlikely that a large sauropod could catch enough animal prey, even if it did have some method of holding it, which further supports a herbivorous diet.

The scientists who believe that these large creatures were land walkers now generally believe that the long neck enabled the creatures to graze on the high branches of trees, to have a non-competitive supply of food, where no other animals could compete for the leaves. This is certainly an interesting speculation! Unfortunately, this premise is impossible in reality. If such a creature was grazing from the top of a 25-foot tall tree, no heart structure could pump blood up even halfway from its heart up to its brain. Additionally, the delicate structures of cell walls in the brain could not withstand the rapid variations in blood pressure that could occur during vertical head movements.

The Heart

Normal atmospheric pressure is about 760 mm of Hg. That column of Mercury is equivalent to a column of water of about 32 feet high. A healthy human heart creates a pressure that pulses between 120 (systolic) and 80 (diastolic) mm Hg (or torr). These values are always measured at a vertical level comparable to that of the heart, such as in the upper arm. The 80 value must be used for this discussion, since it represents the continuous available pressure. This 80 mm Hg is equivalent to a column of water (or blood) of a little over 3 feet high. As long as the brain and the rest of the parts of the body are less than 3 feet above the heart, adequate and continuous blood flow is maintained. If a (standing) human had say, a 40 mm Hg diastolic blood pressure, the blood could only be pumped a maximum of 1.5 feet vertically above the heart. Since the standing person's brain is nearly this distance above the heart, that person would experience periods of lack of sufficient blood flow and oxygen to his brain. He would be susceptible to being dizzy and of passing out.

If a healthy standing person's blood pressure was measured at the altitude of the brain, the normal 120/80 would appear as 80/40. If instead, a standing person's blood pressure was measured at his foot, the normal 120/80 would appear to be around 220/180. These different readings all represent the same healthy operation of a normal human heart and circulatory system. The point being made is that the vertical distance between the heart and any particular location in the body greatly affects the local blood pressure available there. The local pressure in any body of fluid is dependent on the "column" of water or blood above it which is pressing down. These comments also point out that the local blood pressure normally present in the feet is much higher than at the heart or brain. In each case, the organic structures are suitable for the pressures in that environment. The capillaries in the feet are thicker and tougher than the very delicate capillaries in the brain where the local pressures are generally much lower. This factor allows the brain to be far more complex. It also indicates why the (advanced) brain is nearly always near the vertically highest portion of any larger animal and not down near its feet.

The giraffe is the currently existing animal that has the greatest vertical distance between its heart and brain, about 6.5 feet, when standing erect. This vertical distance would necessitate a minimum blood pressure at the heart, as explained above, of about 240 over 200 mm Hg. (This would provide a reasonable and consistent blood flow to its brain.) Giraffe (systolic) blood pressures have been measured at about 260 mm Hg, a very good agreement, with sufficient pressure always available to minimize dizziness and hopefully eliminate fainting.

There is no known modern animal that has a heart that produces a higher pressure than that of the giraffe, or that has its brain located higher above the heart. The intrinsic strength of heart cell, muscle and particularly the check valve components appear to eliminate the possibility of a living heart being able to create much higher blood pressures than this. This implies that no animal could probably ever have its brain more than about 7 feet above (or below) the heart. During the complex sequence of actions of a heart, there are several moments when the existing pressure must be held by the various check valves without substantial leaking. Special papillary muscles assist the valves in avoiding being pushed backwards by the pressure.

If a substantially higher pressure was developed by the heart muscles, those valves would have to hold back greater pressures, which seems to be beyond the capability of organic cell strengths. So, even if massive heart muscles were present, which could create extremely high systolic pressure, the tissue strengths of the valves and other structures would limit the diastolic pressure to that of a tolerable leakage level.

The alleged behavior of a dinosaur grazing at the top of a 25-foot tall tree, while its heart was about 8 feet above the ground, is therefore impossible. Such activity would require a heart that was capable of creating a continuous pressure of around 500 over 420 mm Hg, to supply the brain with adequate blood and oxygen. That level of pressure is enormous! It represents about 2/3 of atmospheric pressure, more than double that of any known biological heart. The existence of such a very advanced heart 65 million years ago, with abilities so far beyond any currently existing heart, is clearly impossible. Even highly efficient mechanical modern (diaphragm, reciprocating, check-valve) water pumps of sophisticated design have great trouble in creating that level of pressure and of raising water that many feet. (There are other technologies in mechanical pumps that are capable of raising water far higher, but their designs are very different from the operation of a heart).

There are many textbooks which show sauropod dinosaurs eating leaves from even taller trees, such as 50-feet tall. The people who dreamed up such ideas were certainly creative, but they did NOT know much of science! Such drawings in children's textbooks are so impossible that it would be laughable, except for the fact that they ARE children's textbooks!

Brain Cell Wall Rupture

The consequence is that, as soon as a sauropod raised its head to graze high on a tree, it would pass out! And then, there is an even worse consequence! If the animal somehow managed to get its head up there, if it was startled (or if it passed out) and the animal's head quickly lowered, the local blood pressure in the capillaries in the brain would briefly rapidly increase. The delicate walls of many of the tiny capillaries and arterioles in its brain would immediately rupture (experiencing hemorrhagic aneurysm) from excessive momentary (differential) blood pressure, and it would immediately die!

A juvenile, playful, land-based sauropod would immediately die if it ever suddenly raised and lowered its head!

A Modern Animal with Similar Problems

A modern adult giraffe can graze about 15 feet up, but its long legs represent about half this height. At maximum head height, a giraffe's brain is only about 6.5 feet above its heart. Atmospheric pressure of 14.7 PSI is capable of supporting a column of water about 32 feet high. The giraffe's heart must therefore create continuous pressure of about 1/4 of atmospheric pressure (about twice the pressure generated in a normal healthy human heart) to pump blood up this high. As mentioned above, it does this. Actually, the blood pressure is a little higher, because it then still needs to have enough force to push the blood through the tiny capillaries in the brain.

In addition, a giraffe's neck blood arteries and veins contain a very specialized arrangement that acts as check valves to help keep the brain's blood pressure relatively constant. The arteries (sources) and veins (drains) are "braided" together. These features are necessary to compensate for the rapid blood pressure variations that can occur due to the giraffe's 7-foot-long neck's vertical range. When a giraffe lowers its head to the ground, that unique structure acts to stop additional blood from being pumped to the brain to minimize the chance of over-pressurizing the tiny blood capillaries in its brain. As the veins bulge due to the higher momentary pressure, they act to squeeze shut the arteries, keeping additional blood from arriving, while the enlarged veins can remove the excess pressure quickly.

The length (and, more importantly, the vertical range) of a giraffe's neck appears to be close to the limit of what's physiologically possible, given the heart structure and operation known in any animals.

Resultant Neck Movement Limitations

Therefore, the large, very-long-necked sauropods could not realistically have had very much vertical range of head movement. Even if it had all the safety features of the modern giraffe's circulatory system, (evidence of which have never been found yet) it could still only tolerate having its brain less than 8 feet above or below its heart. This range represents a fairly small neck ANGLE range since there is some fossil evidence that the neck length in some species of sauropods was sometimes over 25 feet long. Therefore, the neck must have never been at a greater vertical angle than about 20 degrees from horizontal. This indicates great likelihood that it could never safely raise its head much above the height of the highest point of its spine. Some of these creatures appear to have had a body which was about 15 feet tall at it's highest. There is an assumption with this discussion that the location of the heart must necessarily have been approximately halfway up this distance. (This is generally assumed and not yet confirmed by evidence.) This is very close to the greatest possible height difference (from feet to spine) that a realistic heart and circulatory system could consistently supply with blood. That situation would allow the sauropod to lower its head to the ground or raise it about as high as the highest point of its backbone.

These physiological arguments apply rigidly to any land-based creature, with air surrounding it. If submerged in water, the reasoning is similar but more complicated. The surrounding water exerts a pressure on the skin of the creature, which acts similar to a G-suit of military pilots. For a variety of complicated reasons, this external pressure enables a somewhat greater range of vertical head movement to be possible.

This allows the Blue Whale to have dimensions beyond this discussion's guidelines, and also allows it to (briefly) swim in a relatively vertical position, where the brain is quite high above or low below the heart. A generally floating sauropod such as in a swamp environment would have this external pressure advantage which would allow relatively free motion of the neck and body while completely or mostly underwater.

Neck Muscle and Bone Strength

If such a sauropod was a land-based creature, it must have relatively continuously held its head above the ground. (If not, then carnivores could easily attack the tissues of the head and neck.) This action would mean that the weight of the head and neck would be cantilevered out from the supporting forelegs.

There have been some recent suggestions that this might have been accomplished by an unusual interlocking bone structure of the neck vertebrae. Such an argument suggests direct bone-to-bone contact, which is effectively unheard of in living animals. Direct bone-to-bone contact tends to eventually result in fused structures, such as in the skulls of larger modern animals. Direct bone-to-bone contact in movable joints would cause rapid abrasion and wear on the surfaces of those bones, quickly destroying them. Direct bone-to-bone contact is highly unlikely.

There were certainly disk type cushions between the neck vertebrae, as in all modern vertebral animals. A complex network of dorsal muscles (and lateral muscles) would have to have supported and moved the neck and head. This situation necessarily brings into question the muscle fiber strength and the cross-sectional areas of the muscle bundles that did this work. Even a fairly small head, cantilevered out 25 or more feet ahead of the forelegs (and its associated neck structure) would represent a considerable weight to support. In engineering terms, this situation represents a vertical torque on each neck vertebra from the shoulders forward. From the preceding discussion, the neck must necessarily be relatively horizontal. Standard engineering analysis shows that the longitudinal tensional stress in the dorsal neck muscles (just forward of the forelegs) is fairly close to the known failure limits of known muscle fibers. This comment necessarily makes assumptions on the cross-sectional area of those dorsal neck muscle bundles and on the specific lateral (vertical) offset distances of muscle attachment points on the individual vertebra. These assumptions are based on the apparent attachment points of tendons on the fossil vertebrae.

In any event, the mechanical stresses involved in supporting a distant cantilevered head are significant, for a land-based long-necked sauropod. If such a creature spent much of its life in a swamp or shallow sea, buoyancy would aid in supporting the head and neck, and greatly reduce this problem.

(Note: a more recent separate presentation has been created on this subject, at: Sauropod Dinosaur Neck Physics Analysis)

This whole subject provides additional indications that the largest sauropods may not have been land-dwelling animals, although their neck structure is within the strength limits of organic cell structures.

Tail Position

Various current experts assert that the very large dinosaurs either generally dragged their tail on the ground or they (continuously) held it up in the air. Smaller species probably held their tails up off the ground, during running, for example, where there would be less frictional drag that would slow down the animal. In contrast, Diplodocus has special features on its tail bones that appear to protect blood vessels from frictional wear from dragging on the ground. The fact that the sauropods probably only moved very slowly when on land might suggest that frictional wear might have been minimal.

The situation for the large dinosaurs is very different than for smaller creatures. A situation similar to the cantilevering of the neck (described above) applies, except that the tail is far thicker and therefore heavier. Consider a large dinosaur that was, say, five times the scale of a small one, but otherwise identically proportioned. Considering a tail held off the ground, by the action of muscles, we can do a simple analysis. The cross-sectional area of the tail bones and the tail muscles is 5 x 5 or 25 times as great for the larger animal. But the volume, and therefore the weight of the tail is 5 x 5 x 5 or 125 times as great. This means that every fiber of muscle cell must support five times as much weight as the corresponding muscle fiber in the smaller animal. In a suspended tail, that weight is cantilevered out behind the rear legs. In the larger animal, that effective tail weight is five times as far out, too. This would put enormous longitudinal stress in the dorsal tail muscles. Relatively simple calculations suggest that the largest of the sauropods may have been able to lift their tails for brief periods, but that it is extremely unlikely that they continuously held their tails aloft. The energy consumption necessary in order to continuously stress all of those muscles would also substantially increase the necessary food intake of the creature. Over the many thousands of generations that they existed, certainly internal mechanisms such as this tended toward more efficient energy usage. It seems extremely likely that the largest sauropods dragged their tails on the ground, if they were land-based creatures. If, instead, they were swamp-based, again flotation would support much of the weight, allowing many more possibilities regarding the tail position and movement.

Why is This Important? Eggs!

Dinosaurs are believed to have laid eggs. Many fossilized eggs have been found that have been attributed to dinosaurs, but this assumption might turn out to be weak. Assuming that a land-based female sauropod laid her eggs, consider her difficulties in moving away from them without her tail crushing them! Here is definitely a time when she would have to exert those muscles to raise the tail above the ground. If she dragged her tail then, even a brief contact with a multi-ton tail would likely damage an egg.

There may be some interesting questions regarding the eggs themselves. If they were laid on dry land, how did the mother arrange protection for them? An aggressive carnivore could easily capture the contents if they were left out in the open. Was she agile enough to be able to defend them from predators? (That seems unlikely.) Did she (laboriously) turn around and somehow push or carry them to some place of safety? What kind of a place would that be, where carnivores could not get to them for an extended period of time? Would it have meant that she dug shallow holes and buried them as some modern animals do? And, if they were laid in a shallow sea or swamp, again, how did she move them to dry land, and how did she provide for their protection? And to make sure that the babies wouldn't drown?



It is important to keep in mind that all of the foregoing mechanical circumstances were continuously true (except the procreational situations) throughout their entire lives. If a young sauropod would have ever exuberantly suddenly raise its head and then quickly lowered it, it would certainly immediately die of an aneurysm. The cell wall thickness in ALL animal brain capillaries is rather thin, to enable sufficient blood flow to each of the myriad of cells that make up the brain. Those very thin cell walls will burst (hemorrhage) when subjected to a pressure surge (actually because of a momentary differential of pressures) in the blood flow.

This all may imply that the large sauropods were VERY slow, logy creatures. All movements may necessarily have been quite slow. That young energetic sauropod may have intended to raise its head high above its body, but the very slow movements at some point initiated dizziness that would have kept extreme vertical positions from ever happening. The way the vertebrae fit together may also have greatly limited the possible range of angle of the neck and head. Even sudden unconsciousness may have been fatal, because of the brain hemorrhages that would result from the head suddenly dropping toward the ground. This is in addition to the possible damage of the impact with the ground or rocks of a head falling from signficant height.

But we must remember that these were VERY successful creatures that came to dominate the Earth for many millions of years. This then indicates that they developed successful accommodations for these problems of their large size. All of these physiological limitations add to the suggestion of credibility of the swamp-based environment of the great sauropods.

It must have been relatively rare for a young large dinosaur to die of an aneurysm due to a quick vertical movement of its head. Without the very-slow-movement hypothesis, exactly how the majority of large dinosaurs avoided this, to develop a thriving society, would be a great mystery.

Defense Against Carnivore Predators

Given these circumstances mentioned above, of slow movements and reactions, a land-based sauropod would be likely to have had great trouble defending itself from predators. Modern lions and hyenas often work in packs to sometimes attack much larger rhinos and elephants and water buffaloes by attacking the rear quarters. In some cases, they climb up on top of a large animal to attack the neck area. It seems likely that predators of sauropods would at least TRY to attack the tail and rear quarters of these large, slow creatures, if they were on land. Once there, a predator could continuously attack a particular area, until he got through the tough skin to the meat within. The sauropod would not have seemed to have had any method of defending against this, except for a very thick skin. Once a persistent predator chewed through the tough hide, carnivores from everywhere would come to feed, and the sauropod would be certainly shortly killed. The neck area seems particularly susceptible to such carnivore attacks. We are noting that there were still few carnivores living yet, except for some smaller dinosaurs, which may have not been able to climb up on a sauropod to attack vulnerable areas.

Again, considering the extreme success of enduring dinosaur species, this must have been a fairly rare occurrence. As a defensive measure against land-based carnivores, this might also suggest the swamp dwelling environment that used to be popular among scientists. A defense of submerging would probably discourage many carnivorous predators.

Sauropods Likely Environment

The defensive considerations, the buoyancy benefits, the herbivorous diet, and the long, generally horizontal, neck, all seem to strongly suggest that its likely environment was in shallow seas or swamps. Even the blood-flow arguments seem to support this premise. With external water pressure, some of the limitations described regarding blood pressure dynamics are minimized. The effect of the surrounding water is similar to a G-suit worn by pilots of high-performance aircraft, in assisting to minimize sudden variations in blood flows and blood pressures.

Energy Analysis

The very largest of the sauropods contained as much as 160,000 pounds of living cells. Each of those cells required consistent supplies of energy for activity and growth. The total consumption of such energy (as per the Kreb's Cycle and ATP molecules) is enormous. It is possible to calculate the necessary amount of food to be consumed to provide this amount of energy, to determine whether its mouth was even large enough to eat sufficient food. It turns out that it was, but just barely, and so the largest sauropods must certainly have had to eat virtually constantly, just to have sufficient intake of energy.

This subject gets at the issue of whether the giant sauropods were warm-blooded or cold-blooded. The energy accounting is very different for these two possibilities. It does not appear that anyone has previously done sufficient analysis of these energy-related issues.

(Note: a more recent separate presentation has been created on this subject, at: Sauropod Dinosaur Mouth Analysis Regarding Cold-/Warm-Blooded)

There is an issue that we will NOT discuss here, but considering the enormous amount of food that had to be consumed, a similar amount of excrement would need to be eliminated. If on land, this is probably another situation where the tail would be briefly raised off the ground.

The Mass Extinction

The dinosaur was clearly an extremely successful creature. Nearly all modern creatures that we know have evolved within the past 10 to 55 million years, and few have really dominated their environment for more than one or two million years. Dinosaurs appeared about 225 million years ago and dominated their environments for about an amazing 160 million years, until about 65 million years ago. The sauropods and all the other larger dinosaurs appear to have died out around the middle of that era, so the dinosaurs that were still alive near their end were apparently nearly all smaller-sized animals, specifically the velociraptors.

Some situation occurred about that time, around 65 million years ago, which appears to have been cataclysmic. It is commonly referred to as the K-T boundary event, referring to clear geological changes between the Cretaceous (K) Era and Tertiary (T) Period.

Extremely persuasive fossil evidence suggests that within about a two million year interval, all the remaining dinosaur varieties, as well as many other unrelated species seem to have died out, since no fossils of any of these creatures have been found that are younger than about 63 million years. By the way, most of the varieties of dinosaurs that we generally know about (including all the sauropods) had become extinct at various times well before this. Of large dinosaurs, only those resembling Triceratops still existed at this time. The "mass extinction" was very significant, but not quite as much as is generally thought. All of the sauropods were long gone, as were Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus and many others.

Many speculations have been offered to explain this "sudden" disappearance. A massive asteroid or comet hitting the earth seems to have achieved current popularity. Extensive volcanic activity, which would obscure the Sun's light, is also a popular theory. Many other speculations have been offered.

Swimming Dinosaurs Should Have Survived

A problem with all of these potential explanations involves the plesiosaurs. These ocean-going swimming dinosaurs were efficient swimmers and apparently had access to all the world's oceans. They apparently suffered the same extinction, at effectively the same time, 65 million years ago, that all the land based dinosaurs suffered. If the climate got colder, the land-based beasts may not have had the mobility to have been able to migrate quickly enough, but the ocean-based plesiosaurs would logically just swim north or south as necessary, with the relative constancy of the ocean's temperature maintaining them in the interim. It really figures that even the smaller, more mobile, land-based dinosaurs would have been able to migrate to environments that could support their existence.

Actually, one variety of Plesiosaur, the Elasmosaurus also seems to offer support for the long-neck arguments above. The swimming Elasmosaurus had a neck that was twice as long as its body! Such a creature could not support its own neck and head if it was a land-based creature.

Any mass extinction theory attempting to explain the circumstances of 65 million years ago must also explain the simultaneous disappearance/extinction of all the plesiosaurs.

The Mass Extinction Was Not Necessarily Instantaneous

It seems popular to think that this mass extinction occurred instantly. As though on Tuesday there were dinosaurs and on Wednesday there weren't! This seems very unlikely. All we know for sure is that 65 million years ago there were a still a lot of dinosaurs and 63 million years ago there probably weren't any.

Two million years is a long time! Even if dinosaurs only matured enough to have a next generation when 50 years old, that still represents as many as 40,000 generations of dinosaurs. That's a LOT!

In the time of Jesus, an average human was apparently six inches shorter in stature than today, and he lived an average of about 40 years instead of today's 70. Those significant changes have occurred in less that 100 generations of humans! A mere wisp of time compared to the two million years and 40,000 generations in which the dinosaur extinction occurred!

Similarly, when Spanish explorers brought some germs to the New World around 1500, the New World peoples had not previously developed any resistance to these apparently innocuous germs, as European people had. Within a hundred years (just five generations), the vast majority of New World peoples had died of those new diseases.

JUST within this past century, we have seen subtle(?) environmental effects that our industrial revolution has created and the effects of those changes on many creatures. Some are evolving in response, with the hopeful result of those species surviving. Others have NOT been able to evolve enough, and have or are becoming extinct. And this modern situation is in just one or two centuries, just a handful of generations. It's beyond imagination what the eventual result of our pollution and such will be at a point 40,000 human generations from now. Even very subtle changes in each generation necessarily have a geometric effect, and over this range, statistical extrapolation is totally unrealistic.

On the geologic time-scale, our current existence of humans is but a moment, yet, during our stewardship of the Earth, very large numbers of animal species have died off, some because humans hunted some species to extinction for food or for entertainment, and some because of secondary effects, such as Global Warming.

Clearly, SOMETHING DID happen in the environment about 65 million years ago. But it DIDN'T have to be a monumental, obvious event. Even something as small as a new virus (the equivalent of dinosaur AIDS, for example, or something far less spectacular like dinosaur measles) could have been the impetus. Remember the effects of Europeans and their diseases (and built-up societal immunities) on the residents of the New World 500 years ago. Huge numbers of Indians died from these seemingly innocuous diseases, because their bodies had no resistance to the new illnesses. Remember, also, those effects occurred in just a few generations, and the dinosaurs may have had as many as 40,000 generations in which to die off.

Several related presentations have been composed regarding different aspects of Mass Extinctions:
Mass Extinction, a New Explanation A New (Galaxy-Related) Explanation for Repetitive Extinctions.)

Mass Extinction, an Old Explanation An Old Explanation for Apparent Periodicity of Mass Extinctions.)

Dinosaur Model Skin

The color and texture of dinosaur skin in our modern drawings, paintings and models are mostly speculation. No preserved sample exists. No cells have survived. We have nothing but the fossils of the skeletal bones and teeth to base our conclusions on. A few examples of fossilized imprints of dinosaur skin are believed to be known. They would likely have been created very similarly to preserved dinosaur footprints. This might provide some evidence of the texture of the skin, but the jury is definitely still out on that.

Most artists' renditions show dinosaur skin as shades of gray or green, and most show it as relatively smooth. Most scientists have concluded that the skin must have been thick and tough, similar to that of modern elephants. The logic supporting this is that these huge, slow creatures seem to have had absolutely no defensive capability against predators. The great size suggests a substantial lifetime and relatively slow movement. Logic suggests that very thick, tough, elephant-like hide was the only possible answer to avoiding having predators tear out big chunks of its flanks. The important point being made here is that much of these appearance considerations are sheer speculation. There is absolutely no way of proving that they weren't pink with yellow polka dots! (I am NOT presenting a polka dot theory here!!)

In a related vein, a paleontologist speaking about the new Lucy exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Natural History, recently joked that dinosaurs could have had feathers! He was both commenting on the apparent similarities between birds and some dinosaurs (particularly the wishbone) and the general lack of concrete knowledge about dinosaurs.

We Must Be Careful About Making Assumptions

The only reason that this skin subject is brought up here is to emphasize how careful we must be in extrapolating our very limited knowledge to extremely distant times, strange beasts, and uncertain environmental circumstances. Someone makes a small, apparently logical assumption. Then someone else relies on that assumption as truth, and makes a subsequent small, apparently logical assumption. And on, and on. Each individual assumption seems solidly based, but collectively, such extrapolative arguments can arrive at ultimate conclusions that have little or no connection with reality and are mere speculations. This situation is especially likely in subject areas where we have very limited accurate information available. Caution is called for in building such logical arguments.

Please note that researchers have aggressively pursued knowledge on subjects of human history 1000 or 2000 or 3000 years ago. A reasonable amount of evidence has been accumulated for these eras, but there are still gaping holes in our understandings of the peoples and the events of those times only one hundred generations ago. Then consider how limited the evidence is that's likely to still exist regarding creatures and events beyond 65,000,000 years ago. It is truly amazing that we know anything at all about those times! The cautions in this essay are just to not leap forward into believing that we know all there is to know about these intriguing creatures, or that our current knowledge is all accurate.

Until the past couple decades, an amazingly small number of dinosaur fossils had been discovered, and none had represented complete skeletons. We are certainly moving in the right direction, and discoveries like the recent Lucy nearly complete fossil skeleton will certainly improve the accuracy and completeness of our knowledge.

Popular images about these large dinosaurs often present them as active, green, extremely mobile land animals, but all these aspects may be results of wild extrapolations of extremely limited information. Dinosaurs are certainly an interesting and exciting subject, both for study and for exercises in imagination, such as a number of recent movies. But in the scientific arena, we must maintain caution, to not go too far beyond the facts.

I am not implying that my thoughts here are the final word on any of the matters mentioned. They are merely meant as seeds for further investigation.


First Developed: Apr 1996,
First Published on Web: Nov 20, 1997


Sauropod Dinosaur Physics Subjects A logical discussion of several poor assumptions regarding dinosaurs
Sauropod Dinosaur Mouth Analysis Regarding Cold-/Warm-Blooded The size of dinosaurs' mouths and the capability to be warm-blooded
Sauropod Dinosaur Neck Physics Analysis The strength of neck bones, muscles and tendons in dinosaurs
Mass Extinction, a New Explanation A New (Galaxy-Related) Explanation for Repetitive Extinctions.)
Mass Extinction, an Old Explanation An Old Explanation for Apparent Periodicity of Mass Extinctions.)


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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago