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New exhibit reconstructs the very biggest dinosaurs–inside and out [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Fitting fossils together to assemble massive dinosaur skeletons is certainly no small feat. Fleshing one out—inside and out—from tooth to tail is an even more challenging undertaking, especially when the subject is an 18-meter-long sauropod.

Experts in animal nutrition, sports medicine, biomechanics and materials science joined paleontologists to re-create a full-sized model of Mamenchisaurus that spans an exhibit hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. As the main, towering attraction in a new sauropod exhibit that opens to the public Saturday, April 16, this long-necked plant eater illustrates much of what scientists have learned about these colossal creatures in recent decades.

The group of dinosaurs, still characterized by the now-discarded prototype of Brontosaurus, is quite diverse, with some members reaching more than 46 meters in length and others growing to only a fraction of that size.

The proverbial elephant in the room (made only more clear by the large sauropod in the room) was: Why haven’t land animals gotten this big since the great KT extinction, 65.5 million years ago? Comparing sauropods with modern animals can help to get to the bottom of this conundrum.

"Evolution works in an additive fashion," explained Martin Sander, who is visiting from the University of Bonn in Germany and helped oversee the exhibit. "It always takes what’s there, so a lot of key factors were present when these animals, evolutionarily, were dog sized—and then they started growing. The same thing happens with mammals. They also started out very small. But they made a few mistakes, which eventually limited their body size to a lower limit than you would get in dinosaurs."

What were some of the early errors our ancestors made? Having live young—and chewing their food, Sander said. One thing the superlong necks of sauropods were good for was digesting food along the way, so they didn’t have to build up bulky chewing muscles that would weigh down their small heads.

Scientific American attended a preview of the exhibit and learned more about how scientists are piecing together the lives of these long-gone, gigantic animals.

 

 

Image by Eric R. Olson





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  1. 1. jtdwyer 12:38 am 04/17/2011

    Martin Sander states in the video (paraphrased):
    "If the volume of your windpipe is bigger than the volume of your lungs then you suffocate."
    and
    "…a snorkeler can’t have a snorkel too long because our lung is too small…"

    I don’t see the connection. I suspect that the reason a snorkeler with too long a snorkel would suffocate is the increased water pressure at depth. I see no reason why a snorkeler on the surface would suffocate no matter how long a snorkel was being used…

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 12:44 am 04/17/2011

    Oh, I see – the windpipe and lungs would eventually fill up with respiratory waste products. Oxygen could not be inhaled from the atmosphere. I hope nobody tried that at home! If so, I apologize.

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  3. 3. RockyBob 10:50 pm 04/18/2011

    Interesting windpipe observation. At one time I used a CPAP, that used a long hose to ever so slightly pressurize my airway (preventing apnea). Air always leaked out through small holes in the face mask and the leakage was always very annoying. Why didn’t the design place the exit holes at the far end of the hose where it would be hardly noticeable? Oh yeah, sometimes hoses were 10 ft long, so I suppose that could represent a significant fraction of some people’s lung function. The ratio of windpipe to lung shouldn’t be absolute, just that the bugger the pipe volume the less new air is brought in. There would still be some mixing along the pipe length.

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  4. 4. RockyBob 10:51 pm 04/18/2011

    Bigger

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