On the 21st of February research was published in the Journal of PLOS One about a new study on the influence of ground dwelling Birds speed and size on locomotion (walking & running) to help gain an understanding as to how Theropod Dinosaurs might have moved. 12 species of bird were recorded on specially built running tracks by researchers in Australia with computer models extrapolating the data. This article will examine this research and what it could mean for the future of Paleontology.
After covering the research on the global magmatism caused as a result of the Chicxulub Meteorite impact which wiped out the dinosaurs in my previous article I wanted to spend this article focusing more on dinosaurs themselves, examining a fascinating piece of new research which has recently been published in the Journal of PLOS One.
Birds are Avian Dinosaurs, yes dinosaurs live today. So if you look out your window and see birds flying overhead you are looking at a dinosaur. Understanding how dinosaurs might have moved is one of the most important questions in Palaeontology. Over the years Palaeontologists and researchers have based their theories of how dinosaurs moved on observations and measurements of the bones, where the muscles would have attached on the legs and feet, the position of the pelvis, the weight of the animal etc. Computer models have also been used to help breakdown and answer these questions.
A prime example of this was in July 2017 when University of Manchester scientists published research in Peer Journal about the running abilities of Tyrannosaurus Rex, suggesting it may not have been able to run faster than 12mph. “Based on T. rex’s muscles alone, the computer model came up with a maximum speed of 30km/h, but this dropped to 20km/h when skeletal strength was assessed too” (Briggs, 2017, p1). The running abilities of Tyrannosaurus as well as Theropod Dinosaurs generally have been a hotly debated academic topic for many years. As such Palaeontologists have been continually trying to gain a better understanding of Theropod dinosaur locomotion. The new investigation which I detail below has looked to expand on past research into how dinosaurs might have moved by analysing how todays birds walk and run.
What was the research?
The study was undertaken by researchers at the University of Queensland and Queensland Museum in Australia. 12 bird species were used in the study this included among others the Australian Ibis, Quail, Guineafowl as well as Emus and Ostriches. The birds were placed on custom made running tracks where they were let loose to run and walk around (McCosker, 2018). Because birds are dinosaurs closest descendants they can help offer explanations for what is seen in dinosaurs which can really help paleontological research.
The story of this exciting bird race was picked up by various News and Science websites, these included the Guardian, International Business Times, Cosmos, Phys.org and The University of Queensland to name just a few.
During the study the birds all had their back feathers removed for markers to be placed which would allow the Cameras to pick them up during movement. The birds wings were also clipped back to allow the Cameras to capture the entire animal unimpeded and to stop the bird species capable of flight taking off during the investigation (Masterson, 2018). The statistical data gained would then be used to create computer models that would predict how dinosaurs might have moved. Cameras and force plates were used to record the birds walking and running pressures and movements around the track gathering data on the weight and gait of the animal as it moved (University of Queensland, 2018).
When I first heard about this study of using pressure plates to analyse bird movement it reminded me of something I had seen in a Walking with Dinosaurs episode. Many Walking with Dinosaur fans will recognise that pressure pads were used by naturalist Nigel Marven in a scene in the episode Land of Giants where weighing pads were used to weigh a herd of walking Argentinosaurus a Titanosaur, a quadruped sauropod from the Late Cretaceous. Whilst this was a scene from a documentary series from 2002 I found it interesting that a similar concept was being used for real in this paleontological study to measure bird gait and movement. From the results of the bird locomotion investigation the Queensland researchers discovered that as speed improves in Bird movement that many natural aspects of the birds change, they move in a sequence from walking to running which is different to humans for instance who have specific walking and running gaits (Public Library of Science, 2018).
What does this research mean for the future of Palaeontology?
Understanding locomotion is important to understand how dinosaurs lived, how they found food, how they mated, how they migrated and how they avoided becoming food themselves (Bishop, 2018, cited in Slezak, 2018 p1). Whilst more birds are needed to be studied to help create more computer models the recent research undertaken offers some very interesting answers as to how dinosaurs might have moved. Paleontological research is always changing and new scientific methods are always being pushed to help gain a better understanding of the Mesozoic era. This research should hopefully provide a bigger insight into dinosaur lives, enabling palaeontologists a window into the previously unknown, helping to answer long held questions.
I hope you have found this article thought provoking. There is so much variety in paleontological research that new scientific techniques are really helping to build a better picture of what life was like for dinosaurs which is really exciting stuff. I look forward to sharing with you all the latest scientific discoveries as we enter March so keep an eye on Jurassic Finds!
Briggs H. (2017) Mighty T. rex ‘walked rather than sprinted’, [online] BBC News, Available from www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-40632751 [Accessed 25th February 2018]
The University of Queensland (2018) Bolting birds help reveal dinosaur gait, [online] University of Queensland, Available from: https://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2018/02/bolting-birds-help-reveal-dinosaur-gait [Accessed 24th February 2018]
McCosker R. (2018) Scientists chase down dinosaur movements by watching turkeys sprint, [online] Brisbane Times, Available from: https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/queensland/scientists-chase-down-dinosaur-movements-by-watching-turkeys-sprint-20180221-p4z169.html [Accessed 24th February 2019]
Masterson A. (2018) Birds offer clues to dino running, [online] Cosmos The Science of Everything, Available from: https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/birds-offer-clues-to-dino-running [Accessed 24th February 2018]
Public Library of Science. (2018) Locomotion of bipedal dinosaurs might be predicted from that of ground-running birds, [online] Phys.org, Available from: https://phys.org/news/2018-02-locomotion-bipedal-dinosaurs-ground-running-birds.html [Accessed 24th February 2018]
Slezak M. (2018) Want to know about T rex? Chase an ibis around a track, scientists say, [online] The Guardian, Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/22/want-to-know-about-t-rex-chase-an-ibis-around-a-track-scientists-say [Accessed 25th February 2018]