Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants

Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants

Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants

Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants


Sauropods, those huge plant-eating dinosaurs, possessed bodies that seem to defy every natural law. What were these creatures like as living animals and how could they reach such uniquely gigantic sizes? A dedicated group of researchers in Germany in disciplines ranging from engineering and materials science to animal nutrition and paleontology went in search of the answers to these questions. Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs reports on the latest results from this seemingly disparate group of research fields and integrates them into a coherent theory regarding sauropod gigantism. Covering nutrition, physiology, growth, and skeletal structure and body plans, this volume presents the most up-to-date knowledge about the biology of these enormous dinosaurs.


“The never-since-surpassed size of the largest dinosaurs remains unexplained.” This resigned conclusion voiced a decade ago (Burness et al. 2001, 14523) has inspired us, a highly diverse group of researchers in Germany and Switzerland, to join forces in an attempt to understand why and how the largest of the large, the long-necked sauropod dinosaurs attained their gargantuan proportions. Dinosaur gigantism is a scientific problem that has puzzled evolutionary biologists since the earliest discoveries of sauropod dinosaur bones almost 160 years ago, which were aptly named Cetiosaurus, the “whale lizard.” in terms of body mass, sauropod dinosaurs are second in size only to the large baleen whales that evolved some 180 million years later in the Tertiary. However, whales and sauropods cannot really be compared to one another because the rules of the game in regard to body size are so different on land and in the water. What does bind whales and the “whale lizards” together, though, is their evolutionary trend toward ever larger body sizes. This raises the question of how sauropods achieved their gigantic sizes and, more importantly, what ultimately stopped them from getting even bigger.

These fascinating issues were the driving force behind the formation of a research consortium, Research Unit 533 “Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: the Evolution of Gigantism,” funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, or DFG). We, the members of the Research Unit, feel that only a better understanding of the biology of the sauropods and their role in Mesozoic ecosystems can bring us closer to an understanding of their gigantism. For the most part, geological reasons for sauropod gigantism can be discounted because none of the environmental parameters of the Mesozoic, for example, atmospheric oxygen content (Sander et al. 2010), are reflected in changes in sauropod body size. This then leaves mainly biological reasons behind the success story of these huge animals that ruled the Earth for 145 million years.

Our Research Unit consists of experts from all walks of scientific life. Indeed, there are not many dinosaur research projects in which paleontologists are outnumbered by nonpaleontologists, but working on the issue of gigantism required just that. the 38 authors who have helped to put together the latest knowledge on sauropod dinosaur biology in this volume are specialists in animal nutrition, biomechanics, bone histology, computer modeling, dinosaur anatomy, evolutionary ecology, geochemistry, materials science, paleobotany, physiology, veterinary medicine, and zoology. Listed here in alphabetical order, each and every one of these fields has contributed to our basic research on sauropod gigantism, bringing new ideas and fresh approaches to the problem.

Our shared journey down the road of scientific discovery has been exciting and productive. When we first started out, however, we had to learn to speak in a common language. Intense, three-day workshops every six months have taught us how to effectively communicate with one another—not a trivial task if an isotope geochemist is to exchange research results with a functional morphologist, or an animal nutritionist is to discuss profound interpretations with a materials scientist. But from the very beginning, the enthusiasm of all members of our research group and their willingness to trade ideas and reach out to one another have been so great that even in the early stages, the cross-fertilization between . . .

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