Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants

By Nicole Klein; Kristian Remes et al. | Go to book overview

2
Sauropod Feeding and Digestive Physiology

JÜRGEN HUMMEL AND MARCUS CLAUSS

SAUROPOD DINOSAURS DOMINATED the large herbivore
niche in many Mesozoic ecosystems. On the basis of evi-
dence from extant herbivores, significant symbiotic gut
microbe activity can safely be inferred for these animals.
A hindgut fermentation chamber as in horses or ele-
phants appears more likely than a foregut system. Sauro-
pods are unusual in several herbivore-relevant features
such as their large foraging range (due to a long neck),
apparent lack of food comminution (which is highly un-
typical for large extant herbivores), and their extremely
high body weights (which is likely linked to several key
features of herbivore foraging and digestion). On the
basis of regressions on extant herbivores, their gut capac-
ity can be safely assumed to have been highly compre-
hensive in relation to energy requirements. This can, but
need not necessarily, imply extremely long food reten-
tion times. Besides these animal features, the spectrum of
food plants available for sauropods in sufficient quantity
(sphenophytes, pteridophytes, and gymnosperms) was
completely different from that of extant herbivores
(mostly angiosperms), which has some potential im-
plications for the respective harvesters of these plants.
Gymnosperms have a tendency to facilitate rather large
cropping sizes (measured in kilograms of dry matter per
bite) and therefore large intakes. In vitro digestibility of
several living representatives of potential sauropod food
plants was estimated to be better than expected, and at
least comparable to the level of extant browse. Although
sauropods are different from extant large herbivores in
several aspects, they must be considered one of the great-
est success stories in the long history of large animal
herbivory.


Introduction

The longnecks, as sauropods are sometimes called by young dinosaur enthusiasts, are still often perceived as gigantic but strange creatures with a funny body shape, rather than as evolutionary successful animals. However, because they are the largest herbivores ever, as well as the terrestrial vertebrates that dominated the megaherbivore niche of most land masses from the end of the Triassic until the end of the Cretaceous for an incredible 135 million years, they should instead be regarded as the most successful vertebrate herbivores ever known. When referring to them as “the sauropods,” one must not forget that this group is made up of a large group of diverse herbivores that should probably be no more regarded as uniform in their digestive physiology than, for example, “the primates,” which also utilize a great variety of digestive strategies.

The differences repeatedly demonstrated in the skull anatomy and dentition between different sauropod clades (Calvo 1994b; Christiansen 2000; Upchurch & Barrett 2000), for example, exceed in their complexity those observed between

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