Proud dinosaur may have held its head high


BRITISH FOSSIL experts sparked turmoil in the normally staid world of palaeontology yesterday as they challenged a view of dinosaurs that is so familiar it has almost become the accepted truth.

The controversy goes to the heart of our perception of the largest of the dinosaurs, the sauropods, which became widespread 150 million years ago in the late Jurassic. According to a fresh analysis of animal bones, the researchers say the beasts did not stick their necks out in front of them as so often depicted, but held their heads high on majestic, curving, swan-like necks.

The claim overturns the popular impression of the lumbering creatures given by museum exhibits and TV series such as the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs. The sauropods include many of the most well-known prehistoric beasts, such as diplodocus and apatosaurus, the dinosaur formerly known as brontosaurus. Some sauropods were more than 40m long and weighed more than 100 tonnes. “Unless sauropods carried their heads and necks differently from every living vertebrate, we have to assume that the base of their neck was curved strongly upwards,” said Mike Taylor, a palaeontologist at Portsmouth University, England, who led the study. “In some sauropods this would have meant a graceful, swan-like S-curve to the neck, and a look quite different from the recreations we are used to seeing today.”

In their study, Taylor and his team examined the natural neck posture of a wide range of land vertebrates, such as cats, rabbits, turtles and crocodiles. They found that almost all hold their necks in an upright, S-shaped curve, even though analysis of the bones alone would suggest the neck should stick out horizontally.

His report appears in the journal Acta Paleontologica Polonica.

“The burden of proof is very much on people who want to argue for a different posture,” he said. “They are arguing that sauropods are doing it differently to everything else that’s alive today.”

Dave Martill, another palaeontologist at Portsmouth, said it was easy for fossil hunters and museum staff to get the posture of dinosaurs wrong. But he added: “In this case it is shocking, because our perception of these animals is ingrained, then someone comes along 50 years later and says it doesn’t look like this at all.”

At the Natural History Museum in London, dinosaur experts said it is almost impossible to be sure how the beasts carried themselves. One said: “Their necks may have been vertical from time to time, but they were still able to come down low to drink.”

There is more to the debate than academic pride. If sauropods walked with their necks upright, it would change palaeontologists’ understanding of their behaviour. –( Guardiannews service)