“The World‘s Largest Dinosaurs” exhibition was created with scientific support from Germany
The huge dinosaurs called sauropods astound us. So massive! So tall! Such long necks and tiny heads! But more astounding is this: these strange giants rank among Earth’s great success stories, roaming the planet for 140 million years.
Today, scientists from many fields have joined in an effort to figure out how they did it. Paleontologists, biologists, botanists, animal nutritionists and engineers all agree: the world’s largest dinosaurs were extraordinary creatures. The challenge is to discover what made them tick.
Weighing in at 90 tons, Argentinosaurus is considered the largest creature ever to have inhabited the earth. He and his somewhat smaller relatives are part of “The World’s Largest Dinosaurs”, an exhibition which has just opened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where it will run until the beginning of 2012. The exhibition’s scientific background was provided by a Bonn-based team of researchers whose work is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation).
The “Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: The Evolution of Gigantism” Research Unit, headed by Professor Martin Sander at the Rhineland’s Friedrich Wilhelm University of Bonn, has taken an interdisciplinary approach to studying the biology of these giant lizards since 2004. The Unit’s research is supported by the DFG, which is providing a good five million euros in funding over a nine-year period.
The Bonn-based research team is particularly interested in such issues as how the dinosaurs ate, how quickly they grew, and how they breathed – questions which cannot be answered solely on the basis of the skeletons discovered. A total of twelve working groups from palaeontology, zoology, animal nutrition, geochemistry and the material sciences are therefore studying the various different aspects of these giants’ growth, reproduction, physiology and biomechanics. The exhibition in New York showcases the results of their research in an impressive and interactive way, and children, in particular, will learn much about sauropod biology from the numerous stations and models. After its New York sojourn, the exhibition will undertake a global ten-year tour of natural history museums.
The Bonn researchers’ findings have been published before, in a specialist article in the May 2010 issue of “Biological Reviews” magazine. The article focused on the question of the giant sauropods’ diet, the three main characteristics of which Professor Sander summarised as follows at the press conference to mark the exhibition’s launch: “They ate a vegetarian diet, had extremely long necks and gulped down as much food as they could without chewing!” In terms of their energy expenditure, he explained, herbivores are at a ten-fold advantage over carnivores, because “grasses, ferns and leaves don’t run away”.
Furthermore, Sander continued, the sauropods didn’t need large carnassial teeth. Instead, they had “grabbing teeth”, suited to pulling up the nutritious, but very coarse, horsetail grasses. This enabled them to evolve smaller heads and correspondingly long necks. Like the jibs of cranes, their long necks allowed these herbivores to graze larger areas without having to move their bodies – a boon for energy efficiency.
The exhibition is not the only method the Bonn researchers are using to bring their research to the attention of the general public. They were also involved in the first series of DFG Science TV and have released a ten-part Internet film series, “Giant Dinosaurs”, on their work.