Science

Watch: Fossilized tracks reveal how gigantic dinosaurs walked without tipping over

Jens Lallensack & Peter Falkingham

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We might liken sauropods to large mammals like hippos, elephants, or giraffes.

After all, they were the largest herbivores of their time.

But there’s a lot we don’t know about how sauropods walked.

Some researchers have hypothesized that they moved like elephants or giraffes, lumbering slowly to support their long necks and hefty bodies.

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But a report published March 2 in the journal Current Biology finds that sauropods carried their weight differently from today’s heavy land mammals.

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Researchers modeled the sauropod’s walk based on fossilized track marks in an attempt to paint a clearer picture of the beast’s stride.

Jens Lallensack & Peter Falkingham

“As direct records of animal activity, tracks provide information on extinct animals that cannot be derived from body fossils such as bones and teeth.”

Jens Lallensack and Peter Falkingham, study authors

Jens Lallensack

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Before they studied the dinosaurs, researchers analyzed the gaits of 15 living mammals, such as elephants, camels, dogs, and horses, by looking at their tracks.

Some, like giraffes, walk with a “pace gait” where the legs on one side of the body stay grounded while the other two swing forward.Jens Lallensack
And others, like elephants, lumber slowly by moving one foot at a time. Jens Lallensack

Jens Lallensack & Peter Falkingham

This part of the research helped the team develop a model that could accurately predict the gait of living mammals so that they could apply it to the tracks of extinct sauropods.

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They found that sauropods seem to have a distinct walking pattern compared to any other animal they studied.

Using three sets of sauropod tracks from one dinosaur that lived in the late Cretaceous, they retraced the herbivore’s steps to figure out how its feet fell.

Jens Lallensack
The sauropod moved its legs one by one, with each leg in a diagonal pair hitting the ground just a moment behind the other.Jens Lallensack

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The models show the movement of just one sauropod. That means we may have more secrets to unlock when it comes to understanding how these iconic herbivores moved around.