Whenever we go to the zoo, we head straight for the giraffes. We never get tired of their lanky grace and the way they bow their big heads down and blink at us through their long lashes. Can you imagine a dinosaur with a neck six times longer than a giraffe’s? How and why can that be?
Small, light heads
Sauropod heads were small and light because they did not need to have big jaws to chew their food. “Sauropod heads were simple cropping devices with a brain and sense organs, and did not require special equipment for obtaining food,” such as beaks.
Wide bodies and strong legs
Sauropod torsos were large and wide enough to support a neck that not only could reach the ground but extend even father away from their bodies, allowing them to reach very high and very far.
Lighter bones and leaner muscles to carry them
Sauropod vertebrae were very pneumatic – hollow but strong – consisting of 60% air. As Taylor and Wedel explain, “in effect, sauropods inflated their vertebrae within the muscular envelope of the neck, moving the bone, muscle and ligament away from the centre so that they acted with greater mechanical advantage.”
More and longer vertebrae
All mammals, including giraffes, have seven vertebrae, but sauropods are more closely related to birds and crocodiles and those lighter bones are more numerous and longer than those of mammals.
Air-sac breathing system
A super long neck means a super long trachea – or windpipe – to bring air to the lungs. Mammals need a short trachea to get the amount of oxygen they require, but rather than having the air flow through just the trachea, sauropods had an air sac system that allowed them to take advantage of all of the air space (helped by those lighter bones) in the whole neck rather than just the windpipe.
We are still learning new things about dinosaurs every day – how they compare to mammals, birds and reptiles and what they say about the life of and history of our planet. The adventures of paleontology and the science of fossils are made real for kids in Tumblehome Learning’s Galactic Academy of Science Adventure #2, The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil, in which two friends, Benson and Anita, travel through time to outwit a fossil thief. It’s good reading!