Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Virtual walking with Dinosaurs…Argentinosaurus takes digital steps!

A digital reconstruction of one of the world’s largest known land animals, the Cretaceous dinosaur Argentinosaurus, has allowed this giant to take its first steps -- albeit virtually -- in over 94 million years. The research  outlined in the journal PLoS ONE, is the most anatomically detailed walking simulation so far for a sauropod dinosaur. The study, undertaken at the University of Manchester, provides the first virtual trackway for Argentinosaurus…whose tracks have not been found (yet!).

The skeleton used in the study shows that the plant-eating dinosaur measured at least 131 feet (nearly 40 metres!) long. The digital reconstruction reveals that it gently lumbered along at around 5 miles per hour (8 kph). “The simulation shows a slow walking gait, which is to be expected, given that the animal weighs 80 tonnes,” lead researcher Dr. Bill Sellers from the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences. “What is interesting is how well the simulated footfall pattern matches up with typical sauropod trackways.”
For the study, Sellers and his colleagues laser scanned the huge dinosaur’s skeleton in Argentina using a Z+F LiDAR Imager. They then used the computer modelling system developed by Sellers (Gaitsym) that uses an equivalent of 30,000 desktop computers to complete the necessary calculations to get the dinosaur to digitally walk again. The virtual dinosaur allowed the team to study the vast sauropod dinosaurs locomotion.
The discovery that Argentinosaurus can comfortably walk counters prior speculation that the vast reconstruction was exaggerated and impossibly too large for a terrestrial animal…given this huge dinosaur is at the upper limit of what many models suggested as being functionally possible for terrestrial vertebrates. This research concludes not only that Argentinosaurus could walk, but that it was also at the top of its food chain….in so far it was protected from predators when it was an adult, due to its enormous bulk. Once you hit 80 tonnes, you don’t have to worry about being eaten by predators,” Sellers explained. “We don’t know whether this animal used its long neck to graze over wide areas of low-laying vegetation or for reaching the tops of trees, but from its locomotion we know that it was a slow, steady mover.”
Understanding how such past animals moved may help us to better understand modern day musculoskeletal systems. “If you are trying to understand any body system that is shared by a range of different animals then it is often extremely useful to compare this system across different species,” Sellers explained. “Vertebrate muscles, skeletons and joints work exactly the same way in everything from fish to humans.”
He continued, “The really interesting aspect of dinosaur locomotion is that you are looking at animals that test the limits of the musculoskeletal system simply by virtue of being so big. They have to make compromises and come up with ways of coping that help us to understand the limits and compromises in the human musculoskeletal system.”
Dr. Phil Manning is head of the Palaeontology Research Group at the University of Manchester (School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Science) and is a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History also contributed to the study. Manning maintains “Palaeontology is now undergoing a renaissance, with more interdisciplinary approaches, such as this, helping scientists solve long-standing questions.” Manning went on to say “To carefully break down the key components of the locomotion of such vast animals as Argentinosaurus is allowing us greater insight to the biology and physiology of such vast organisms,” Manning also concludes that “The diverse plethora of techniques and technology available to palaeontology today is changing the way we study and interpret the fossil record.”

In the future, the University of Manchester team plan to digitally recreate other dinosaurs, such as Triceratops, Brachiosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex, in order to better understand their locomotor ability. Prior simulations by the team of hadrosaur dinosaurs uncovered novel gaits, that included running, skipping and jumping…so watch this space for the first dinosaur pirouette!
Paper download at: from PLoS ONE with this link!

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