31 Oct 2013

Walking with the largest dinosaur to have ever lived

Scientists digitally reconstruct the steps of the largest animal to have ever walked the planet the Argentinosaurus.

(Above video courtesy of Dr Bill Sellers, The University of Manchester)

The team from the University of Manchester laser-scanned the skeleton of the enormous Cretaceous-era dinosaur in order to try and map its walking and running movements.

Because of the size of the 40-metre beast (roughly the length of three double-decker buses), it is not useful to use animals that are alive today to work out how the animal moved, scientists said.

Dr Bill Sellers, lead researcher on the project from the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences, said: “If you want to work out how dinosaurs walked, the best approach is computer simulation. This is the only way of bringing together all the different strands of information we have on this dinosaur, so we can reconstruct how it once moved.”

First steps

Argentinosaurus, named after the country it was found in, is thought to have weighed over 80 tonnes, leaving some to suggest the animal was inflated in size, and could not walk.

However, the Manchester scientists said the computer modelling disproves this suggestion, and shows the dinosaur could have walked at speeds of around five miles per hour.

Dr Lee Margetts, who also worked on the project, said: “We used the equivalent of 30,000 desktop computers to allow Argentinosaurus to take its first steps in over 94 million years.

“The new study clearly demonstrates the dinosaur was more than capable of strolling across the Cretaceous planes of what is now Patagonia, South America.”

Robots and skeletons

The scientists say the research has practical implications for modern life, as it will provide new insight on musculoskeletal systems and for developing robots.

Dr Sellers said: “All vertebrates from humans to fish share the same basic muscles, bones and joints. To understand how these function we can compare how they are used in different animals, and the most interesting are often those at extremes.

“Argentinosaurus is the biggest animal that ever walked on the surface of the earth and understanding how it did this will tell us a lot about the maximum performance of the vertebrate musculoskeletal system.

“We need to know more about this to help understand how it functions in ourselves.

“Similarly if we want to build better legged robots then we need to know more about the mechanics of legs in a whole range of animals and nothing has bigger, more powerful legs than Argentinosaurus.”

The University of Manchester team now plans to use the method to recreate the steps of other dinosaurs including Triceratops, Brachiosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The study has been published in PLOS ONE.