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Wading With Sauropods

Even before the Dinosaur Renaissance moved sauropods out of the swamps, paleontologists recognized that some of these dinosaurs were better suited to life on land

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Camarasaurus, as envisioned by Erwin Christman. From Osborn and Mook, 1921.

Sauropods were swamp monsters. At least, that’s what books, movies, and illustrations taught me when I first encountered the huge dinosaurs. If Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus didn’t actually spend most of their time in the water, then the dinosaurs always stayed close to watery refuges where they could escape from Allosaurus and other predators.

But starting in the 1960s, a renewed scientific interest in dinosaurs overturned this cherished imagery. Sauropods were wholly terrestrial creatures. These giants did not possess any features related to an aquatic or amphibious lifestyleApatosaurus and kin were often plunked down into bogs and lakes in reconstructions because that environment seemingly answered nagging questions about the biology of these animals. But early 20th century paleontologists didn’t think that all sauropods were equally adept at life in the water. Rather than take the line that all sauropods were skilled swimmers, paleontologists identified at least one Jurassic sauropod that probably spent more time on land.

In 1920, a trio of American Museum of Natural History scientists published a pair of short papers on the sauropod Camarasaurus. This dinosaur, with a blunt head and spoon-shaped teeth, was one of the better-known members of the classic Morrison Formation fauna, and the AMNH paleontologists had just completed a major reexamination of the dinosaur’s remains. In the first note, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Charles Mook briefly summarized the results of their study, and in a second, accompanying missive, William Gregory outlined the dinosaur’s life habits.

Camarasaurus didn’t seem suited to a life wallowing in a Jurassic lake. While Gregory mentioned that the dinosaur “might well have been an efficient wader,” the dinosaur was also “positively devoid of special adaptations for swimming.” The dinosaurs limbs, shoulders and hips were clearly suited to supporting the animal’s bulk, and Gregory considered the “relatively small and feeble” tail of Camarasaurus to be of no help in swimming. While Gregory did waffle on the habitat the dinosaur preferred, the overall picture was of a relatively straight-limbed dinosaur that carried its body high off the ground. Sauropods did not drag their bellies through the Jurassic mud, as other paleontologists had suggested under the supposition that sauropods were like lizards or crocodiles, writ large.

The following year, when Osborn and Mook published their massive revision of sauropods collected by Edward Drinker Cope, they similarly cast Camarasaurus as a dinosaur that was “terrestrial in gait but adapted to an amphibious life.” And the plates of that paper present some of the restorations and reconstructions previously mentioned in the PNAS papers. A model of Camarasaurus, created by artist Erwin Christman under Gregory’s direction, showed the dinosaur walking on land with slightly bent forelimbs, similar to how the museum mounted its great “Brontosaurus” skeleton years before. Christman and Gregory also collaborated on a pair of skeletal reconstructions—one with the head of Camarasaurus held high, and the other in a droopy pose, with neck and tail slung low.

Osborn, Mook and Gregory’s insistence that Camarasaurus was an amphibious dinosaur, or at least frequently waded, is puzzling. The paleontologists didn’t justify this part of their argument. Sauropods were simply considered synonymous with warm, luxuriant swamps. Contrary to this belief, the experts explicitly pointed out evidence that Camarasaurus walked tall and had a skeleton well-suited to holding up the animal’s weight while walking on land. Even before the “Dinosaur Renaissance” forever changed dinosaurian imagery, early 20th century paleontologists were already cataloging the same evidence. They just saw that evidence differently, in the context of a lazy Mesozoic world filled with shuffling, basking sauropods.

References:

Gregory, W.K. 1920. Restoration of Camarasaurus and life model. PNAS. 6, 16-17

Osborn, H.F., Mook, C.C. 1920. Reconstruction of the skeleton of the sauropod dinosaur Camarasaurus Cope (Morosaurus Marsh). PNAS. 6, 15

Osborn, H.F., Mook, C.C. 1921. Camarasaurus, Amphicoelias, and other sauropods of Cope. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, new series, 3, 247-387 (plates LX-LXXXV).

Taylor, Michael P. 2010. Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review. pp. 361-386 in: Richard T. J. Moody, Eric Buffetaut, Darren Naish and David M. Martill (eds.), Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: a Historical Perspective. Geological Society of London, Special Publication 343.

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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