New insights explain how the largest land animals to ever exist evolved their characteristic long necks.
While sauropods could vary widely in size, many were comparable in length and weight to modern whales. Their long necks, up to 50 feet in length in some cases, have long been a puzzle for scientists.
Recent studies on sauropod vertebrae showed that the dinosaurs were anatomically well adapted for their most striking feature. Researchers found that sauropod vertebrae were porous and full of air, making the bones lighter and more maneuverable. The configuration of muscles, tendons, and ligaments around the vertebrae made movements as efficient as possible. Sauropods also had more vertebrae than modern animals, up to 19 in some cases. Finally, sauropod skulls were small and light, little more than a toothless jaw. Researchers believed the animals simply swallowed their food whole, relying on their vast digestive tract to do the bulk of the digestive work.
As for what evolutionary advantage these long necks conferred, that is less clear. Scientists believe sauropods could have browsed on leafy tree tops, like giraffes. If they were grazers instead, the long necks could allow them to sweep a wide area in search of food.