April 7, 2011
“Sauropods are basically alien animals . . . What can be said of the habits of an animal with the nose of a Macrauchenia, the neck of a giraffe, the limbs of an elephant, the feet of a chalicothere, the lungs of a bird, and the tail of a lizard? With so many plausible but conflicting interpretations, it is unlikely there will be general agreement on sauropod habits as long as more than one paleontologist has an opinion on the matter.”
–Walter Coombs, 1975, “Sauropod habits and habitats”, page 29
I first encountered that passage at age 9, in The Dinosaurs, by William Stout, William Service, and Bryon Preiss. Peter Dodson quoted it in his introduction to the book, and it really stuck in my head. So much so that I quoted it myself when the opportunity arose, and now present it here for your consideration. More recent investigations have pretty well done in the idea that sauropods had trunks (for more about that, go here [which will lead you to this, which I had completely forgotten that I wrote, but quite like now that I've rediscovered it]), but the rest of Coombs’s comparisons are still apt. I had no idea when I was 9 how long a shadow the “lungs of a bird” part would cast over my life! And certainly there are aspects of sauropod biology that are still contentious, and some may always be so.
But I really feel like a synthetic view of sauropod paleobiology is emerging, and the best evidence of it to date is the massive paper by Sander et al. (2010) in Biological Reviews. That paper is one of the zillion things I’ve been intending to blog about, but have not gotten around to yet (and there’s a book by most or all of the same folks due shortly from Indiana University Press). When I read it right after it came out, I had the very strong feeling that it was a watershed moment for sauropod paleobiology, such that it will be fair to ask of any future study, “How is this an advance beyond Sander et al. (2010)?” I like papers like that–Coombs (1975) was one such–because they inspire me to start figuring out what’s going to come next.
- Coombs, W. P. 1975. Sauropod habits and habitats. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 17:1-33.
- Sander, P. M., A. Christian, M. Clauss, R. Fechner, C. T. Gee, E.-M. Griebeler, H.-C. Gunga, J. Hummel, H. Mallison, S. F. Perry, H. Preuschoft, O. W. M. Rauhut, K. Remes, T. Tütken, O. Wings, and U. Witzel. 2010. Biology of the sauropod dinosaurs: the evolution of gigantism. Biological Reviews. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2010.00137.x.