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Oct. 14, 2010 Volume 32, No. 8

Modern stone-age research elevates dinosaurs

Dino Bones

JOINT BONE STUDY Dinosaurs were taller than previously thought, say researchers from the University of Missouri and Ohio University. The team studied alligators and ostrichs, the closest modern-day relative of dinosaurs, and found thick cartilages between the joints that would have added significant height to certain prehistoric creatures.


“Cartilage correction” offers new data on height

Researchers at the University of Missouri and Ohio University have found that dinosaurs may have been considerably taller than previously thought. In a study published last week, Casey Holliday, the lead author and an anatomy professor in the MU School of Medicine, found that thick cartilages between the joints would have added significant height to certain dinosaurs.  

Holliday and Lawrence Witmer, a professor of anatomy at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine, studied ostriches and alligators, the closest modern-day relatives of dinosaurs, and then studied the fossilized limbs of different dinosaurs including Tyrannosaurus rex, Allosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Triceratops. 

The team determined that the lengths of alligators’ and ostriches’ limbs included between 6 percent and 10 percent cartilage.

Using a “cartilage correction factor,” Holliday determined that many theropod dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus, were only modestly taller, while ornthischian and sauropod dinosaurs, such as Triceratops and Brachiosaurus, may have been 10 percent taller or more. For example, Brachiosaurus, previously thought to be 42 feet tall, may actually have been more than a foot taller with the additional joint cartilages.

“The ends of many dinosaurs’ long bones, which include leg bones such as the femur or tibia, are rounded and rough and lack major articulating structures like condyles, which are bony projections,” Holliday explained. “This indicated that very thick cartilages formed these structures, and therefore the joints themselves. This study offers new data into how and why reptiles, and mammals, such as humans, build their joints with such different amounts of bone and cartilage.”

Witmer said the dinosaur bones mounted in museums don’t accurately reflect what the animals actually had in their bodies because the cartilage caps were lost along with the other soft tissues. Analyzing the bones inside dinosaurs, including the cartilage, could shed light on how the creatures moved. While an 

increase in limb length typically means a taller dinosaur, it could also mean a faster or slower animal, depending on how it affects the skeleton. 

“Knowing how much cartilage was lost allows us to better restore the structure of a living dinosaur bone, which then allows us to better understand how dinosaurs moved and lived,” Wimer said. 

Dinosaur bones are different than the bones of mammals, including humans. Mammals have small protrusions at the end of each bone that connect it with another bone at a joint, like two puzzle pieces. The bones are linked by a very thin layer of cartilage, which provides padding in the joint, but often wears down leading to painful conditions like arthritis. Dinosaur bones have rounded ends and no obvious way to connect one bone to another. Soft tissue like cartilage and muscles leave marks on bones, which enable paleontologists to make sophisticated determinations about a dinosaur’s physical attributes.

Alligators have smooth, rounded bones while young ostriches have rough surfaces on their bones that mark where blood vessels feed large cartilaginous structures in the joints. Both characteristics are similar to dinosaur bones.

Holliday’s team dissected the alligator and ostrich bones and made casts of the bones with cartilage. The team then removed the cartilage and compared the bones to the casts. The bones without the cartilage were 4 to 10 percent smaller. From the evidence, Holliday and his research team concluded that certain dinosaurs had a significant amount of cartilage, and thus, were taller than original estimates. In the future, Holliday hopes to collaborate with MU veterinarians to study how and why different vertebrates build their joints with different proportions of cartilage and bone.

Holliday and Witmer led a research team that included Ryan Ridgely from Ohio University and Jayc Sedlmayr from Louisiana State University. The National Science Foundation and Ohio University provided funding for this research.