The ibis is helping us better understand how dinosaurs moved

By AG Staff 22 February 2018
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By studying how our birds walk and run, scientists can better understand how dinosaurs moved around the earth.

UNDERSTANDING HOW dinosaurs move has always been of great interest to science. It helps palaeontologists better understand how dinosaurs foraged for food, mated and migrated.

However, it wasn’t until scientists discovered that birds are the modern descendants of theropods—those carnivorous dinosaurs that stomped around the earth with two legs—around 40 years ago that these movements could be studied.

Palaeontologist Peter Bishop, who’s most recent study endeavoured to fill in many of the remaining gaps surrounding dinosaur locomotion, has developed a biomechanically informed, regression-derived statistical model, or as he calls it, the BIRDS model.

For the first time, the BIRDS model has been able to empirically predict certain aspects of locomotion in extinct theropods by observing the slow stride length and fast run of different birds while they make their way around a racetrack.

By observing different sized birds, from 45g quail to 80 kg ostriches, and of course, our iconic bin chickens, Peter is a step closer to producing accurate computer simulations of locomotion in theropods, and ultimately other groups of dinosaurs.

The relationship between birds and dinosaurs

It’s common for palaeontologists to refer to birds as ‘avian dinosaurs’, Peter tells Australian Geographic, and all other dinosaurs, including the extinct ones, as ‘non-avian dinosaurs’.

“Birds and non-avian theropods share a huge number of unique anatomical features that no other animal group possesses, such as hollow bones, fused clavicles and the number and shape of bones in the hands and feet.

“Then of course there are feathers, which have now been found on the fossils of many species of non-avian theropod.

“The similarities are so extensive that palaeontologists sometimes have a hard time figuring out if one particular critter is a bird or a non-avian theropod!”

Why is it important to understand how dinosaurs ran?

Many of the features that distinguish early dinosaurs from other groups of animals relates to locomotion and is important in understanding their evolution, Peter says.

“Locomotion has changed dramatically during the course of dinosaur evolution, with several groups evolving four-legged gait, such as sauropods, stegosaurs and ceratopsians.

“Theropod locomotion also changed considerably throughout their history, especially with the origin of a new mode of locomotion —powered flight— in birds.”

But understanding locomotion in dinosaurs isn’t just important to science; Hollywood is pretty interested as well.

“Movies, documentaries and video games play a key role in bringing dinosaurs to life, so that the general public can appreciate them as living animals rather than just dusty, static fossils.

“By understanding locomotion better we can better aid animators and digital artists in their recreation of extinct animals.

“Not only does this ultimately results in a more accurate portrayal of extinct animals to the public, but it also can help demonstrate the scientific process itself to the public.

The research was published today in PLOS One.