By John Pickrell
Typically taller than four elephants and heftier than a jet airliner, sauropods are among the most famous of the dinosaurs. But scientists may have been wrong about one of their key features. Instead of lizardlike lips, the behemoths sported beaks akin to those of birds or turtles, researchers report here today at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. The dinos may have used these beaks, which encased large numbers of long, peglike teeth, to harvest the vast quantities of vegetation they required to reach record sizes.
The research helps to answer a long-standing mystery, says study author Kayleigh Wiersma, a paleontologist at the University of Bonn in Germany. Since the 1930s, long rows of isolated sauropod teeth—still perfectly arranged in the position they would have been in the mouth during life—have been found embedded as fossils in rocks, but with not a scrap of fossil bone encasing them. “There must have been something holding them in place,” she says. “Otherwise they would have been scattered all around the dig site.”
Wiersma and her University of Bonn co-author, Martin Sander, first hinted at the possibility of a gum or beak structure in 2017. That was based on an analysis of two skulls of Camarasaurus. Now, they have studied seven sets of isolated tooth rows from a variety of sauropod species, including German “dwarf” sauropod Europasaurus, as well the groups that include well-known species such as Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, and Apatosaurus.
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