Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

Giant steps of 80-tonne dinosaur

A reconstructed skeleton of the giant dinosaur Argentinosaurus at the Carmen Funes museum in Plaza Huincul, Argentina

Giant steps taken by the biggest dinosaur that ever strode the Earth have been reconstructed by scientists.

Argentinosaurus, from South America, was able to walk and run for the first time in more than 94 million years - in virtual reality.

Its movements were modelled by experts from the University of Manchester who laser scanned a 40 metre-long skeleton of the 80 tonne beast housed in an Argentine museum.

The simulation used artificially intelligent software and processing power the equivalent of 30,000 desktop computers.

Lead scientist Dr Bill Sellers, from the university's Faculty of Life Sciences, said: "If you want to work out how dinosaurs walked, the best approach is computer simulation. This is the only way of bringing together all the different strands of information we have on this dinosaur, so we can reconstruct how it once moved."

Some sceptics have doubted that such a heavy animal could have walked, and suggested that estimates of its weight must be inflated.

Dr Lee Margetts, another member of the Manchester team, said: "The new study clearly demonstrates the dinosaur was more than capable of strolling across the Cretaceous planes of what is now Patagonia, South America."

Co-author Dr Phil Manning, also from the University of Manchester, said: "The digitisation of such vast dinosaur skeletons using laser scanners brings Walking with Dinosaurs to life - this is science, not just animation."

Argentinosaurus was a plant-eater that stood as tall as a three-storey building and stretched to 38 metres (125 feet) in length.

When it was alive, the Andes mountains were mere hillocks and arid North Patagonia consisted of steamy jungle and grassland.

Dr Sellers added: "The important thing is that these animals are not like any animal alive today and so we can't just copy a modern animal. Our machine learning system works purely from the information we have on the dinosaur and predicts the best possible movement patterns.

"Argentinosaurus is the biggest animal that ever walked on the surface of the earth and understanding how it did this will tell us a lot about the maximum performance of the vertebrate musculoskeletal system. We need to know more about this to help understand how it functions in ourselves.

"Similarly if we want to build better legged robots then we need to know more about the mechanics of legs in a whole range of animals and nothing has bigger, more powerful legs than Argentinosaurus."

The research is reported in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE.

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