An analysis of the poses of the limbs of modern birds and alligators with innovative 3D technology offers a better way to infer how dinosaurs and other extinct animals moved.Paleontologists have made great strides in understanding how extinct animals like dinosaurs walked, ran, swam, and flew when they were alive, but the mechanics of how different species moved are still unknown. The new study offers a new perspective on this long-standing enigma.
The research, published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, used an innovative 3D imaging technology developed at Brown University called ‘X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology’ (XROMM), to develop a method that could unlock new knowledge about how dinosaurs and other animals moved.
“By combining the latest technology to study joint movement with unprecedented amounts of joint posture data, we have discovered surprising new information that will improve the reconstruction of locomotion in extinct animals,” explains Armita Manafzadeh, Candidate in Ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown and lead author of the research.
And improving the ability of scientists to study animal biomechanics is important, Manafzadeh says, because knowledge of how individual species move can be used to advance understanding of major evolutionary transitions and transformations, “such as how how animals with backbones came out of the water and began to walk on land, how they went from walking on four legs to two, and how flight evolved. ”
Traditional methods of studying how extinct animals walked are based on the process of elimination. Fossil bones are adjusted and manipulated to determine the mobility of a joint, all postures that can be assumed without the bones colliding or falling apart.
But because that approach only rules out how the joints could not have moved, scientists must turn to other sources of data (musculoskeletal models, track measurements, robotic simulations) to discover how an animal’s joints realistically move in. life. In short, the approach has its limitations.
To determine whether joint mobility data could be more informative than paleontologists have tended to assume, Manafzadeh worked with two colleagues: Stephen M. Gatesy, Brown professor of biology and co-director of the XROMM Technology Development Project, and Robert Kambic, who earned his Ph.D. from Brown as a student in Gatesy’s lab and is now in the Center for Movement Studies at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the department of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Using ‘XROMM’ 3D imaging technology, the researchers designed a study involving two live animals, the helmet painted and the American alligator, which are closely related to extinct dinosaurs.
The researchers captured X-ray videos of the animals walking and manipulating their limbs, took CT scans of the skeletons, and then used ‘XROMM’ to measure nearly 600,000 joint postures. The researchers plotted these poses on three-dimensional maps of joint mobility.
Manafzadeh and his colleagues were excited to find consistent patterns linking joint mobility to the specific poses used during locomotion in birds and alligators. These patterns, they say, can be applied to more accurately reconstruct the walking and running cycles of animals that no longer roam the land.
“Thanks to these patterns of use of poses, it turns out that what the dinosaurs could not do with their joints will give us some important clues about how they walked,” says Manafzadeh. “What’s more, this information has been right in front of us, hidden within the data that paleontologists are already collecting. We just didn’t know how to appreciate it yet, “he admits.
The researchers say their confidence in the patterns is supported by the hundreds of thousands of joint postures they have been able to measure and analyze. “Now we can do future research to ask ourselves how broad those patterns are, how they evolved and why,” Gatesy says.
They also hope that future studies will adopt their new approach to help determine if similar movement limitations can also be applied to other extinct animals, such as early mammals; other joints, such as forelimbs, and other modes of locomotion, such as flying.
“We have given our colleagues the tools to improve their reconstructions of extinct animals and to test whether their existing hypotheses about locomotion fall into the patterns we found,” says Manafzadeh. “But our next big goal is to find out why these exist. patterns “.
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