Behind the Book: The Sauropod Dinosaurs

1. What are sauropod dinosaurs?

Sauropods, perhaps even more than the famous Tyrannosaurus rex, are among the most iconic of all dinosaurs in the public mind, typified by their huge bodies, long necks/ tails and small heads.

They were among the most long-lived and successful of all the known dinosaurian groups, evolving over a length of time beginning towards the end of the Triassic Period about 230 million years ago and only becoming extinct, along with all other dinosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65.5 million years ago. The name sauropod, coined by a 19th-century worker and which in Latin literally translates to “lizard foot” or “reptile foot”, is actually misleading, since their feet were not only different from these in appearance but also distinctive in the way they functioned. Sauropods, although they kept to the above body plan, nevertheless produced an amazing array of species that rivaled large whales in size and weight to relatively small, cow-sized forms, and which sometimes sported body armor and club or spiked tails.

 

2. What are the reasons that made you decide to write about them?

Most young children go through a period of being fascinated by dinosaurs, and each has his or her favorite. In my case, I was in love with the sauropods because of their majestic size, graceful necks and tails and powerful limbs. They were the ones I liked to draw and dream about more than any other, and years later as an adult I came to understand that perhaps more than any of the other dinosaur types, we really didn’t know much about their evolution, biomechanics or paleoecology. I spent many years informally studying their skeletal structure for clues, and as time went on I felt that there was an increasing need for a broad, comprehensive book about these dinosaurs to be written.

 

3. What new information does your book contain?

Partly as a result of new discoveries, the work of several sauropod specialists affiliated with the German-based research Group 533 and recent studies by others that included digital modeling of

data, by 2012 a considerable number of new hypotheses had accumulated regarding sauropod evolution, biomechanics and paleobiology. These led myself and my coauthor, Matt Wedel, to come to a broad, underlying conclusion: that sauropods achieved generally huge size, long necks and hindgut digestion on a massive scale as an adaptation for harvesting the abundance of conifer vegetation that appeared at the same time these animals were evolving. They were a ”package deal”, so to speak, in terms of their anatomy and paleoecology, and this successful bauplan has never been duplicated by any other dinosaur or mammal since their time. The book showcases the major sauropod types in a concise “field guide” format that contrasts their skeletal diversity, features cut-away views of their organ systems and takes readers on a journey through time across the separating continents to visit important sauropod-dominated ecosystems, demonstrating their role as “keystone species” that influenced the lives of the other species that shared their habitats. Surprisingly, in addition to their high-browsing giant relatives, there were also small, cow-sized sauropods that actually had relatively short necks and were adapted for browsing low vegetation.

 

4. What readership would be most likely to relate to and learn from this book?

The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants is primarily directed at satisfying the curiosity of both older junior and adult readers who have a broad, general interest in dinosaurs, and who until now have not been offered a comprehensive, easily understood treatment of why and how sauropods developed in the way they did. Our book is written in a casual, conversational style that aims to engage the reader and help him or her think about hypotheses relating to the sauropod dinosaurs’ evolution, anatomy and physiology in light of what we understand about modern animals, aided by abundant photos, black-and-white and color illustrations. At the same time there is much information for specialists in

dinosaur paleontology, and these readers will also find new and useful information. The book is also intended to be a research tool, and as a result features an extensive glossary of paleontological terms and a lengthy, detailed index.

 

5. What is the value of the book to the subject of paleontology and science in general?

In addition to presenting new concepts relating to the sauropod dinosaurs themselves, our title demonstrates the workings of many important basic concepts of natural science such as natural selection, predator-prey ecology, population dynamics and extinction, among others. It also seeks to show how sauropods and other dinosaurs evolved in intimate association with Mesozoic plant communities. The book portrays these in some detail, since plants, as well as changing geographies and ecosystems throughout this time, were the basis for what we currently know about the evolution of dinosaurs as a group.  

 

 

Naturalist Mark Hallett’s art and writing has appeared in Life, Smithsonian Magazine, and National Geographic. An artistic consultant for Jurassic Park and Dinosaur, he has created dinosaur art and models for the Walt Disney Company and Universal Studios. Mathew J. Wedel is a well-recognized sauropod expert and an associate professor of anatomy at Western University of Health Sciences. He has coauthored papers naming the sauropods  Sauroposeidon and  Brontomerus.