Dinosaurs wagged their tails when they ran, researchers discover by accident

Perhaps The Flintstones knew something about our prehistoric past with their dog-like dinosaur, Dino, depicted in the cartoon wagging its tail. 

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College in London have discovered that dinosaurs did in fact wag their tails when they walked and ran — albeit “not as enthusiastically as your favourite pooch”, according to the study’s lead, Queensland Museum’s Peter Bishop.

Dr Bishop said some dinosaurs used their tails to control angular momentum throughout their gait, making the animals’ movements more “economical and feasible”.

“I think the key takeaway for me is that we have been, to a degree, ignorant of the axial body: so things like the neck and the head and the trunk, and in particular the tail, when it comes to dinosaur locomotion on land,” Dr Bishop, who is currently a research fellow at Harvard University, told ABC Radio Brisbane.

“There are other parts of the body contributing to locomotion and it just hits home that we need to consider how the animal as a whole functions and works together and how different parts of the body are coordinated to produce motion.”

Through simulations, a team of palaeontologists, biomechanists and engineers examined the physics of Coelophysis — a small, carnivorous theropod and distant cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“We studied Coelophysis because unlike T-Rex, which comes right at the end of the age of dinosaurs, Coelophysis is one of the earliest dinosaurs,” Dr Bishop said.

Coelophysis, as a species, is well known to researchers thanks to the many complete and incomplete skeletons that have been studied that give researchers a strong basis of the dinosaurs’ anatomy. 

“By studying Coelophysis it gets us closer to understanding what’s ancestral for dinosaurs, in particular bipedal dinosaurs,” Dr Bishop said.

“Even though we only studied one bipedal species of dinosaur in our study, we expect that the results generalise more or less across bipedal dinosaurs when they were walking or running. 

“So certainly for T-Rex and for Muttaburrasaurus, when it’s up walking and running on its hind legs, then we would expect that the tail would also be doing something similar [to the Coelophysis].”

An accidental discovery

The aim of the study was to understand how a running dinosaur worked and Dr Bishop said he was “very surprised” at the discovery that his team happened upon by accident.

“We weren’t really focusing on the tail and we certainly weren’t making any predictions or expectations about what we would see with the tail,” he said.

“In previous studies, and I’m guilty of this as well, we just assumed that the tail was a pretty static part of the body, it was just a counterbalance that stuck out backwards from the hips that kind of balanced the animal in front and didn’t really have any significance to locomotion. 

“When we saw the first simulation result and we were seeing it oscillating back and forth from left to right, [it was like] ‘Oh wow, this is interesting, we weren’t expecting that’.

“And that’s when we decided to take a more focused examination of that particular aspect.”

Dr Bishop said he hoped the research would be reflected in how dinosaurs were depicted on the big screen. 

“When Jurassic Park was made in 1993, the animators consulted with paleontologists and they tried to represent the animals with the greatest degree of accuracy, based on what we knew at the time,” he said. 

“And, of course, our understanding has progressed in the nearly three decades since then and I would like to think that animators making new documentaries and movies continue to try to bring on board the latest scientific understanding, to present to the audience … our best understanding of how these animals moved.”

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