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Diplodocus

dip - LOH - doh - kus

Sauropoda/Diplodocidae
Copyright 2007

Field Notes

Name Means: "Double beam"
Length: 90 feet (27 m)
Diet: Herbivore (Plant-Eater)
Time: Late Jurassic
Location: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, USA

It is mainly thanks to the efforts of one man, the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, that Diplodocus is now so well known throughout the world. Carnegie, a wealthy man, had a particular interest in dinosaurs, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s, he contributed liberally to the cause of paleontology. he financed many expeditions and excavations and filled his own museum - the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh - with fossil skeletons from all over the United States. When his paleontologists discovered a complete skeleton of Diplodocus, he was so impressed with its size that he commissioned the making of 11 copies of the entire skeleton, which he gave to major museums around the world.

For many years Diplodocus was the longest of all known dinosaurs - it is still longer than any other dinosaur that we know from a complete skeleton. Most of its immense length is accounted for by its very long neck and particularly long tail. It had a small, horselike head, and its peglike teeth were restricted to the front of its mouth. Diplodocus used these teeth to strip large quantities of leaves from trees. It then swallowed them whole to await further processing in its huge gut. The last third of its tail was very thin and whiplike. The vertebrae at the end of the tail were reduced to simple rods.

Diplodocus's front legs were shorter than its back ones. This meant that its hips were higher than its shoulders and that its back sloped forward. It is possible that Diplodocus could rear up on its hind legs so that the head could reach high into the forest canopy in search of leaves. However, in the opinion of some paleontologists, this dinosaur, given its size and body structure, could not have held this pose for very long. It may well have reared up, but only in order to push over trees so that it could feed on their leaves closer to ground level.

Diplodocus's curious name - meaning "double beam" - is derived from the bones on the underside of its tail, known as chevrons. In most other dinosaurs, these are simple V-shaped elements, but in Diplodocus they are like side-on Ts, projecting both to the front and back. Scientists used to think that, like other sauropods, Diplodocus was a lumbering beast that dragged its tail along the ground. The 1980s, however, brought a renaissance in our understanding of dinosaurs. It dawned on people that, although there was ample fossil evidence of sauropods walking across ancient landscapes, there were never any impressions of tails on the ground. The only conclusion was that the tail must have been held high. However, how an animal of Diplodocus's weight and dimensions managed this remained a mystery.

To hold aloft a tail that measured almost half its entire body length must have cost Diplodocus a huge effort. The answer was in the tail's structure. Examination of Diplodocus skeletons revealed that massive tendons ran from the back of the head right to the tip of the tail. This tendon balanced the tail against the weight of the neck and enabled it to be held out straight behind. This re-thinking about Diplodocus's posture was followed by a revision in museum displays. Around the world, copies of Diplodocus skeleton that Andrew Carnegie had given out decades earlier were taken apart and reconstructed in what was now considered to be their authentic pose.

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