GEOL 204 Dinosaurs, Early Humans, Ancestors & Evolution:
The Fossil Record of Vanished Worlds of the Prehistoric Past
Spring Semester 2017
The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs: Reconstructing Dinosaur Physiology
"The Dinosaurs, having the same thoracic structure as the Crocodiles, may be concluded to have possessed a four-chambered heart; and, from their superior adaptation to terrestrial life, to have enjoyed the function of such a highly-organized centre of circulation to a degree more nearly approaching that which now characterizes the warm-blooded Vertebrata." -- Sir Richard Owen, 1842, "British Fossil Reptiles"
BIG QUESTION: Were dinosaurs warm-blooded?
Gregarious Behavior in the Dinosauria
Several lines of evidence suggest that dinosaurs (or at least some species) lived in herds or packs. These include:
- Monospecific boneheads: deposits where there are multiple individuals of the same species (especially of different growth stages), but no or very few fossils of other species. This strongly points to there having been a large group of individuals of the same species traveling together and dying together.
- Trackway data showing many individuals of the same species (but possibly of different ontogenetic stages) moving together over the same muddy surface at the same time. A bedding plane will only be wet enough to take an impression for a limited period of time; thus, chances are that if you many prints of the same species on the same bedding plane, they were moving there together.
- Complex visual display structures (such as horns, crests, plates, and so forth). While some animals with complex displays do not live in herds or flocks (e.g., peacocks), such displays are very common in gregarious animals. They are commonly associated with animals that on occasion (at least) to gather as groups to display to each other (often with female choice).
There is a special case of gregarious behavior which seems to be fairly common in dinosaurs: families. Several cases of parents found with babies (often of a few dozen) or of multiple sets of young of different ages found together show that several different sorts of dinosaurs lived together in groups.
Among modern vertebrates, some gross generalizations:
mammals are warm-blooded; that is, they are warmer than the environment around them in typical temperate and colder environments. Crocodilians, lepidosaurs, turtles, amphibians, most fish, and almost all invertebrates are cold-blooded: their bodies are generally only about as warm as the general environment around them, so consequently they feel cool to the touch outside of tropical situations; in contrast, warm-blooded animals have temperatures largely independent of the outside temperature,
so they feel warm to the touch. Need to be precise as to definitions of terms. "Warm-blooded" and "Cold-blooded" actually encompass several different (although related) topics:
- Energy Source: whence comes the majority of the energy to "run" the animal?
- In "Cold-blooded" animals, the main energy source is the sun (and external environments in general): called ectotherms ("outside heat")
- In "Warm-blooded" animals, the main energy source are extra mitochondria whose main purpose is to convert food energy to heat energy: called endotherms ("inside heat")
- Metabolic Rate: how much food energy ("fuel") is used up over time?
- In "Cold-blooded" animals, rate of fuel usage is low: called bradymetabolic ("slow metabolism")
- In "Warm-blooded" animals, rate of fuel usage is HIGH: called tachymetabolic ("fast metabolism")
- Temperature Variation over Time: how stable is the body temperature over time?
- In "Cold-blooded" animals, body temperature fluctuates with the external environment: called poikilotherms ("fluctuating heat")
- In "Warm-blooded" animals, body temperature regulated by internal mechanisms and thus more stable: called homeotherms ("same heat")
A typical cold-blooded animal is an ectothermic bradymetabolic poikilotherm: needs to get its energy from the sun and fluctuates with external environment (but can moderate fluctuations by moving from sunlight to shade and vice versa); however, needs very little
food (snakes can go weeks without feeding, for example). Cold blooded animals become torpid at night and in colder weather.
A typical warm-blooded animal is an endothermic tachymetabolic homeotherm: its body temperature is stable and activity levels can remain high for long periods of time, at night, and in colder weather; however, needs a LOT of food or will die (imagine the
effects of not feeding a cat or dog for weeks!).
Additional issues to consider:
- Resting metabolic rate (RMR) vs. active metabolic rate (AMR): "warm-blooded animals tend to have RMRs 4-10x that of similar sized "cold-bloods", but AMR is similar in both
- Duration of sustained activity: "warm-blooded" animals tend to have longer durations of sustained activity
- Recovery time between periods of activity: often much shorter for "warm-blooded" animals
Why evolve such an expensive trait as endothermy? Some suggestions have included:
- Increased aerobic capacity, allowing for greater total activity levels and greater ability to recover from sustained activity
- Greater environmental tolerance: endotherms can live in wider range of latitudes and altitudes
- Increased metabolic efficiency due to homeothermy: can "fine-tune" physiological systems to a narrow range of temperatures
- Increased ability for parental care: both brooding/gestating at constant temperature, and increased ability to watch over young
Note that it is not just mammals and birds that are "warm-blooded". For example, tunas, billfish (sailfish, swordfish, marlins), lamniform sharks (like great whites and makos), boid snakes (pythons, etc.; but only while brooding), and certain plants (which aren't "blooded" as such, but some can emit internally-generated heat).
When dinosaurs were first discovered, they were interpreted as being no more than gigantic cold-blooded lizards. However, as early as 1842 Owen (in the very paper in which he named "Dinosauria") speculated that dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded like mammals. During most of the 20th Century the model of dinosaurs as cold-blooded returned. Work by John Ostrom (of Yale University) and his colleagues and students (especially Robert Bakker) presented new information that dinosaurs were in fact warm-blooded. This hypothesis generated considerable research (both in support and in attempts to falsify it): this change in thinking about dinosaurs and renewed interest in dinosaurian studies has been termed the "Dinosaur Renaissance".
Among the lines of evidence supporting dinosaurian warm-bloodedness:
- Bone histology (microscopic analysis of tissue and cellular structure) can test between bradymetabolic and tachymetabolic organisms. Bone becomes reworked (that is, removed then redeposited) as a normal part of vertebrate physiology, as bone is a major store for nutrients like calcium and phosphorus. Bradymetabolic animals show little sign of reworking, as their slower metabolism does not need as much nutrients as quickly. In contrast, tachymetabolic animals show considerable reworking. Examination of the bones of dinosaurs show a high degree of reworking, even as juveniles.
- Using skeletochronology, the maximum rate of growth of dinosaurs can be calculated. When plotted against body size, it is found that dinosaurs had much higher growth rates than ectotherms of the same size; in fact, the dinosaur growth rate is about the same as mammals and ground-dwelling birds.
- Texture of bone also shows signs of the rate of growth. Dinosaurs show fast rates similar to mammals; pseudosuchians and other archosauriforms show an intermediate rate; and ectotherms show a slow growth rate.
- Computer models of the required metabolic rates required for even walking and slow running for large bipedal dinosaurs exceeds the metabolic rate of ecotherms. So if they actually moved, big theropods HAD to have been endotherms.
- And the data for small dinosaurs and dinosauromorphs are at least consistent with endothermy for walking, and require endothermy if they were even moderate runners (as their skeletons and foot print evidence shows).
- Examining the nutrient foramina (holes for blood vessels into and out of bones) in dinosaurs shows that the amount of blood flowing through dinosaurs greatly exceeded modern ectotherms, and even modern mammals. This suggests that the metabolic rate of dinosaurs was indeed very high.
- Predator-Prey ratios (first considered by R.T. Bakker looked at the trophic relationships in communities to try and determine the thermophysiology of dinosaurs and other extinct forms. His technique:
- In modern endothermic communities very few predators compared to many herbivores (tachymetabolic predators require a lot of food, so only a few can survive in a given region).
- Bradymetabolic predators require a lot less food, so same amount of potential food can support many bradymetabolic predators.
- In order to calculate P/P ratios, Bakker had to consider the different sizes of the various populations. Used biomass (# kgs or tons of flesh) rather than number of individuals
- Found that modern populations had P/P ratios of 0.5-4 %
- Looking at fossil record, found:
- Basal synapsid-dominated faunas of the Early Permian: 25-30%, much higher than modern populations. Most paleontologists have accepted this as a cold-blooded community
- Therapsid-dominated faunas of the Middle and Late Permian and earliest Triassic: 10-20%, seemingly between endo- and ectothermic
- Crurotarsan-dominated faunas of the Middle and Late Triassic: 10-20%, as in therapsid communities
- Dinosaur-dominated faunas of the Jurassic and Cretaceous: 0.5-3.5%, as in modern endotherms!
- Mammal-dominated faunas of the Cenozoic: 0.5-4.5%, known endotherms
Let's consider the equations of life. First, the aerobic respiration equation, the primary means by which animal cells operate:
C6H12O6 + 6O2 yields 6CO2 + 6H2O + Energy
(That is, food (glucose) plus oxygen yields waste carbon dioxide and waste water, plus energy).
If an animal's cells can't get enough oxygen, there is a second way of getting energy: the anaerobic respiration equation:
C6H12O6 yields 2C3H6O3 + Energy
(That is, food yields lactic acid plus energy (although much less than the aerobic respiration.) Lactic acid itself needs oxygen to break down, so you cannot run on anaerobic respiration for very long.
If you want to evolve endothermy, you need to:
- Increase glucose intake, plus...
- Increase oxygen intake, plus...
- Increase the speed of distribution of glucose and oxygen throughout the body, plus...
- Deal with excess carbon dioxide, water, and heat.
So, where do we stand on dinosaur metabolism?
- All living dinosaurs (Aves) are endothermic tachymetabolic homeotherms
- The living outgroups (crocodilians, lepidosaurs, turtles) are all ectothermic bradymetabolic heterotherms
- Non-avian dinosaurs show many anatomical features suggesting levels of activity higher and/or more continuous than that seen in modern "cold-blooded" animals
- Non-avian dinosaurs show growth patterns comparable to those of modern endotherms, and unlike those of modern and extinct ectotherms
What would be necessary to justify the above observations?
- Non-avian dinosaurs would need active ventilation (breathing) to power the muscles and to fuel the growing tissue
- Non-avian dinosaurs would need strong, active heart to get the oxygen to the muscles and tissues
- Non-avian dinosaurs would need structures to control heat
Is there evidence for these features in dinosaurs? YES!:
- As we saw last lecture, dinosaurs had rather sophisticated breathing apparatus, to obtain lots of oxygen and get rid of lots of waste carbon dioxide
- As we also saw, dinosaurs had efficient four-chambered hearts to transport oxygen and nutrients to the body, and to transport waste products to the appropriate organs to remove them
- What about controlling heat?
Keeping the Heat In; Insulation Issues: One problem that small-bodied organisms encounter is the fact that a small organism has a much higher surface area/volume ratio than a large one. Because of this, small animals tend to lose heat much faster than big ones. In contrast, large animals lose heat to or gain heat from the outside world only gradually. This has led some people to suggest the possibility that large dinosaurs exhibited "gigantothermy": effective homeothermy achieved because of large body size. However, this would not apply to small-bodied dinosaurs: either adults of small species or the hatchlings of giants. So how could these keep warm?
There is strong evidence that many--if not most--of the theropods had a fuzzy body insulation over the body: true feathers in the advanced groups, simpler "protofeathers" in the primitive ones. Such fuzz would help keep the warmth in the body. In fact, this is the primary function of the fur of mammals, and one of the functions of body feathers in birds. The recent discovery of 1.4 t Yutyrannus demonstrates that even some giant theropods were fuzzy.
Recent discovery of the early Late Jurassic Chinese ornithischian Tianyulong and the similar aged Kulindadromeus of Siberia showed they too had a fuzzy body covering over at least part of its body! If this is found to be homologous to the protofeathers of tetanurine theropod saurischians it would suggest that the concestor of all dinosaurs was fuzzy, and that dinosaurs were thus fuzzy ancestrally! (In the case of Kulindadromeus, there are also also sscales, plates, and additional bizarre tufted plates.) At present, however, there is enough uncertainty to make the homology between Tianyulong's fuzz, Kulindadromeus's diverse integument, and tetanurine protofeathers suspicious. (But do not be terribly surprised if in the future we discover that most dinosaurs were fuzzy to some degree or another! All we need is a fuzzy primitive sauropodomorph, and it is basically a done deal!)
Warm-blooded Protocrocs?: Most studies assume that endothermy evolved sometime after the bird lineage (Ornithodira) and the crocodilian lineage (Pseudosuchia) diverged from each other. This is because crocodilians are ectotherms, as are all the next several outgroups (lepidosaurs, turtles). However, what if crocodilians were not ancestrally ectotherms, but instead reverted to a cold-blooded physiology from warm-blooded ancestors?
There is some evidence that this is the case:
This has led to speculation that the ancestral archosaurs were in fact more warm-blooded than crocodilians, and that the latter evolved "cooler blood" after the divergence of their lineage from other types of pseudosuchians. Thus, the origin of avian warm-bloodedness would not have occurred within Dinosauria, but at least in part before the bird line-croc line split.
- Most extinct outgroups to the living crocodilians had a more upright stance (in fact, many of them parasagittal) allowing for more aerobic breathing (and at least one genus shows growth rates comparable to dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and mammals)
- Crocs retain many ancestral features (unidirectional flow in the lungs; four chambered heart; etc.) that are useful for endotherms but not at all required for ectotherms (since lepidosaurs, turtles, and amphibians do fine without them)
- Crocs have mitochondria of the "leaky" type used in endotherms to generate extra heat: however, they have far fewer of them per cell than living birds and mammals.
- Living crocodilians are aquatic ambush predators living in thermally stable environments: these are conditions which would favor selection away from high metabolic rates to slower ones
A New(-ish) Idea: Mesothermy
In 2014 a study came out proposing that dinosaurs were intermediate between endotherms and ecotherms, and the authors termed them "mesotherms". (In fact, Dr. Scott Sampson had proposed the concept and the name "mesothermy" years earlier...). The particular study estimated both the maximum growth rate of fossil dinosaurs and their inferred metabolic rate (based in part on growth rate, so the whole study may wind up being a circular argument...). They found that most Mesozoic dinosaurs (including Archaeopteryx) fell in a range intermediate between where modern endotherms and modern ectotherms plotted (but in the same region as such animals as tunas, sharks, echidnas, etc.)
The authors interpreted this to mean that dinosaurs had the ability to generate internal heat, but did not greatly regulate their
body temperature. So in fact, what they call "mesothermy" is technically not intermediate between endothermy and ectothermy, but between homeothermy and poikiliothermy. And thus dinosaurs in their interpretation would be in terms of this course endothermic mesotherms. In their interpretation, the rise of actual warm-bloodedness in the bird lineage occurred somewhere well within Pygostylia. Future analyses will have to be done to see if this model is upheld.
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Last modified: 30 March 2017