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Machines Like Us

Is warm-blooded dinosaur theory right or wrong?

Saturday, 11 August 2012
by Ralph Molnar

Mark Twain reputedly said it wasn’t what he didn’t know that bothered him, but what he knew that wasn’t true. A recent contribution on dinosaur physiology in Nature, by palaeontologist Meike Köhler and her colleagues in Spain and Norway, shows something we “knew” that wasn’t true.

The study challenges the hypothesis that dinosaurs could have been cold-blooded reptiles.

Mammals, being “warm-blooded," generally grow at a constant rate. This growth is recorded in their bones in a backhanded way, as an absence of LAGs (Lines of Arrested Growth).

LAGs are discrete surfaces, seen microscopically as lines in cut surfaces, within bone where the tissue has periodically stopped growing, usually for a season – winter or dry season.

LAGs are found, for example, in bones of modern lizards. They were taken to indicate a low and variable body temperature (being “cold-blooded”) and an associated low, variable metabolic rate. This, in the “off season” when resources were scarce, led to a temporary cessation of bone growth.

But Köhler and her colleagues found that a suite of 41 large, placental mammals – antelope, goats, and deer – from tropical African to northern Europe, produce LAGs.

Since the early 20th century, there have been claims that dinosaurs, like modern mammals, were warm-blooded. Not until the late 1960s were these claims taken seriously with the realisation that birds were living dinosaurs – and birds are “warm-blooded."

With dinosaurs being extinct – except for birds, which obviously are not typical of the extinct dinosaurs – the problem arose of how to improve on just speculating about their physiology.

It’s reasoned that a constant warm body temperature was linked to an elevated metabolic rate, that in turn permitted rapid continuous growth in the young.

This growth could be seen in bone microstructure – bone without LAGs.

LAGs are formed during periods of low metabolism, taken to correspond to periods of low environmental temperature or other seasonal stress. Bones from lab reptiles, where the temperatures through their lives were known, substantiated this notion.

Bones of large placental mammals were thought to be free of LAGs, because of the higher metabolic rates and constant body temperatures in (most) mammals.