When Dinosaurs Ruled The Mind #24: Trope-osaurus: Sauropod Swamps

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The image is iconic and irresistible. It’s basically the poster image of the Age of Dinosaurs itself. Giant longed necked sauropods wading around in swamps, reaching down into the water to feed on the reeds and algae. But scientists know better now, and sauropods would never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever be caught dead in a watery environment. No, it can’t even THINK about going into the water. No No No No No.

I know I’m trying to make a point here, but what it was I kind of forgot. 

Alright, enough with the jokes. My point is that even though it’s funny now to see old artwork depicting sauropods completely submerged in water, I also think it’s funny how some modern scientists/artists react to this newer information. It’s not that uncommon for some to outright reject any modern artwork that depicts sauropods in the water. But my question is:

Sad Dinosaur

OK, I think it’s best we go back to the beginning for this. Just how did the image of sauropods inhabiting swamps become so popular?

Back when sauropods were first discovered, scientists weren’t exactly sure what to make of them. And who would blame them? How would you react if you first discovered giant whale sized reptiles once roamed the earth? Scientists had a hard time believing that such a large animal could support itself on solid ground, so some scientists concluded that these giant beasts must have lived most of their life in the water to fully support their massive weight. This depiction became very popular to artists, and the image was adopted to most paleo-art of the time. These depictions ranged from sauropods wading in water up to their hips to sauropods living completely submerged with only their heads sticking out of the surface.

As seen in the above picture with the Brachiosaurus, it was once thought that sauropod’s nostrils were on the top of their head, and this allowed them to breathe when submerged underwater. We now believe that what looked like nostrils on the top of the skull actually housed a large resonating chamber (or a trunk depending on whom you’re asking) and sauropods had nostrils where most creatures do. So there goes that line of evidence.

Oh well, at least the theory wasn’t as wacky as Parasaurolophus using its crest as a snorkel.

Scientists sure loved their semi-aquatic dinosaurs back in the day. 

The idea that such large animals would live their entire lives completely submerged in water was later questioned, for the pressure in water that deep would certainly crush the animals lungs. So no, sauropods weren’t giant hippos. But that doesn’t mean they waded around in knee-high water, right?

This depiction remained so ingrained to the creatures that many, from scientists to artists to the public eye, had a hard time letting it go. so the image persisted. Scientists were however getting more and more proof for the dinosaurs being land based creatures. The original theory that sauropods couldn’t support their own weight on land was debunked, so that excuse was no longer valid. Other theories (such as the above nostril one) that seemed to support a water based lifestyle were later discredited. One other theory was that the hollow areas in the dinosaurs vertebrae that contained air sacs would help the animals stay afloat, but these air sacs and hollow bones probably helped the animal to grow so big on land. Besides, large sauropods probably wouldn’t have been able to control themselves very well in deep water, especially brachiosaurs, which were very top heavy. Nope, things weren’t looking good for the aquatic sauropod, and now we regularly see these dinosaurs depicted as exclusive land lovers.

So, we’ve discovered that sauropods weren’t reptilian whales. But some scientists ans artists have tried to take it further. If you even attempt to depict a sauropod in a watery environment, you’ll get berated. There have been some arguments for sauropods not getting close to water, like that they would get stuck in mud before they even get in and things like that. But animal behavior is almost never absolute. Just because an animal doesn’t spend most of it’s time in the water doesn’t mean it would never step foot in it. Take elephants for example. Looking at their skeleton, nothing about them indicates that they would be good swimmers. They are pretty much well made land animals. But what a skeleton can’t tell you is that elephants do love the water and are actually great swimmers, even though they have no special adaptations for it. In fact, many animals can swim that don’t specifically live in the water. I don’t find fault in modern depictions showing sauropods wading in a swamp. And this isn’t because of some nostalgic need to see this image again. I’m sure all dinosaurs got in the water at least some of the time, including large carnivores. I would love to see dinosaurs like Triceratops and Ankylosaurus playing around in the water and rolling in the mud in more illustrations. Sauropods may not have lived in the water, but it still isn’t wrong to draw them in the water.

Next time…ughh.

This is going to hurt soooooo much.

Don't fight it.

Don’t fight it.

You've only got yourself to blame.

You’ve only got yourself to blame.

Yes hijo, we'll see you soon.

Yes hijo, we’ll see you soon.


Walking With Dinosaurs 3D is next.


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