What are these unusual body parts good for? What purpose, we wonder, could they serve?
The ears of an elephant, the hump of a camel, the long necks and even longer tails of the huge, plant-eating dinosaurs called sauropods are features that make us curious.
No, your eyes aren't playing tricks. This Apatosaurus louisae is steel and fiberglass, not 150-million-year-old bone.
In 1905 the American Museum of Natural History displayed the first Apatosaurus skeleton ever assembled. Even then scientists knew how to put together the vertebrae, or neck bones, in the correct order. But the questions experts couldn't answer were: What could this enormous animal do with its neck? Could it reach straight up to the treetops?
If sauropods couldn't lift their necks high--as computer models reveal--how did they get enough to eat?
Computer scientist Kent Stevens gave a name to his simulation program before he'd written a line of code. "I just thought DinoMorph™ sounded great," he recalls. Dr. Stevens created a simple program that transformed-or morphed-one dinosaur into another and showed it to his software engineering class.
Necks are good for a lot of things: One of them is getting your head into places your whole body can't go. Sauropods had longer necks than any other animal that ever lived; some stretched almost nine meters (just under 30 feet).
When found, many dinosaur fossils display a strange pose: Their necks are bent dramatically backward. Seeing this position, early dinosaur experts concluded that the animals could hold their necks this way in life.
The hind end of a sauropod dinosaur was an amazing structure. Imagine a tail as long as a school bus. Now imagine that it weighs as much as three grand pianos. Finally, imagine that it's as big as a trash can at one end and as small as a pencil at the other. Congratulations! You've just visualized the rear third of Apatosaurus!
Some sauropod tails look like whips-and the resemblance may not be coincidence. Both are long, relatively broad at the base and narrow at the tip. Recent computer models comparing sauropod tails and bullwhips has revealed a surprise: If moved in particular ways, some tails, like noisemaking whips, could reach supersonic speeds.