Were dinosaurs “warm-blooded” like present-day mammals and birds, or “cold-blooded” like present day lizards? The implications of this simple-sounding question go beyond deciding whether or not you’d snuggle up to a dinosaur on a cold winter’s evening.
In a study published this week in the journal PLoS ONE, a team of researchers, including Herman Pontzer, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, has found strong evidence that many dinosaur species were probably warm-blooded.
If dinosaurs were endothermic (warm-blooded) they would have had the potential for athletic abilities rivalling those of present day birds and mammals, and possibly similar quick thinking and complicated behaviours as well¬. Their internal furnace would have enabled them to live in colder habitats that would kill ectotherms (cold-blooded animals), such as high mountain ranges and the polar regions, allowing them to cover the entire Mesozoic landscape. These advantages would have come at a cost, however; endothermic animals require much more food than their ectothermic counterparts because their rapid metabolisms fatally malfunction if they cool down too much, and so a constant supply of fuel is required.
Pontzer worked with colleagues John R. Hutchinson and Vivian Allen from the Structure and Motion Laboratory at the Royal Veterinary College, UK, to bring a combination of simple measurements, rigorous computer modeling techniques and their knowledge of physiology in present-day animals to bear in a new study on this hot topic. Using their combined experience, the authors set out to determine whether a variety of dinosaurs and closely related extinct animals were endothermic or ectothermic, and when, where and how often in the dinosaur family tree this important trait may have evolved.
“It’s exciting to apply our studies of living animals back to the fossil record to test different evolutionary scenarios,” Pontzer said. “I work on the evolution of human locomotion, using studies of living humans and other animals to figure out the gait and efficiency of our earliest fossil ancestors. When I realized this approach could be applied to the dinosaur record, I contacted John Hutchinson, an expert on dinosaur locomotion, and suggested we collaborate on this project. Our results provide strong evidence that many dinosaur species were probably warm-blooded. The debate on this issue will no doubt continue, but we hope our study will add a useful new line of evidence.”