Triumph of the Titans: How Sauropods Flourished

The long-necked dinosaurs known as sauropods, once seen as icons of extinction, thrived for millions of years all around the world
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Illustration by Raúl Martin

Ever since fossils of the behemoth, long-necked dinosaurs known as sauropods surfaced in England nearly 170 years ago, they have awed and confused scientists. Even when the great English anatomist Sir Richard Owen recognized in 1842 that dinosaurs constituted a group of their own, apart from reptiles, he excluded the gigantic bones later classified as sauropods. Instead he interpreted them as belonging to a type of aquatic crocodile, which he had named Cetiosaurus, or “whale lizard,” for the enormous size of its bones. Nearly 30 years later, in 1871, University of Oxford geologist John Phillips would report the discovery of a Cetiosaurus skeleton sufficiently complete to reveal that, far from being an aquatic crocodile, the animal spent at least some of its time on land.

Phillips’s assessment caused considerable consternation among paleontologists for decades—they just could not conceive how such a massive animal could support its weight on land. Because sauropods were perceived as animals without a place, unsuited for land or sea, they came to be seen as unwieldy, overgrown, archaic herbivores fated for rapid extinction or, at least, marginalization by more “advanced” dinosaurs. As recently as 1991, scientists argued that sauropods were far from the apex of dinosaur success and only flourished in the absence of more specialized plant-eating dinosaurs. In this view, these giants of the Jurassic period, between about 200 million and 145 million years ago, gave way to bigger-brained, better-adapted herbivores in the Cretaceous, between some 145 million and 65.5 million years ago, such as the duckbilled hadrosaurs and horned ceratopsians, which outcompeted the sauropods and pushed them to the fringe.

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