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Ostriches Offer Clues to Dinosaur Motion

Ostrich wings, in addition to use in display and thermoregulation, let the giant birds make subtle, quick movements. Which could help researchers better understand the behavior of bipedal dinosaurs. Cynthia Graber reports

Sometimes it seems there’s only so much we can learn about dinosaurs. We can’t know what their coloration looked like, we can’t watch them interact with each other. We can only extrapolate from their remains. But now scientists say we can discern a hint of dinosaur movement – from ostriches.

The giant, flightless birds still have feathered forelimbs that scientists assumed were now solely used for display and temperature regulation. But researchers from Germany and Belgium carefully observed hand-raised ostriches, and modeled their movement in the surrounding air streams. They found that far from being useless in movement, the leftover wings help ostriches break quickly, turn, and zig-zag. The scientists [Nina Schaller et al.] presented their findings at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference in Prague.

Ostriches are descendants of dinosaurs, and the researchers liken ostrich movements to those of bipedal dinosaurs. Paleontologists had previously thought that some dinos’ small forelimbs had served to catch insects or rip flesh. But this new research shows dinosaurs may have used their forelimbs to help with quickness, stability and agility. Further study in this field could lead to more accurate ideas of what it once looked like when dinosaurs went dashing through their prehistoric landscape.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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