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Vertebral pneumaticity, air sacs, and the physiology of sauropod dinosaurs

  • Mathew J. Wedel (a1)
Abstract

The vertebrae of sauropod dinosaurs are characterized by complex architecture involving laminae, fossae, and internal chambers of various shapes and sizes. These structures are interpreted as osteological correlates of a system of air sacs and pneumatic diverticula similar to that of birds. In extant birds, diverticula of the cervical air sacs pneumatize the cervical and anterior thoracic vertebrae. Diverticula of the abdominal air sacs pneumatize the posterior thoracic vertebrae and synsacrum later in ontogeny. This ontogenetic sequence in birds parallels the evolution of vertebral pneumaticity in sauropods. In basal sauropods, only the presacral vertebrae were pneumatized, presumably by diverticula of cervical air sacs similar to those of birds. The sacrum was also pneumatized in most neosauropods, and pneumatization of the proximal caudal vertebrae was achieved independently in Diplodocidae and Titanosauria. Pneumatization of the sacral and caudal vertebrae in neosauropods may indicate the presence of abdominal air sacs. Air sacs and skeletal pneumaticity probably facilitated the evolution of extremely long necks in some sauropod lineages by overcoming respiratory dead space and reducing mass. In addition, pulmonary air sacs may have conveyed to sauropods some of the respiratory and thermoregulatory advantages enjoyed by birds, a possibility that is consistent with the observed rapid growth rates of sauropods.

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