Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: Dinosaurs PaleobiologyNational Museum of Natural HistorySmithsonian Institution
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What Is a Dinosaur? | Anatomy & Evolution | General Behavior | Where Did They Live? | Why Did They Go Extinct?

General Behavior
Feeding | Reproduction | Locomotion | Social Behavior 


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Locomotion

The limbs of most dinosaurs are rather similar to one another, so the basic aspects of locomotion probably did not differ dramatically from one dinosaur species to the next. Dinosaur locomotion consisted primarily of walking and running, although some forms were probably able to climb and nearly all species could swim. However, dinosaurs show few adaptations for any particularly specialized types of locomotion. For example, although some dinosaurs may have engaged in activities such as digging or climbing, none show any features that would indicate they were especially well adapted for such behavior.

 

Some dinosaurs appear to have been able to run, perhaps relatively quickly. In particular, small ornithopods (such as hypsilophodontids) and long-limbed theropods (such as ornithomimosaurs and troodontids) may have been fast animals. Most herbivorous dinosaurs were not built in this manner, however, but rather resembled elephants or rhinos in their limb design. Large herbivores— ceratopsians, thyreophorans, sauropods, and hadrosaurs—do not appear to have been especially fast animals. And their contemporary large predators were often similarly constructed.

One problem in estimating speed in dinosaurs derives from the varied ways in which bone structure is related to function. "Cursorial", or running, animals such as ungulates and cheetahs tend to have long limbs, especially the segments near the toes. Most of their limb muscles are close to the hip and shoulder. But whereas some cursorial animals are indeed fast runners, others use these limb adaptations for long-distance travel. It is difficult to distinguish between these two strategies from bones alone, and therefore "cursorial" dinosaurs may have been adapted for either mode of locomotion.

Dinosaur footprintFootprints provide important complementary information about dinosaur locomotion. Trackways are especially useful because they record many successive steps from the same individual dinosaur, allowing paleontologists to estimate that animal's speed. Certain trackways show that some smaller dinosaurs may have run at over 35 kph. Most trackways show much slower speeds, probably because these fossils tend to be made in soft sediments where animals were likely to be moving slowly.

On occasion it is possible to view even more specific behaviors. For example, some trackways show dinosaurs sitting down, while others suggest the movements of a large, socially structured herd. Some trackways show animals moving from muddy sediments to firmer ground, and record associated changes in speed.

 

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