The world’s largest, oldest, most powerful and most beautiful animal is not one of nature’s most popular attractions.
It’s the one most people think of when they think of dinosaurs.
And, if you’re a dinosaur enthusiast, the fact that a group of researchers in the United States and Canada have managed to preserve its DNA for the first time will be a revelation.
The discovery of this creature has a lot more in common with the discovery of a giant squid than the latest movie blockbuster, says Andrew Hildebrand, a geneticist at the University of California, San Diego.
“We’ve seen some great discoveries like the discovery that the oldest known vertebrate species is a frog, and the discovery [of] a group that lived for millions of years,” he says.
But in the case of the sauropod dinosaur, the researchers didn’t just discover its DNA.
They also discovered that the dinosaur had its own DNA.
It was a “molecular clock”, as it’s called, which tells scientists how the dinosaur evolved over the course of its life.
When the saurian was about 100 million years old, its DNA had a molecular clock that told it when its muscles were fully developed.
“That means we’re seeing this very rapid evolution,” says Hildebrand.
“And it’s not just that you get this gradual and gradual increase in muscle size, you’re also getting a greater increase in bone size and other body parts that we know how to use.”
The sauropods’ skeleton and teeth had the same clock.
And because they were so small, the saurus could also use their hands to pull themselves on land, as well as climb up walls.
Their teeth, meanwhile, were relatively modern compared to modern dinosaurs.
But there was a problem: there was no genetic information on how the dinosaurs worked.
“The only thing we had was a bunch of genetic information, but there was nothing to go off of,” says Richard Dutton, an evolutionary biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“It wasn’t clear what was going on, so it was a bit of a mystery.”
In 2008, a group led by the University to Coral Gables, Florida, took the saurypod DNA to the nearest lab and started to sequence it.
They had already sequenced DNA from other sauropyas, but this one wasn’t one of them.
But it wasn’t until 2012 that they managed to make a complete, detailed genetic sequence of the DNA of this one sauropa.
This allowed the researchers to determine that the saurepods were related to the dinosaurs they’d studied before.
This was the first genetic sequence that they could tell if the dinosaur species they’d been studying had evolved independently from other dinosaurs, or had just recently come into being.
And the genetic information that the researchers got from the DNA sequencing allowed them to reconstruct the dinosaur’s life cycle and to see how many times each generation the sausages evolved, which helps to understand how much time had passed between the species’ creation and the last time they died.
How did they do this?
In 2013, Dutton and his colleagues began a project that used sophisticated computer models to model the life cycle of the dinosaurs and their diet.
In the model, a sauropean ancestor, known as the saura, would be born in the waters of the Pacific Ocean and would be fed by a series of different species of fish and squid.
The scientists then simulated the evolution of the two species over time.
The models had predicted that the dinosaurs would diversify by about 20 million years ago, but that the first generation would only survive to about 120 million years, before the dinosaurs went extinct.
“At the time, we weren’t expecting this, but it just got us going,” says Dutton.
By comparing the dinosaur DNA to DNA from the living sauros, Deng of the Scuola Amazioni National Laboratory in Rome in Italy and his team predicted that about 80 per cent of the species that had lived on Earth for millions or billions of years had evolved over that time.
That means that the species were likely to have evolved at least once over that period, says Deng.
And when the saures evolved, it was because they had adapted to their environment, which is the most likely explanation for why the species diversified, Densons team says.
And in this case, the diversification was probably not an accident, Dung says.
The dinosaurs’ diet has long been a topic of debate.
One hypothesis holds that the dino species adapted to a life of shallow water, which would have led to a greater reliance on their hands for food.
But that’s not how the fossils show up.
In fact, the team’s simulations showed that the most diversified group of saurops had a diet that was closer to that of a modern crocodile.