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If there ever was a nice dinosaur, it would be the sauropod. In dinosaur movies, they're the plant-eating giants with impossibly long necks and big, cow-like eyes. Sauropods were also hardy survivors. They outlasted just about every other dinosaur species. Scientists say they now have new clues as to why. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Michael D'Emic, paleontologist, studies sauropod bones.
MICHAEL D'EMIC: If you want to study sauropods, you need help, a forklift, assistance.
JOYCE: A forklift because...
D'EMIC: Sauropods are the biggest animals that ever lived.
JOYCE: By a country mile.
D'EMIC: It's not by a little margin. They really take the prize.
JOYCE: A sauropod could grow to be 120 feet long, weigh more than a humpback whale and carry all that on four legs. That, says D'Emic, is what fascinated him.
D'EMIC: What can nature do? And how does it do it at the biggest of scales?
JOYCE: So D'Emic put sauropod bones under a microscope and in a CT scanner at Adelphi University, where he works. Not just any sauropod - a baby that hatched and died within weeks, an extremely rare find. He learned and published in the journal Science that this guy grew quickly.
D'EMIC: It grew right out of the gate, roaring out of the gate extremely fast.
JOYCE: Growth marks inside the bones indicated that when it hatched, the animal weighed about 7 pounds.
D'EMIC: And by the time it died just several weeks later, it was weighing upwards of 80 or 90 pounds - a Chihuahua to Great Dane in six or seven weeks.
JOYCE: D'Emic says growing fast would have been a good strategy when size is your best defense against predators. He says his discovery is part of a renaissance in sauropod research lately. Lots of new fossils are turning up. The most spectacular is arguably the most complete skull ever found. This one is from Argentina.
MATT LAMANNA: The head is the most important part to have.
JOYCE: Matt Lamanna is a paleontologist with the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He says the skull is the Rosetta Stone for understanding behavior.
LAMANNA: You know, how it fed, what the brain was like, what the senses were like - you know, what made the animal tick.
JOYCE: The team called this new species Sarmientosaurus and describe their 19-year study of the animals in the journal PLOS One. They did a CAT scan of the skull. And in the sort of reverse engineering, they figured out what the brain and sense organs must have looked like.
LAMANNA: For instance, the middle ear seems to be adapted for hearing low-frequency sounds. Whatever that might mean, we're not totally sure.
JOYCE: Modern-day elephants and whales communicate with low-frequency sound. The team also has the neck bones containing something that looks like a tendon running through the neck. Lamanna says he has no idea what it was for.
LAMANNA: Nothing like this has ever been found in any dinosaur so far in history.
JOYCE: Lamanna says, taken together, these discoveries are finally revealing the secrets of the dinosaur age's ultimate survivors. For over 150 million years, they were too big to fail. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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