Aims and Objectives
As body size is a fundamental feature of every organism, its minima and maxima are of particular interest. The maxima no longer exist in today's animal world; therefore fossil forms have to be used in order to undertake an investigation of the upper limits of body size: the sauropod dinosaurs.
Sauropod dinosaurs like Apatosaurus or Brachiosaurus are the biggest animals to have ever inhabited the land and exceeded the total body mass of the largest elephants by a factor of 10. Sauropod dinosaurs are distinguished by their long necks and small heads, which were supported by a four-legged body. Their diet was exclusively plants, and with this way of life they were very successful for over 140 million years.
The Research Unit has two main objectives, with one building on top of the other: to understand these giant animals as a living organism and to answer the question how they were able to reach their enormous size. The biology of the sauropods is being researched by examining three sets of questions: growth and reproduction, physiology and diet as well as biomechanics. The fundamental data includes the bone microstructure, fossil eggs, and the chemistry of the bone as well as the bones themselves. Comparison with living animals is also being conducted, e.g. investigations into the digestibility of the presumed food plants, many examples of which still grow today.
Understanding the energy budget of the sauropod dinosaurs plays a central role in the question of gigantism. The question is less about the evolutionary increase in the body size (this is a quite a well-known phenomenon), but about the limitations of elephants and other mammals to approximately 10 tons of body mass, and in contrast, the sauropods to approximately 80 tons. Possibly, the life-support functions of Apatosaurus and related species worked more efficiently than those of other land-living animals.
The Research Unit was established in March 2004. The supporting grant in the amount of 2 million Euros was renewed for another three years in 2007 and again in 2010. The Unit is very interdisciplinary and consists of 13 workgroups from five disciplines (palaeontology, zoology, animal nutrition, geochemistry and material science). Working groups are spread over different locations in Germany and Switzerland, with the project coordinator and administration based at the Steinmann Institute for Geology, Mineralogy, and Palaeontology, University of Bonn. Four of the working groups are based at Bonn while others are located in Berlin, Bochum, Düsseldorf, Flensburg, Frankfurt, Mainz, Munich, and Zurich. The greatest part of the grant is spent supporting young scientists at the doctoral and postdoctoral level.