Lowland–upland migration of sauropod dinosaurs during the Late Jurassic epoch

Abstract

Sauropod dinosaurs were the largest vertebrates ever to walk the Earth, and as mega-herbivores they were important parts of terrestrial ecosystems. In the Late Jurassic-aged Morrison depositional basin of western North America, these animals occupied lowland river-floodplain settings characterized by a seasonally dry climate1,2. Massive herbivores with high nutritional and water needs could periodically experience nutritional and water stress under these conditions, and thus the common occurrence of sauropods in this basin has remained a paradox. Energetic arguments and mammalian analogues have been used to suggest that migration allowed sauropods access to food and water resources over a wide region or during times of drought or both3,4, but there has been no direct support for these hypotheses. Here we compare oxygen isotope ratios (δ18O) of tooth-enamel carbonate from the sauropod Camarasaurus with those of ancient soil, lake and wetland (that is, ‘authigenic’) carbonates that formed in lowland settings. We demonstrate that certain populations of these animals did in fact undertake seasonal migrations of several hundred kilometres from lowland to upland environments. This ability to describe patterns of sauropod movement will help to elucidate the role that migration played in the ecology and evolution of gigantism of these and associated dinosaurs.

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Figure 1: Fossil localities, inferred oxygen isotope ratios of surface water and possible Camarasaurus migration routes.
Figure 2: Oxygen isotope ratios of serial enamel samples compared with position relative to the base of the tooth for ten different teeth from DNM.

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Acknowledgements

We thank S. Hartman, D. Lovelace and D. Chure for providing context and fossil specimens. The research was funded in part by National Science Foundation EAR-0319041 and Colorado College. We thank G. Olack and A. Colman for the phosphate oxygen isotope analyses, supported by National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation award EAR 0923831.

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J.H. analysed samples and interpreted data from Dinosaur National Monument; M.E.H. analysed samples, interpreted data from Thermopolis and did the statistical analysis. H.C.F. designed the study, aided in data interpretation and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Henry C. Fricke.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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The file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary References, Supplementary Figure 1 with a legend and Supplementary Tables 1-4. (PDF 1271 kb)

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Fricke, H., Hencecroth, J. & Hoerner, M. Lowland–upland migration of sauropod dinosaurs during the Late Jurassic epoch. Nature 480, 513–515 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10570

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