These Dinosaurs Had a Complicated Air Conditioner in Their Skull

Wed, 21 Jul 2021 07:00:00 GMT
Scientific American - Science

Cooling 5,000-pound, armor-plated giants was no small feat

Paleontologist Lawrence M. Witmer has discovered that a group of dinosaurs called ankylosaurs had a secret weapon.

Ankylosaurs' thick full-body armor protected them from predators, but it did not allow much heat to escape from their huge body.

Using advanced scanning and 3-D modeling technologies in his Ohio University lab, Witmer and his colleagues discovered that Euoplocephalus, a genus of ankylosaurs, had strange corkscrew-shaped nasal passages that Witmer likens to a "Child's crazy straw."

Jason Bourke, a former doctoral student of Witmer's, now at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State, modeled the dinosaur's nasal airflow and found the corkscrew shape allowed the passages to act like the coils inside a modern air conditioner.

They helped cool ankylosaurs' blood before it reached the brain, preventing the animals from dying of heat stroke.

Witmer's study is part of a larger research effort to understand how different groups of dinosaurs dealt with the extreme heat of their environment.

In in ankylosaur fossils, the answer was relatively easy to find: their nasal passages were well-preserved inside their bony skull.

The answer is proving more elusive in dinosaurs whose skull had large openings, including long-necked sauropods and carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex.

For Witmer, unearthing this knowledge is not strictly about understanding the giants of the past.

"Dinosaurs, in a sense, can give us some insight into how animals today might be able to deal with this increased heat that we see."