Why Were Dinosaurs So Large and Why Don't Animals of That Scale Exist Today?

iStock.com/Kirkikis
iStock.com/Kirkikis

Untorne Nislav:

Before we start, what you need to realize is that dinosaurs were definitely large, but not so large. You probably know the numbers: the largest land mammals ever are around 6–8 meters long (19-26 feet), while the largest dinosaurs were … is it 40 meters (131 feet)?

Damn, what a number!

However, numbers can be veeeery misleading. Look at the second-largest land mammal ever, Indricotherium, and one of the largest dinosaurs, Brachiosaurus, here.

The difference seems to be incomparable …

However …

Those are two entirely different body shapes: most of the brachiosaur's length is used up by its enormous neck and tail. To make it fair, I want you to use your two thumbs: place one over the dinosaur’s neck, and the other over the tail (hopefully, you are not reading this from a touchscreen).

And suddenly, enormous becomes quite … normous. Obviously, Brachiosaurus is still larger than Indricotherium, but it's not four times larger like the numbers would suggest. The real, fair difference between the two is roughly the same as the difference between an elephant and a hippo:

An elephant behind a number of hippos near the water.
iStock.com/JurgaR

Moral of the story: don't let the body shape mislead you.

So here's the answer to the "so large" part of your question: because they weren't.

However, there is still some "true" difference in size to account for. And at least two factors could've contributed to it:

1) Different rules of herbivory.

In the age of mammals, the most effective strategy of herbivory is grazing.

A large herd of wildebeests in a field.
iStock.com/WLDavies

Grasslands are super-effective. The two most productive mammal-dominated ecosystems ever are savannas and (now gone) mammoth steppes: both can feed enormous numbers of huge mammals. With grasses growing at insane rates everywhere, no other food source on Earth can provide for such high mammalian biomasses.

Moral of the story: if you want to grow up big and full, eat grasses.

However, it wasn't always so. In times of dinosaurs, grasses didn't exist. So, the largest animals then were forced to resort to the second-best herbivory strategy: browsing.

image of a brachiosaurus eating leaves from a tree
iStock.com/MR1805

Tree foliage doesn't grow like grasses, yet still there's usually a considerable amount of it per area unit, because it overlaps vertically many times.

Dinosaurs that fed from canopies could afford to grow large: for thermoregulation or defense from predators—usual reasons.

However …

Any animal that grows too big inevitably experiences difficulties with food. At present, any herbivore that became too large would likely just move onto grasses. But dinosaurs couldn't. Hence, the only solution that they had was to grow necks even longer to get even more foliage. But if you grow a larger neck, you also need a larger tail (for balance). Then, you also need broader and thicker bones for all those muscles to attach, stronger legs to support the extra tons of weight, and so on and so on.

Effectively, it was a dead loop: dinosaurs became large, then they grew longer necks to support the growing need for food, which in turn made them become even larger, which in turn further increased their need for food. Browsing herbivory was likely the driving force of sauropod size, and in the end, the only limiting factor was probably the height of the highest canopy.

2) Reproductive limitations

This one doesn't really answer the "why sauropods were large?," but the "why mammals aren't that large?".

A typical sauropod was, effectively, a reproductive frog. It laid dozens if not hundreds of small eggs that hatched into very small babies that had little to do with adults: they occupied very different niches and fed on different food. For sauropods, it killed two problems: firstly, it made pregnancies easy and unnoticeable (which is a factor when you weighed 60 metric tons), and secondly, it removed competition for food between adults and babies.

In other words, sauropods could afford to become as large as necessary without worrying much about how it would affect their pregnancy and reproduction.

On the contrary, being a pregnant 60-tonne (66-ton) mammal is a nightmare—of a real and deadly kind.

All (placental) mammals bear relatively large offspring. However, if you weighed 60 tonnes, that would be … what, 2 tonnes (4400 pounds) heavy offspring? Carrying extra 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of weight at the peak of pregnancy is difficult enough for humans, but having to carry 10 extra tonnes (22,000 pounds) is just impossible, unless you are a whale and swim.

Not to mention that it would be a very long pregnancy.

Not to mention that pregnant females require even more food.

Not to mention that the young must be fed, only to grow up to compete with you for the same food later.

Moral of the story: children are expensive … unless you are a frog or a sauropod.

Q: How about livebearing smaller babies?

There are two problems with this. Firstly, it just doesn't happen. There are relatively small newborns in some placental mammals, but nothing like the difference between sauropod adults and babies.

Secondly, if babies are too small, then they become unavailable for social interactions: in fact, they are better to stay away from parents immediately to avoid being stomped on. Social behavior and learning are the backbone of mammalian success. Trying to get rid of it just isn't worth it.

So in the end, dinosaurs that weren't so large were large because they bred like frogs and because their kitchen was … a little underrepresented.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Are Barns Often Painted Red?

iStock/Ron and Patty Thomas
iStock/Ron and Patty Thomas

Beginning with the earliest American settlements and continuing into the 18th century, most barns weren't painted at all. Early American barn builders took sun exposure, temperature, moisture, wind, and water drainage patterns into account when placing and building barns, and they seasoned the wood (that is, they reduced the moisture content) accordingly. The right type of wood in the right environment held up fine without any paint.

Toward the end of the 1700s, these old-school methods of barn planning and building fell by the wayside. People sought a quicker, easier fix for preserving their barns—a way to coat and seal the wood to protect it from sunlight and moisture damage. Farmers began making their own coating from a mix of linseed oil (a tawny oil derived from the flax seeds), milk, and lime. It dried quickly and lasted a long time, but it didn't really protect the wood from mold and wasn't quite like the "barn red"we know today—it was more of a burnt orange, really.

Turning Red

The problem with mold is that it decays wood and, in large quantities, can pose health risks to people and animals. Rust, it turns out, kills mold and other types of fungi, so farmers began adding ferrous oxide (rusted iron) to the linseed oil mix. A little bit of rust went a long way in protecting the wood, and it gave the barn a nice red hue.

By the late 19th century, mass-produced paints made with chemical pigments became available to most people. Red was the least expensive color, so it remained the most popular for use on barns, except for a brief period when whitewash became cheaper and white barns started popping up. (White barns were also common on dairy farms in some parts of Pennsylvania, central Maryland, and the Shenandoah Valley, possibly because of the color's association with cleanliness and purity.)

Throughout Appalachia (a historically poorer region), many barns went unpainted for lack of money. In the tobacco regions of Kentucky and North Carolina, black and brown barns were the norm, since the dark colors helped heat the barn and cure tobacco.

Today, many barns are still painted the color traditionally used in a given region, with red still dominating the Northeast and Midwest.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story was updated in 2019.

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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