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 Do We Wear Costumes on Halloween?

nito100/iStock via Getty Images
nito100/iStock via Getty Images

There’s no one explanation for how Halloween costumes originated. Much like the holiday itself, the practice of dressing up is the result of a hodgepodge of traditions from around the world.

Many historians suspect that the tradition has some basis in the Celtic festival of Samhain (also called Calan Gaeaf in Wales). Celebrated between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, Samhain marks the official start of winter—known to the Celts as the “dark season.” During Samhain, “the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to humankind,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

That wasn’t a comfort to the ancient Celts, who believed their deities were prone to playing tricks on human worshippers. Many festival participants disguised themselves as animals or beasts, hoping to hide from malevolent spirits who might bring them misfortune.

Move forward a few centuries and the modern-day practice of dressing up and trick-or-treating has its roots in the European custom of “mumming and guising.” Mummers would dress up in costumes, often woven from straw, and perform plays and songs for neighbors in exchange for food. Scottish and Irish immigrants brought that tradition to North America, where it later morphed into what we now know as trick-or-treating.

Halloween costumes didn’t experience their true heyday until the mid-1900s, though. For that, you can thank New York City entrepreneurs Ben and Nat Cooper, who started a company producing pop culture-themed costumes at a low cost. Ben Cooper, Inc., found a niche in helping kids become the characters they admired from television and comic books, often purchasing merchandising rights before said characters ever became popular. Due in no small part to the Cooper family’s innovation, Halloween costumes became an accessible and even necessary part of holiday festivities.

Today, Halloween costumes are big business. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend about $3.2 billion on costumes this year (of that, about half a billion will go to costuming pets). You have to wonder what the ancient Celts would have thought about today’s Halloween costumes.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER