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The dinosaur resting pose debate: some thoughts for artists

June 15 , 2016

by Mark Witton

A recurrent topic of conversation among palaeoartists concerns how non-avialan dinosaurs rested. Specifically, were they constrained to crouching down and lying on their bellies like modern birds (above), or could they lounge on their sides, rest with limbs beneath their bodies, and generally adopt more varied resting poses? I've always thought that there's no reason to confine depictions of reposed dinosaurs to avian-like squatting poses and, based mostly on personal experiences of modern animals, it has never seemed outlandish to depict a theropod resting on its side, or a horned dinosaur sitting on its legs or whatever. This is evidenced by some of the art I've posted here in the last few years, some of which is reproduced below. But reasonably frequent mention of this topic on social media suggests that not everyone has this attitude, so I thought it might be of interest to discuss this in more depth. What do Mesozoic dinosaur skeletons, trace fossils, and modern animals tell us about Mesozoic dinosaur resting poses, and how might we approach this topic as artists?

A necessary caveat
Asking general questions about how extinct dinosaurs did anything is increasingly difficult to answer in a succinct, concise manner. Dinosauria is an enormous group of animals with huge diversity in body size, gait, proportions, soft-tissue anatomies and so on. These are all things which impact the way an animal might sit or lie down, and in all likelihood there is no one answer to this inquiry. What works for a troodontid may not work for an ankylosaurid, and what works for these may not apply to a sauropod. While there's some merit to taking a general approach to this discussion (and that's what we'll be doing here), this point is something to bear in mind as we go through. The actual answer to this question will be multifaceted, and found through dedicated study of specific dinosaur groups.

What the fossil record tells us
Crouching dinosaur traces attributed to bipedal theropods and ornithopods are known from the track record (e.g. Lockley et al. 2003; Milner et al. 2009 and references therein), and these are often used as evidence for dinosaurs generally adopting bird-like, crouched resting postures. Such impressions cannot be regarded as common, but are easily identified by the elongate footprint impressions where the long metatarsal bones and ankle are impressed into the ground behind the toe prints. That at least some of these crouching traces show stationary behaviours, and not crawling or stooping, is evidenced by the symmetrical position of the footprints and impressions of an ischial callosity (the soft-tissue covering the posterior prong of the dinosaur pelvis). These pelvic traces show that the body was in contact with the ground when these traces were made, and that it was not being dragged forwards. Clearly, these animals were, at least partly, letting the ground take some of their weight.

We don't just have to look to trace fossils for evidence of crouching behaviour. On rare occasions, remains of dinosaurs are found that were more-or-less entombed alive in ash or sediment, revealing details of their postures at time of death. Famous examples of such occurrences include several troodontids (Russell and Dong 1993; Xu and Norell 2004; Gao et al. 2012) and protoceratopsids (Fastovsky et al. 1997). These also consistently show dinosaurs resting on their bellies in crouched postures, legs folded up either side of their bodies in a very avian manner.

This is starting to seem like we've already solved the debate, but we might want to think about what these data are actually telling us. Our footprint data, and much of our crouching-death-pose skeletons, pertains to smaller bipedal dinosaurs, and we don't have any comparable data for the other bauplans. I don't know about you, but my chief interest in this discussion isn't really the small bipeds: it's the stegosaurs, the sauropods, the ceratopsids etc: those big animals that are different enough from modern species that their day-to-day behaviours are not obvious. And there's certainly enough strange stuff going on in their anatomy to caution against simply applying what we see in small bipedal dinosaurs across the entire group.

Secondly, it's interesting that we only sometimes see hand prints associated with crouching traces (Milner et al. 2009). When we do, we tend to see evidence of the palms and digits, not of whole forearms, as we might expect from a fully resting, lying animal. So are these animals actually lying down, or just sitting? Have they crouched down to truly rest, or are they performing some other behaviour (e.g. foraging, preening etc.)? I find it interesting that crouching traces can occur multiple times within trackways (Lockley et al. 2003), and that others show evidence of animals shifting weight and changing direction. Such instances seem to record sitting, but still 'active' individuals. Studies of modern animal behaviour are relevant here. When researching bird sleeping postures, I found Almaner and Ball (1983) had similar misgivings about the idea of immobile birds being 'inactive' or merely 'resting'. Based on their observations, they divided avian 'loafing' behaviour (that is, behaviour adopted when the bird is generally immobile) into multiple types of activity, of which only one is resting. Looking through their categories of loafing behaviour (below), none seem outlandish when applied to dinosaurs and I wonder what those prints made by stationary, crouched dinosaurs really represent: resting is really only one option. It may be that further examination of 'resting' traces can turn up more information. That said, I'm aware of slightly frustrating experiments with modern emus where even optimal substrates for track formation do not record additional trace evidence of activities like feeding from crouched positions (Milàn 2006). But, hey, we can still be optimistic that more data and insights will come in time.

Those skeletons preserved in life position are also worthy of further comment. Generally speaking, these represent animals caught in catastrophic events - volcanic eruptions, sandstorms and so forth - and we probably should not assume that these animals were just 'resting' when they were entombed in sediment. Indeed, the orientation of Protoceratops skeletons in Mongolian bone beds is non-random, and sedimentological data indicates they were facing into strong sandstorms when they died (Fastovsky et al. 1997). They were certainly crouched, but in all likelihood they were not relaxed and taking it easy: quite contrarily, it seems reasonable to assume they died during attempts to weather a storm, doing their best to hunker down against flying sand, collapsing dunes and all manner of other terrible events. An apt analogy here might be reading the Pompeii ash mummies as representing stereotypical human resting postures: some were found lying down, but that doesn't mean they were relaxing when they died.

On a related note, I also wonder how we would identify a dinosaur that died deliberately resting on its side rather than being moved into that pose by taphonomic processes. Most animals require effort to remain vertical, be it crouched or otherwise, and it's obvious when we find crouching dinosaurs that their pose reflects something of their final behaviours. But how do we distinguish a dinosaur preserved having a nap on its side from one that simply died and fell over, or was washed up on a riverbank or whatever?

All this considered, my point here is not that these data are meaningless when it comes to discussions of dinosaur resting postures. They clearly show that many Mesozoic dinosaurs did naturally crouch in an avian-like manner, and there's no problem with assuming this has some bearing on resting poses. But I do not think this data is without complications, nor that it is complete enough to tell us the whole story here. We probably need to look elsewhere for additional information.

The search for modern analogues

Another approach we can take to this problem is to look at how modern animals sit and rest. Birds are often hailed as the best insight here, and for obvious reasons. But are birds good models for Mesozoic dinosaurs? Modern birds represent an extremely derived group of dinosaurs, and their anatomy has been heavily influenced by the development of flight adaptations. That means that many anatomical aspects we should consider here - body shape, flexibility of vertebrae and limb joints, muscle mass and so on - are quite far removed from their Mesozoic cousins. Their torsos, for instance, are proportionally short and broad, and rendered inflexible by osteological fusions and large flight muscle masses. Their hips are similarly broad, thanks to reconfiguration of their internal organs and their hindlimb musculature is immense - a consequence of their launch strategy as well as reconfiguration of the leg to primarily flex at the knee, rather than the hip, during terrestrial locomotion. Their necks and heads are also extremely lightweight, and capable of being withdrawn over the body to rest on the chest. All these things considered, it's not surprising that birds almost always (see below) rest in crouching postures. Some parts of their anatomy are well suited to it, and others almost dictate it. Despite these derivations, some dinosaurs - theropods and small bipedal ornithischians - are certainly closer to this morphology than any other living groups, and birds probably are their best analogue for resting behaviours.

But what about other species? We might look to other reptiles for further insight here. Lizards, turtles and crocodylians are like birds in that they rest on their bellies, although they tend to be less fussy about the placement of their limbs (I often find my own pet reptiles looking like they just flopped down mid-step, legs and arms at all sorts of angles. It doesn't look comfortable, but I guess it must be). But do these animals really have an alternative? Their bodies are very broad but shallow, and their limbs project laterally from the torso. It's hard to imagine them achieving a stable resting posture by doing anything other than lying on their bellies.

The body shapes of living reptiles are pretty distinct from those of sauropods or many ornithischians, and I don't think these animals provide much assistance with our inquiry. For these groups, a case can be made for their basic form being more akin to those of modern mammals than any living reptile. Like mammals, they tend to have deep, narrow chests, (see illustrations in Paul 2010 and Goldfinger 2005), and many lack the rigid structural bracing and expansive chest muscles that we see in birds. For some dinosaur groups, the limbs of large land mammals are better models than the light, flexible limbs of birds, and the fact many mammals are quadrupedal is also of utility here. The relative weight of mammalian heads, and flexibility of their necks, may be more comparable to some dinosaurian bauplans than avian ones too, and mammals are also our best (and only) modern analogue of larger Mesozoic dinosaur body masses. The latter is important to this discussion as shifting weight around between standing and reclining, as well as considering weight bearing during the rest phase, are factors here.

All these points considered, maybe the body shapes and masses of mammals offer some of the most useful analogues for non-bipedal dinosaur resting poses and related mechanics? Mammals are, of course, far more flexible in their approach to resting than reptiles. Even large mammals like elephants, hippos, rhinos and large bovids are capable of crouching and lounging on their sides, and even modest-sized species will sometimes rest on their backs. I imagine this is because deep-chested large animals are top-heavy when crouched, so flopping over to one side is likely to be far more relaxing and stable. The fact that our largest land animals can spend hours on their sides without dying of asphyxiation is a good indication that this may not have been a concern for large dinosaurs, either. A big elephant is going to weigh as much as many big dinosaurs and, while the biggest hadrosaurs and sauropods were likely heavier, it's useful to have confirmation that 5-6 tonne creatures can lie down for extended periods without problem. I often wonder if the idea of animals crushing their lungs and other organs when lying down is a bit of a myth, or at least overstated. Even large stranded whales, weighing many times more than our largest elephants, can survive for days on land before dying. The fact is most beached whales die of complications related to the injuries and diseases that led to their stranding in the first place, and this generally happens long before their lungs or other organs are crushed.

So maybe our best models are birds for bipeds, and mammals for everything else? Perhaps, but for all this talk of typical resting postures and so on, we should mention that some animals lie down in ways that would not be expected from their anatomy or taxonomic associations. This includes modern dinosaurs. For example, resting ratites (particularly young individuals) will sometimes sit with their legs completely stretched out behind them (Amlaner and Ball 1983). Sleeping ratites, and some other birds, do not tuck their beaks under their wings, or rest them on their chests, but rest their entire neck on the ground (Amlaner and Ball 1983). Sunbathing gamebirds (including poultry) are known to roll on their sides and back, both feet clearly visible on one side of the body, and will fall asleep in that posture if undisturbed (example). As is usual in biology, there are enough complications in our nice, neat rules to make us question whether we can ever predict anything with more than shaky confidence.

Functional studies of dinosaur anatomy
We've looked at direct evidence of reposed dinosaurs and their modern analogues, which leaves functional considerations of dinosaur skeletons as our last main area of consideration for this topic: is there anything about their anatomy to suggest resting on their sides or using other postures might be prohibited? The fusion of some dinosaur vertebrae is often mentioned as a problem here, particularly the ossified tendons common to many ornithischian dinosaur groups. These are suggested to have limited the motion of the vertebral column and limited dinosaurian abilities to shift their mass/wiggle out of lounging postures. Such suggestions are probably overstating the stiffening effect of ossified tendons. As a general point, it should be mentioned that ossified tendons are common across animals of all kinds, and occur in many places in their bodies. For example, they occur in the bodies of fish, in bird and human legs, along bird backs, in sauropod necks and in pterosaur forearms (e.g. Bennett 2003; Organ 2006; Organ and Adams 2010; Klein et al. 2012). Moreover, they are not necessarily anything to do with restricting skeletal motion. Sometimes the opposite seems true: they may be something to do with storing and releasing energy to increase arthrological efficiency, or simply reduce strain on musculature. Their functional roles are still being worked out, but it seems well grounded that their role varies with their position in the skeleton and their associated musculature. We also know that their histological composition varies, and this likely affects their mechanical properties too (Organ and Adams 2010).

In dinosaurs, ossified tendon distribution along the vertebral column is quite varied. As a general rule, ossified tendons occur around the hip and tail base, but they can cover many of the torso vertebrae in things like hadrosaurs. Studies suggest that their effect is to reduce vertebral motion in some planes, but they do not eliminate movement altogether (Organ 2006). The vertebrae can still move in all directions, and even relatively freely in some axes of motion, and that's likely all that was needed to enable animals to lift themselves from a non-crouching resting posture. We only need a few degrees of motion here and there to liberate a limb, or to gain better purchase on the ground, before the limb skeleton can take over in levering the body into a standing pose. For the sake of completeness, it's worth mentioning that the trunks of other dinosaurs - those without ossified tendons - were probably mobile enough for this job, too (e.g. Mallison 2010a, 2010b).

Finally, a practical consideration

One final point to make on this issue is a relatively pragmatic one. The idea that dinosaurs only adopted crouched resting poses implies a certain rigidity to their form, and one that would compromise their ability get into, or out of, anything other than deliberately chosen, specific poses. Against this I cite the general clumsiness of animals everywhere. Much as we like to glamourise and romanticise nature - beautiful in its savagery, red in tooth and claw, survival of the fittest and all that - the truth is that animals are as clumsy as we are. You don't have to be a dedicated wildlife observer to see animals slip, trip or fall. These things happen routinely, and they almost certainly did in the Mesozoic, too. Fighting and jostling animals would also almost certainly find themselves forced in compromised, awkward positions from time to time, too. We can be confident that Mesozoic dinosaurs fell on their sides, rolled onto their backs and got into other mischief by accident even if not by intent, and it seems unrealistic to assume they would not have recovered from these accidents as effectively as modern animals. If we assume they could escape such poses in emergencies, why should they not be able to rise from them at other times as well?

So, in summary...
Putting all these lines of evidence together - the limited direct fossil data, our ability to interpret that fossil data, the anatomy and behaviour of modern animals, and what we know of dinosaur anatomy - I still don't see any reason to think Mesozoic dinosaurs were constrained to crouched resting poses. I stress my use of the word 'constrained' there: as mentioned above, there is good reason to think crouching was utilised by dinosaurs for a variety of reasons, and I'm sure many of them rested in this way. Moreover, we can probably assume that most dinosaurs entering or rising from repose would have assumed a crouched position during that process. This seems fairly true of modern animals, after all. But there seems no reason to think they were incapable of other resting in other attitudes as well, such as reclining in classically 'mammalian' poses, using some of those strange ratite or galliform postures mentioned above, or doing something else entirely. It seems almost certain that different dinosaurs were suited to different poses, and different ranges of poses, when resting: maybe this is something to explore in future art.

Coming next: this:

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