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Lungs similar to those of some modern-day birds might have helped dinosaurs breathe the thin air of the prehistoric world © Chinese Academy of Sciences

Bird-like lungs helped dinosaurs rule the roost

Published: 10th December, 2018 at 00:00
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Lungs similar to those of some modern-day birds might have helped dinosaurs breathe the thin air of the prehistoric world.

If you were to step into a time machine and head back to the age of the dinosaurs, you might find it a little hard to catch your breath. Back then, the Earth’s atmosphere contained much less oxygen than it does today. So how did dinosaurs manage to lead such active lives?


Researchers at Manchester University think they have the answer: dinosaurs had highly efficient bird-like lungs that enabled them to thrive in the harsh conditions.

Crocodilians share a common ancestor with dinosaurs, and birds are dinosaurs’ modern-day descendants. It was thought that some dinosaurs would have smooth reptilian-like lungs while others would have more complicated bird-like lungs. To test this, the team used CT scans to look at the lung cavities of four species of modern crocodilians and 29 bird species, and compared their structure with 16 different dinosaur species.

They found that all of the dinosaurs had bird-like lungs, as well as having vertebrae and skeletal structures that were more similar in shape to birds than reptiles.

“If even the very first dinosaurs to evolve had bird-like lungs, this would go some way to explaining why dinosaurs became the dominant animal species of their time,” said Prof Bill Sellers, who took part in the study. “Other animal groups simply may not have had lungs as well suited to extracting oxygen from the air. That simple evolutionary difference may have let dinosaurs rule.”

Zhenyuanlong was discovered in the Liaoning region of China and its fossilised remains suggest that this dinosaur was covered in feathers © Chuang Zhao


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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.


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