Dinosaurs, John Cleese, and HPC

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The original story at PhysOrg has a more grown up headline, but really, if the story combines HPC and John Cleese I think that has to lead.

Here’s the story: The University of Manchester, University of Oregon and Yale teamed up to use the UK’s HECToR supercomputer to conduct mobility analyses based on what we know from existing skeletons of hadrosaurs to try and figure out likely movement patterns of the Earth’s most celebrated extinct animals.

They found that hopping hadrosaurs were fastest but – for safety reasons – a two-legged running gait was most likely. In the same way that we can all muster a John Cleese ‘silly walk’ few can sustain it!


Frame from gait animationTeam leader Dr Bill Sellers, whose results are published in Palaeontologica Electronica this week, explains: “Everyone knows that dinosaurs come in all shapes and sizes. Most don’t look like anything that’s alive today and some are just plain bizarre. One group that fit this description well is the duck-billed dinosaurs, also known as hadrosaurs. Along with the strange appearance – the eponymous duck-bill, peculiar skull ornaments, and long, slender forelimbs – scientists have argued about how they might have moved. Did they walk on four limbs, two limbs, or a combination of both depending on the speed? It has even been suggested that some may have hopped like a kangaroo!

…Fortunately for us Hector had just come online and could provide sufficient computational power for the job. We gave the computer simulation a completely free rein to come up with whatever form of locomotion it could. And indeed from a completely random set of starting conditions the model generated a full range of possible gaits: bipedal running and hopping as well as quadrupedal trotting, pacing and galloping.

“The big surprise was that hopping gait came out as fastest at 61 km/h, followed by quadrupedal galloping (58 km/h), and bipedal running (50 km/h).”

You can read the whole paper at http://palaeo-electronica.org/2009_3/180/index.html , and if you do, you’ll be treated to movies that show the various gaits as animated skeletons skipping across a chessboard plane.