T. rex able to catch David Beckham

New research shows that Tyrannosaurus rex could out run a professional athelete such as David Beckham, but the fastest dinosaurs of all could top 40 mph!

A very unusual race has just been run by scientists at the University of Manchester, a race between several dinosaurs, modern animals and a human in a bid to see which was the fastest.  The researchers led by Dr Bill Sellers and palaeontologist Phil Manning have just had their work published in the journal of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences.

The race was run in virtual reality using a super computer to calculate the running speeds of 5 bipedal, theropod dinosaurs, two extant flightless birds (ostrich and emu) and a human.  The results show that the smallest dinosaur studied, Compsognathus (pronounced komp-so-nay-thus) was able to run at a top speed of 40 mph, making this 1 metre long, Jurassic carnivore one of the fastest two-footed land animals of all time.

Data on each animal’s anatomy was fed into the computer along with estimates of their leg muscle mass, posture and gait.  The computer then used this information to assess how each creature would have moved and then calculated the fastest possible speed for each animal.  For the ostrich, emu and the David Beckhams around today, actual measurements of muscle mass and stride length could be taken.  For the dinosaurs, the team had to be a bit more creative.  Unfortunately, there are no Tyrannosaurs or Compsognathids around for the scientists to take measurements from, but muscle scars on fossilised leg bones can give them an idea of leg muscle mass.  Measurements from fossilised dinosaur trackways can also provide valuable data on gait, posture and stride length.

Once all the bio-mechanical information had been programmed into the computer, the maximum speed of each animal could be calculated and the virtual race run.  Data from a professional sportsman was used to provide the human comparison and from this research, believed to be the most accurate ever produced, Tyrannosaurus rex running at a top speed of just under 8 metres a second could outrun the human athlete.  In the film Jurassic Park, T. rex is shown chasing a jeep at nearly 35 mph but scientists have known for some time that this sort of speed for a 7 Tonne dinosaur was unrealistic.  Still, if T. rex could have run at approximately 18 mph it would have been an extremely impressive effort!

The Results from the Virtual Reality Race

Virtual Race Data

Weight

Metres/sec

Km/hour

Miles/hour

Place

Human

71kg

7.9

28.4

17.7

Dinner!

Emu

27.2kg

13.3

47.9

29.8

3rd

Ostrich

65.3kg

15.4

55.4

34.5

2nd

Compsognathus

3kg

17.8

64.1

39.8

1st

Velociraptor

20kg

10.8

38.9

24.2

4th

Dilophosaurus

430kg

10.5

37.8

23.5

5th

Allosaurus

1.4 tonnes

9.4

33.8

21

6th

Tyrannosaurus

6 tonnes

8

28.8

17.9

7th

Table reproduced from University of Manchester data

The results show that the smaller and lighter the dinosaur the faster it could run.  Whether or not these speeds could be maintained by meat-eating dinosaurs is open to debate.  Ostriches and emus are able to sustain high running speeds over considerable distances whereas, it is not known how long a dinosaur could maintain its top speed and this particular study does not shed any further light on the endurance capabilities of these animals.  Dinosaurs such as Compsognathus were lightweight and speedy.  Compsognathus is one of the smallest dinosaurs known, weighing little more than your average laptop.  Its remains have been found in Bavarian limestone deposits indicating that it lived in a coastal environment.  From its teeth we can guess that it probably chased down insects and smaller reptiles so being speedy would have been a distinct advantage.  It could also have used its fast reactions and powerful hind legs to get away from the many predators in the area at the time – such as crocodiles and the larger dinosaurs such as Ornitholestes.

A lot of work has been carried out by palaeontologists on the relative speeds of various dinosaurs.  This new study moves away from previous techniques which used direct comparisons between dinosaurs and modern creatures such as chickens to work out velocities.  This scaling-up work has attracted some criticism, after all it is hard to compare the speed of 2 kg chicken with a 7 Tonne Theropod.  As this new data uses information based on individual dinosaurs then this data may be able to overcome some of the limitations of the previous work.

However, top speed is one thing, the ability to sustain it is another; and indeed crucial data about running safely has not been considered.  Ostriches are relatively stable at high speed, they are well co-ordinated and balanced.  The same cannot be said for a large meat-eating dinosaur.  The fossilised rib bones of animals such as Allosaurus and T. rex show many signs of being broken.  Are these the result of falls as the animals pursued prey?  The tiny forelimbs on a Tyrannosaur would not have helped much if the animal tripped and fell.  Such an accident could well have proved fatal, depite the protection of belly ribs such as gastralia.  So perhaps, T. rex and company did not rush around at their theoretical maximum too often – it was not worth the risk.

Sadly, the University of Manchester team did not investigate the potential top speeds of any Ornithomimid dinosaurs such as Gallimimus or Ornithomimus.  These “ostrich-like” dinosaurs were the real speed freaks of the Mesozoic with some palaeontologists estimating that they could top 50 mph or perhaps with the wind behind them and on a good day attain Cheetah like speeds.

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