Rigid ‘superlungs’ gave dinosaurs enough energy to run and fight in the air of the Mesozoic era which had HALF the oxygen of today’s atmosphere

  • Research shows dinosaurs boasted a sophisticated, bird-like respiratory system
  • It helped them run at high speeds in the punishing conditions of the Mesozoic
  • The lungs gave the dinosaurs the edge over other species, allowing them to dominate the Earth 150 million years ago
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Dinosaurs had rigid ‘superlungs’ that helped them sprint and hunt in the oxygen-thin air of prehistoric Earth.

Research shows the reptiles boasted an ultra-sophisticated, bird-like respiratory system that helped them run at high speeds in punishing conditions.

The specialised lungs of dinosaurs may have given them the edge over other species, helping them dominate the planet for 180 million years, researchers said.

Sixty five million years ago, Earth’s atmosphere contained half the oxygen it does today, and not all species had the breathing apparatus to match this.

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Dinosaurs had rigid ‘superlungs’ that helped them sprint and hunt in the oxygen-thin air of prehistoric Earth, a study shows (stock image)

Study coauthor Professor Bill Sellers, from the University of Manchester, said: ‘If even the very first dinosaurs to evolve had bird-like lungs, this go some way to explaining why dinosaurs became so the dominant animal species of their time.

‘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 world.’

Researchers at the University of Manchester used CT scans to compare the lung cavities of dinosaurs to those of three closely related modern animals.

They looked at 29 birds – the dinosaurs’ modern descendants – as well as four alligators and crocodiles, which share a common ancestor with dinosaurs.

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Comparing the cavities of these creatures with those of 16 dinosaur species, experts found that dinosaurs had lungs closer to those of modern birds than reptiles.

The dinosaurs’ vertebrae were more similar to those of birds than crocodilians.

They featured a costovertebral joint as well as the same ‘ceiling’ of vertebra and ribs that birds share.

The team also physically removed the lungs of a crocodile and an ostrich to compare their cavities.

The dissections showed that dinosaurs’ lung cavities were furrowed like an ostrich’s lungs rather than smooth like an alligator’s.

Dinosaurs’ lung cavities were furrowed like an ostrich’s lungs rather than smooth like an alligator’s, research showed (file photo)

According to the study, this shows that dinosaurs had lungs similar to modern day birds, meaning they were highly effective at pumping oxygen.

This allowed the reptiles to sprint at high speeds – up to 40 miles per hour (64 kph) in some species – despite Earth’s oxygen-thin atmosphere at the time. 

Some studies indicate that oxygen made up as little as 10 per cent of the air during the age of the dinosaurs.

For comparison, today’s air contains double this amount, at 20 per cent oxygen.

Other animals groups who shared the world may not have had the lungs to cope with an oxygen-thin atmosphere as well as dinosaurs.

This in part could have contributed to their rise to dominance, researchers said.

‘That difference may have let dinosaurs rise and become dominant,’ study coauthor Robert Brocklehurst told New Scientist.


Dinosaurs ruled and dominated Earth around 66 million years ago, before they suddenly went extinct. 

The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event is the name given to this mass extinction.

It was believed for many years that the changing climate destroyed the food chain of the huge reptiles. 

In the 1980s, archaeologists discovered a layer of iridium.

This is an element that is rare on Earth but is found  in vast quantities in space.  

When this was dated, it coincided precisely with when the dinosaurs disappeared from the fossil record. 

A decade later, scientists uncovered the massive Chicxulub Crater at the tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, which dates to the period in question. 

Scientific consensus now says that these two factors are linked and they were both probably caused by an enormous asteroid crashing to Earth.

With the projected size and impact velocity, the collision would have caused an enormous shock-wave and likely triggered seismic activity. 

The fallout would have created plumes of ash that likely covered all of the planet and made it impossible for dinosaurs to survive. 

Other animals and plant species had a shorter time-span between generations which allowed them to survive.

There are several other theories as to what caused the demise of the famous animals. 

One early theory was that small mammals ate dinosaur eggs and another proposes that toxic angiosperms (flowering plants) killed them off.  

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