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The Dinosaur Diet: Impacts of the biggest eaters ever.

Our diet has a huge effect on the environment. The local versus organic debate is constantly raging—is it better to eat food grown nearby (so it doesn’t have to travel far to reach your table) or is it better to eat organic food that hasn’t been sprayed by pesticides but may have traveled a long way to reach your plate?

(Side note: when stuck in a tossup between these two, I always pick local over organic. Not only are you reducing greenhouse gases, but you’re also supporting local farmers! Just be sure to wash your fruits and veggies before you enjoy them.)

But what about the dinosaurs? Did their diets affect their environment? I researched into two extreme eaters to find out.

Meet Argo

First up is one of the largest land animals to ever exist, the Argentinosaurus. Argentinosaurus (which I will shorten to Argo, simplicity's sake) was a titanosaur sauropod that lived between 97 and 94 million years ago. Argo was an herbivore, who grew up to 35 metres long and could weigh over 75 tonnes. To put this size into perspective, think of a male African elephant (the largest terrestrial animal alive today), which can weigh anywhere from 4,500 to 6,000 kilograms. Argo would weigh as much as ten to twelve African elephants stacked on top of each other!

Scientists are not sure how much food Argo could have eaten in a day, but they do know that his long neck would allow him to efficiently eat a great deal of food in a small amount of time. Argo (and other sauropods) have small heads, and it is thought that, rather than filling their head with teeth and wasting time chewing their food, they would swallow it whole and the long journey down their neck would begin to break it down. This technique would have allowed Argo to clear a large swath of land without expending too much energy.

Argo usually travelled in small herds, and these giants would have constantly been on the move in order to feed their massive appetites. It is likely that they migrated around the area that we now call South America, eating all they could along the way.

It might seem like consuming this much plant life would have dire consequences for the environment, but in fact, grazing is extremely beneficial to the local ecosystem! Grazing stimulates plant growth and stimulates foliage production. It can also reduce the chance of fires by controlling the amount of plants that can be used as fuel.

Argo’s waste would have been quite massive, and contained large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which would be recycled back into the environment. Additionally, grazers would have eaten seeds and then dispersed (read: pooped!) them out at new locations, encouraging new growth. It is when animals are left in one spot for too long that the damage associated with grazing occurs and ecosystem degradation results.

Say hello to Gigi

Now let’s talk about Giganotosaurus (now nicknamed Gigi). Found in the Neuquen Province of Patagonia in southern Argentina, scientists think this colossal dinosaur was one of the largest meat-eating dinosaurs to ever walk the earth. The fossils that have been found so far suggest that Gigi was around 12 metres long from head to tail, and probably weighed between 6.5 and 13.8 tonnes. The largest land carnivore alive today is the male polar bear, who measures in at a measly 2.6 metres long.

Carnivores like Gigi are quite beneficial to the environment, too. Gigi and other large predators would keep herbivore populations in check and prevent overgrazing. Smaller creatures would also benefit from Gigi’s activities, by supplementing their own diets off carcasses that Gigi left behind.

Gigi would likely go after the old, diseased or young of the population. This seems harsh, but it actually acts as a form of population control, either by eliminating other mouths to feed, or by preventing disease from taking hold and ravaging populations. The threat of a Giganotosaurus would also keep a herd on the move and prevent overgrazing in a single area.

Coming head to head

So who wins in this environmental standoff? Well it has to be a tie! Each animal has a niche that it fills, and is a spoke in the wheel that completes its local ecosystem. If you remove a spoke, the wheel might fall apart! So, even if it is the large Giganotosaurus, the mighty Argentinosaurus, or the tiny modern mouse, each has a vital role in keeping their environment at a happy equilibrium.

Want to know how your diet affects the environment? Next time you visit TELUS World of Science, stop by the Our World: BMO Sustainability Gallery and the Ken Spencer Science Park to see firsthand what it takes to grow food and bring it to the dinner table.

While you’re at it, you can pay some big eaters a visit in our feature exhibition, Ultimate Dinosaurs, which runs until September 7, 2015!