Nothing captivates our imagination more than dinosaurs because of how humongous most of them were when they roamed the earth more than 66 million years ago. Looking at their fossilized remains, we cannot help but be amazed at how long dinosaur tails were.
So, do all dinosaurs have tails? Yes, dinosaur fossils indicate that they all had tails. The tails served multiple purposes and primarily used for weight counterbalancing. Herbivores used them for defense, while predators needed the tails for their massive thigh muscles.
Dinosaurs’ tails were a product of evolution that allowed the dinosaurs to evolve into the massive beasts that dominated the Mesozoic Era, from the Triassic Period to their demise at the end of the late-Cretaceous period.
In fact, paleontologists noticed that all confirmed dinosaur fossils indicate that they all had tails (tail vertebrae). It is a unique discovery because it indicates that their tails weren’t just for aesthetic purposes; neither is it just for offensive and defensive purposes. That means that all dinosaurs – carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores, had tails.
The number of fossil skeletons of dinosaurs being found continues to grow, with new discoveries every month worldwide. Most fossil finds are from the Cretaceous period, although some areas are specific to the Triassic or Jurassic periods, and discoveries still occur. After seeing some of the giant sauropod skeletons with the long tail, it makes me wonder what they used their tails for?
Let’s tackle how dinosaurs used their tails for counterbalancing and compare them to modern animals that do the same. It’s interesting how flexible the tails are.
As for sizes, we will also go through the longest dino tail ever recorded and explain what fossils can tell us as we build these dinosaur skeletons after finding them. Lastly, we will dive into perhaps the coolest evolution some of the dinosaurs managed to have, weaponized tails!
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What Did Dinosaurs Use Their Tails For?
So far, all dinosaur specimens that have been discovered by paleontologists have tails. One could assume that all dinosaurs have tails because it played a huge role in evolving into the humongous beasts we know today.
Without the tails, the mighty T-rex wouldn’t be the mighty extinct predator we read. Even today, most animals have tails except apes, frogs, and toads, mollusks, insects, crabs, echinoderms, etc.
Looking at the animal kingdom, both extinct and extant (still existing) animal species mostly had tails. Concerning the dinosaurs, they needed their tails because it allowed them to counterbalance their heavyweight, provide stability, and sometimes serve as defensive weapons.
For context on how gigantic dinosaurs were, the heaviest extant terrestrial animal is the African Elephant, which only weighs at around 7.5 tons. The heaviest dinosaur, the Argentinosaurus, is estimated at around 77 tons, equivalent to about ten full-grown African Elephants.
The Tails of The Dinosaur Served As Counterbalance For Their Weight
Extinct Non-avian dinosaurs and their living relatives, the birds, share the same type of fused tail vertebrae called a pygostyle. That’s right, the chirping bird near you is a living relative of the extinct dinosaurs.
It could also mean that dinosaurs likely had feathers, something you don’t often see in dinosaur movies like Jurassic Park. The difference between the avian dinosaurs and the non-avian dinosaurs is that modern birds lost their majestic and muscular tails as they became smaller.
The dinosaurs, or properly called the non-avian theropod dinosaurs, had strong tails with muscles and bones. The weight of the long tails of dinosaurs counterbalanced the dinosaurs’ weight, especially the ones with long necks like Diplodocus, or big heads like the T. Rex and other bipedal dinosaurs.
Paleontologists used to believe that these large theropods dragged their tails because of how heavy they were. However, recent studies and excavations debunked such theory and proved that dinosaurs had stable tails.
Without their tails, dinosaurs will struggle to lift their massive heads and necks. For example, the sauropods’ long necks like Diplodocus and Argentinosaurus needed an equally long tail to maintain balance. Tail length was important. In constructing the Sauropod dinosaur skeletons, it’s amazing to see these dinosaurs at full length.
A short tail will prevent the sauropods from lifting their heads and access the nutritional leaves on tall trees. For predatory dinosaurs, usually have massive heads and teeth that need a fair amount of counterbalance; else, you want your T. Rex to hug the ground.
The Tails Stabilized The Dinosaurs Even As They Ran
Aside from helping the dinosaurs stand upright on their hind legs, the tails stabilize the dinosaurs whenever they run. Being able to sprint both benefited the prey and the predator, as small herbivorous dinosaurs needed the ability to run as they cannot effectively defend themselves from predators.
For predatory dinosaurs, they needed a stable tail to allow them to hunt and chase down prey effectively. Recent studies also prove that the massive tail of a theropod dinosaur allowed big predators like T. Rex and Carnotaurus to develop those super-sized thigh muscles.
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Fossilized Dinosaur Tails Have Managed To Change Dinosaur Perception Multiple Times
Dinosaur tails have completely changed our perception of how dinosaurs looked and how they lived. For instance, paleontologists have long theorized that dinosaurs had feathers because modern-day birds have feathers.
However, the feathered dinosaur theory had no concrete proof until an intact dinosaur tail vertebrae were discovered in 2016. From then on, with that fossil record, the way we imagine dinosaurs have forever changed.
Another example of dinosaur tail discoveries that changed our perception was the unique tail of the Spinosaurus. The Spinosaurus was initially described as a terrestrial predator, kind of like the T. Rex.
That is why the Jurassic Park III movie featured a Spinosaurus that could run at high speeds on land as the top predator. However, after discovering a complete tail specimen, we now know that Spinosaurus lived in an aquatic environment, not on land.
Paleontologists from the early 1900’s thought dinosaurs dragged their tails, just like modern-day iguanas and lizards. As more tail specimens from various dinosaur species were excavated, paleontologists could abandon the theory that dinosaurs are just over-sized lizards. Despite being called “terrible lizards,” dinosaurs are more closely related to birds than to lizards.
How Long is a Spinosaurus Tail? Sizes of Dinosaur Tails – Sauropods, Carnivores, and Herbivores
Various types of dinosaurs during the Mesozoic Era had different tails that are unique from each other. The large herbivorous dinosaurs like Stegosaurus and Ankylosaurus had weaponized tails that allowed them to have a strong defense mechanism against predators.
For smaller and nimbler herbivores, like the Ornithomimids and the Hadrosaurids, they were equipped with long slender tails that allowed them to sprint away from predators. They didn’t have weaponized tails because they are not that big, meaning they couldn’t fight back.
YouTube Video – Testing the Power of a Whipping Tail
There are also dinosaur tails that were used differently, like the Spinosaurus tail. The tail of the Spinosaurus was so flexible and powerful that it allowed the large predatory dinosaur to propel itself underwater. It means that the tail of the Spinosaurus functioned similarly to the powerful tails of modern-day crocodiles. A recent fossil discovery of the Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, with one of the most complete tails ever, measuring approximately 16ft-19ft (4.8m -5.8m) long! The length of the skeleton was estimated at 50ft (15.4m) (Source)
One interesting comparison is to look at the bird-like dinosaurs such as Velociraptor and compare how the velociraptor tail was similar to modern birds and their tail feathers.
Velociraptors lived in what is modern-day China and Mongolia during the late-Cretaceous period.
Like modern birds, Velociraptor tails are thought to stiffen, the tail vertebrae helping to balance it.
The Tails Of The Sauropods Were Of The Longest
The Sauropods were the biggest and longest dinosaurs to have ever lived. Famous dinosaurs like the Diplodocus Longus, Apatosaurus Ajax, Brachiosaurus Altithorax, and Brontosaurus excelsus were specimens of some of the largest dinosaurs ever found.
The Diplodocus had the longest tail of any dinosaur, with one measuring 21 ft (6.5m) long (Source). The fossil remains of this Diplodocus was well preserved. Many of the Sauropods have long tails, but the fossils are incomplete and it makes it difficult to determine the length of the tail.
INSERT TABLE TAIL LENGTH AND PRIMARY USE
They have long necks that allow them to reach tall trees and maximize their food sphere. Paleontologists think that Brachiosaurus could even stand on its hind feet to reach the upper branches of trees. Its tail could act as an anchor and to help balance the dinosaur.
A large dinosaur with a long neck and putting weight on the front legs would need a tail that could counterbalance it. As we can see from the fossils of Sauropods, the tail length was often as long as the neck.
Sauropods had the longest necks and the longest tail length in the animal kingdom. For context, a modern-day Giraffe would have a neck that is 6 feet long.
Yet, any member of the Diplodocus family or even an adult Apatosaurus would have at least 21 feet of neck. A Diplodocus with 21 feet of neck would have, at the very least, 45 feet of tail to counterbalance it.
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The Carnivorous Dinosaurs Were Of The Most Powerful
The carnivorous dinosaurs, like Tyrannosaurus Rex (T. Rex), Carnotaurus, Giganotosaurus, Allosaurus, and the even bigger Spinosaurus, were equipped with powerful tails that allowed them to stabilize while chasing down prey. In the case of the Spinosaurus, it likely allowed it to have bursts of speed underwater.
The Carnotaurus is said to be the theropod dinosaur with the most powerful tail. The tail attached to the thigh muscles of the Carnotaurus is believed to make up 15% of its body mass.
Other Herbivorous Dinosaurs Had Unique Tails
The medium-sized herbivores had to develop unique tails, frequently weaponized. These dinosaurs were not small enough to run nor big enough to stand its ground. So they had to defend with their weaponized tails. Some have clubbed tails like the Ankylosaurus, while some developed spiked tails like the Stegosaurus. Armored dinosaurs were present in many periods of the Mesozoic era and existed until the mass extinction event.
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How Dinosaurs Used Their Tails for Protection – Ankylosaurus, Diplodocus, and Stegosaurus
Ankylosaurus Had The Coolest Tail Ever
The Ankylosaurus is a genus of dinosaur that every child familiar with dinosaurs can familiarize with. These are the dinosaurs you see in children’s books that have armor plating on its back. Yet, the most distinct body part of such dinosaurs is its tail. They have clubs at the end of their tail, which they can use to swing against any predator. Luckily, we have found fossils of Ankylosaurus and Nodosaurus with complete tails, that gives us a full picture of the deadly club.
Stegosaurus Had Spiked Tails
The Stegosaurus is also a genus of armed dinosaurs that has unique tails. They have plates on their backs that run to its tail, culminating in four deadly spikes. These spikes can be swung at a predator and inflict damage. The complete tails of Stegosaurs can be seen in museums as they fossilized well.
Like the Ankylosaurus, the Stegosaurs were preyed upon by predators, so they had to fight back with their deadly “Thagomizers.” During the Jurassic period, the predators such as Allosaurus were the main hunters looking at Stegosaurs as prey.
Diplodocus Used A Tail That Could Have Broken The Sound Barrier
The Diplodocus is a genus of dinosaurs that are members of the Sauropod family. It means they are incredibly long and tall. As a means of defense, they can flick their ordinary-looking flexible tails against a predator.
Now the tail may be ordinary, but it is way more deadly than spikes and clubs because Diplodocus can swing it at the speed of sound.
Yes, you heard it right, Diplodocus is thought to have broken the sound barrier with its flexible tail.
We have covered the giant dinosaurs on land, but what about the dinosaurs in the seas and oceans? First, there were no water dinosaurs, but instead, they were marine reptiles. They were big, and yes, they also had tails.
The tails of marine reptiles such as Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs (fossils found in the UK) used their tails to propel through the water. With four flippers and a tail, the Plesiosaurs were considered to be an agile swimmer.
To be fair, one of the only dinosaurs known to have been aquatic is the Spinosaurus. They lived in the ancient rivers and river deltas. Their fossils have been found in the Kem Kem beds in Morocco.
To conclude this post, all dinosaurs have tails because they needed it for all sorts of stuff. They primarily used it for counterbalancing and stability. After all, dinosaurs are some of the biggest and heaviest creatures to have ever existed earth, as fossil records show.
As time went on in the Mesozoic Era, they developed various forms of tails and tail bones that served each dinosaur uniquely. Some were for swimming. Some were for defense like the clubbed tail of the Ankylosaurus. Others used their tails for offensive purposes, and others were super-long for balancing, like Apatosaurus and Diplodocus.
Whatever the case may be, you cannot deny that dinosaur tails have time and time again changed our perception about dinosaurs. Who knows, a new tail specimen may be found in the near future, one that we have never seen before!
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