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Agonized death throes probable cause of open-mouthed, head-back pose of many dino fossils

stem. In fact, the posture is well known to neurologists as opisthotonus and is due to damage to the brain's cerebellum. In humans and animals, cerebellar damage can result from suffocation, meningitis, tetanus or poisoning, and typically accompanies a long, slow death.

Some animals found in this posture may have suffocated in an ash fall during a volcanic eruption, consistent with the fact that many fossils are found in ash deposits, Faux and Padian said. But many other possibilities exist, including disease, brain trauma, severe bleeding, thiamine deficiency or poisoning.

"This puts a whole new light on the mode of death of these animals, and interpretation of the places they died in," Padian said. "This explanation gives us clues to interpreting a great many fossil horizons we didn't understand before and tells us something dinosaurs experienced while dying, not after dying."

Also, because the posture has been seen only in dinosaurs, pterosaurs and mammals, which are known or suspected to have had high metabolic rates, it appears to be a good indicator that the animal was warm blooded. Animals with lower metabolic rates, such as crocodiles and lizards, use less oxygen and so might have been less traumatically affected by hypoxia during death throes, Padian said.

Padian acknowledged that many dinosaur fossils show signs that the animal died in water and the current tugged the body into an arched position, but currents cannot explain all the characteristics of an opisthotonic pose. By studying a large number of fully articulated fossil skeletons, he and Faux were able to distinguish animals that underwent post-mortem water transport, a non-biological or abiotic process, from those with the classic "dead-bird" posture, which they interpret to be the result of biological processes.

Faux, who also works as a disaster veterinarian from her home in Lewiston, Idaho, set out to test other post-mortem processes - rigor mort
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Contact: Robert Sanders
rsanders@berkeley.edu
510-643-6998
University of California - Berkeley
8-Jun-2007


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