The biomechanics of the sauropod dinosaur pes is poorly understood, particularly among the earliest members of the group. To date, reasonably complete and articulated pedes in Early Middle Jurassic sauropods are rare, limited to a handful of taxa. Of these, Rhoetosaurus brownei, from eastern Australia, is currently the only one from the Gondwanan Middle Jurassic that preserves an articulated pes. Using Rhoetosaurus brownei as a case exemplar, we assessed its paleobiomechanical capabilities and pedal posture. Physical and virtual manipulations of the pedal elements were undertaken to evaluate the range of motion between the pedal joints, under both bone-to-bone and cartilaginous scenarios. Using the results as constraints, virtual reconstructions of all possible pedal postures were generated. We show that Rhoetosaurus brownei was capable of significant digital mobility at the osteological metatarsophalangeal and distal interphalangeal joints. We assume these movements would have been restricted by soft tissue in life but that their presence would have helped in the support of the animal. Further insights based on anatomy and theoretical mechanical constraints restricted the skeletal postures to a range encompassing digitigrade to subunguligrade stances. The approach was extended to additional sauropodomorph pedes, and some validation was provided via the bone data of an African elephant pes. Based on the resulting pedal configurations, the in-life plantar surface of the sauropod pes is inferred to extend caudally from the digits, with a soft tissue pad supporting the elevated metatarsus. The plantar pad is inferred to play a role in the reduction of biomechanical stresses, and to aid in support and locomotion. A pedal pad may have been a key biomechanical innovation in early sauropods, ultimately resulting in a functionally plantigrade pes, which may have arisen during the Early to Middle Jurassic. Further mechanical studies are ultimately required to permit validation of this long-standing hypothesis.
- African bush elephant