Diplodocus ( /daɪˈplɒdəkəs/, or /ˌdɪploʊˈdoʊkəs/) is a genus of diplodocid sauropod dinosaur whose fossils were first discovered in 1877 by S. W. Williston. The generic name, coined by Othniel Charles Marsh in 1878, is a Neo-Latin term derived from Greek διπλόος (diploos) "double" and δοκός (dokos) "beam", in reference to its double-beamed chevron bones located in the underside of the tail. These bones were initially believed to be unique to Diplodocus; however, they have since then been discovered in other members of the diplodocid family and in non-diplodocid sauropods such as Mamenchisaurus. It lived in what is now western North America at the end of the Jurassic Period. Diplodocus is one of the more common dinosaur fossils found in the Upper Morrison Formation, a sequence of shallow marine and alluvial sediments deposited about 150 to 147 million years ago, in what is now termed the Kimmeridgian and Tithonian stages. The Morrison Formation records an environment and time dominated by gigantic sauropod dinosaurs such as Camarasaurus, Barosaurus, Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus.
Diplodocus is among the most easily identifiable dinosaurs, with its classic dinosaur shape, long neck and tail and four sturdy legs. For many years, it was the longest dinosaur known. Its great size may have been a deterrent to the predators Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus: their remains have been found in the same strata, which suggests they coexisted with Diplodocus.
One of the best-known sauropods, Diplodocus was a very large long-necked quadrupedal animal, with a long, whip-like tail. Its forelimbs were slightly shorter than its hind limbs, resulting in a largely horizontal posture. The long-necked, long-tailed animal with four sturdy legs has been mechanically compared with a suspension bridge. In fact, Diplodocus is the longest dinosaur known from a complete skeleton. The partial remains of D. hallorum have increased the estimated length, though not as much as previously thought; when first described in 1991, discoverer David Gillete calculated it may have been up to 54 m (177.05 ft) long, making it the longest known dinosaur (excluding those known from especially poor remains, such as Amphicoelias). Some weight estimates ranged as high as 113 (rather only 50) tonnes (125 US short tons). This review was based on recent findings that show that the giant tail vertebrae were actually placed further forward on the tail than Gillete originally calculated. The study shows that the complete Diplodocus skeleton at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on which estimates of Seismosaurus were based had its 13th tail vertebra come from another dinosaur, throwing size estimates for Seismosaurus off by up to 30%. While dinosaurs such as Supersaurus were probably longer, fossil remains of these animals are only fragmentary.
The skull of Diplodocus was very small, compared with the size of the animal, which could reach up to , of which over was neck. Diplodocus had small, 'peg'-like teeth that pointed forward and were only present in the anterior sections of the jaws. Its braincase was small. The neck was composed of at least fifteen vertebrae and is now believed to have been generally held parallel to the ground and unable to have been elevated much past horizontal. Modern mass estimates have tended to be in the 10 to 16 tonne (11–17.6 ton) range: 10 tonnes (11 tons); 11.5 tonnes (12.7 tons); 12.7 tonnes (14 tons); and 16 tonnes (17.6 tons).
Diplodocus had an extremely long tail, composed of about 80 caudal vertebrae, which is almost double the number some of the earlier sauropods had in their tails (such as Shunosaurus with 43), and far more than contemporaneous macronarians had (such as Camarasaurus with 53). There has been speculation as to whether it may have had a defensive or noisemaking function. The tail may have served as a counterbalance for the neck. The middle part of the tail had 'double beams' (oddly-shaped bones on the underside, which gave Diplodocus its name). They may have provided support for the vertebrae, or perhaps prevented the blood vessels from being crushed if the animal's heavy tail pressed against the ground. These 'double beams' are also seen in some related dinosaurs.
Like other sauropods, the manus (front "feet") of Diplodocus were highly modified, with the finger and hand bones arranged into a vertical column, horseshoe-shaped in cross section. Diplodocus lacked claws on all but one digit of the front limb, and this claw was unusually large relative to other sauropods, flattened from side to side, and detached from the bones of the hand. The function of this unusually specialized claw is unknown.
The two Morrison Formation sauropod genera Diplodocus and Barosaurus had very similar limb bones. In the past, many isolated limb bones were automatically attributed to Diplodocus but may, in fact, have belonged to Barosaurus.
The depiction of Diplodocus posture has changed considerably over the years. For instance, a classic 1910 reconstruction by Oliver P. Hay depicts two Diplodocus with splayed lizard-like limbs on the banks of a river. Hay argued that Diplodocus had a sprawling, lizard-like gait with widely-splayed legs, and was supported by Gustav Tornier. However, this hypothesis was put to rest by W. J. Holland, who demonstrated that a sprawling Diplodocus would have needed a trench to pull its belly through.
Later, diplodocids were often portrayed with their necks held high up in the air, allowing them to graze from tall trees. More recently, scientists have argued that the heart would have had trouble sustaining sufficient blood pressure to oxygenate the brain. Furthermore, more recent studies have shown that the structure of the neck vertebrae would not have permitted the neck to bend far upwards.
As with the related genus Barosaurus, the very long neck of Diplodocus is the source of much controversy among scientists. A 1992 Columbia University study of Diplodocid neck structure indicated that the longest necks would have required a 1.6 ton heart — a tenth of the animal's body weight. The study proposed that animals like these would have had rudimentary auxiliary 'hearts' in their necks, whose only purpose was to pump blood up to the next 'heart'.While the long neck has traditionally been interpreted as a feeding adaptation, a recent study suggests that the oversized neck of Diplodocus and its relatives may have been primarily a sexual display, with any other feeding benefits coming second.
The head of Diplodocus has been widely depicted with the nostrils on top due to the position of the nasal openings at the apex of the skull. There has been speculation over whether such a configuration meant that Diplodocus may have had a trunk. A recent study surmised there was no paleoneuroanatomical evidence for a trunk. It noted that the facial nerve in an animal with a trunk, such as an elephant, is large as it innervates the trunk. The evidence suggests that the facial nerve is very small in Diplodocus. Studies by Lawrence Witmer (2001) indicated that, while the nasal openings were high on the head, the actual, fleshy nostrils were situated much lower down on the snout.
Recent discoveries have suggested that Diplodocus and other diplodocids may have had narrow, pointed keratinous spines lining their back, much like those on an iguana. This radically different look has been incorporated into recent reconstructions, notably Walking with Dinosaurs. It is unknown exactly how many diplodocids had this trait, and whether it was present in other sauropods.
Following a number of bone histology studies, Diplodocus, along with other sauropods, grew at a very fast rate, reaching sexual maturity at just over a decade, though continuing to grow throughout their lives. Previous thinking held that sauropods would keep growing slowly throughout their lifetime, taking decades to reach maturity.
A subfamily, Diplodocinae, was erected to include Diplodocus and its closest relatives, including Barosaurus. More distantly related is the contemporaneous Apatosaurus, which is still considered a diplodocid although not a diplodocine, as it is a member of the subfamily Apatosaurinae. The Portuguese Dinheirosaurus and the African Tornieria have also been identified as close relatives of Diplodocus by some authors.
The Diplodocoidea comprises the diplodocids, as well as dicraeosaurids, rebbachisaurids, Suuwassea, Amphicoelias and possibly Haplocanthosaurus, and/or the nemegtosaurids. This clade is the sister group to, Camarasaurus, brachiosaurids and titanosaurians; the Macronaria. Together they comprise Neosauropoda; the largest, most diverse and successful group of sauropodomorph dinosaurs.
Diplodocus has been a frequent subject in dinosaur films, both factual and fictional. It was featured in the second episode of the award-winning BBC television series Walking with Dinosaurs. The episode "Time of the Titans" follows the life of a simulated Diplodocus 152 million years ago. The animated feature Fantasia features many sauropods in the Rite of Spring sequence, some narrower-headed ones of which may be Diplodocus. In literature, James A. Michener's book Centennial has a chapter devoted to Diplodocus, narrating the life and death of one individual.