Skip to main content

How to build a dinosaur: musculoskeletal modelling and simulation of locomotor biomechanics in extinct animals

Cite this dataset

Bishop, Peter; Cuff, Andrew; Hutchinson, John (2020). How to build a dinosaur: musculoskeletal modelling and simulation of locomotor biomechanics in extinct animals [Dataset]. Dryad.


The intersection of paleontology and biomechanics can be reciprocally illuminating, helping to improve paleobiological knowledge of extinct species and furthering our understanding of the generality of biomechanical principles derived from study of extant species. However, working with data gleaned primarily from the fossil record has its challenges. Building on decades of prior research, we outline and critically discuss a complete workflow for biomechanical analysis of extinct species, using locomotor biomechanics in the Triassic theropod dinosaur Coelophysis as a case study. We progress from the digital capture of fossil bone morphology to creating rigged skeletal models, to reconstructing musculature and soft tissue volumes, to the development of computational musculoskeletal models, and finally to the execution of biomechanical simulations. Using a three-dimensional musculoskeletal model comprising 33 muscles, a static inverse simulation of the mid-stance of running shows that Coelophysis probably used more upright (extended) hindlimb postures, and was likely capable of withstanding a vertical ground reaction force of magnitude more than 2.5 times body weight. We identify muscle force-generating capacity as a key source of uncertainty in the simulations, highlighting the need for more refined methods of estimating intrinsic muscle parameters such as fibre length. Our approach emphasizes the explicit application of quantitative techniques and physics-based principles, which helps maximize results robustness and reproducibility. Although we focus on one specific taxon and question, many of the techniques and philosophies explored here have much generality to them, so they can be applied in biomechanical investigation of other extinct organisms.

Usage notes

All files and their usage are described in the main supplementary text document.


European Research Council, Award: Advanced Investigator Grant (695517) to J.R.H.