ScienceDaily (Nov. 27, 2012) — Every kid knows that giant carnivores like Tyrannosaurus rexdominated the Cretaceous period, but they weren't the only big guys in town. Giant plant-eating theropods -- close relatives of both T. rex and today's birds -- also lived and thrived alongside their meat-eating cousins. Now researchers have started looking at why dinosaurs that abandoned meat in favor of vegetarian diets got so big, and their results may call conventional wisdom about plant-eaters and body size into question.
Scientists have theorized that bigger was better when it came to plant eaters, because larger digestive tracts would allow dinosaurs to maximize the nutrition they could extract from high-fiber, low-calorie food. Therefore, natural selection may have favored increasing body sizes in groups of animals that went meatless.
Three groups of giant feathered theropods from the Cretaceous period seemed to follow that rule of thumb -- the biggest specimens were also the plant-eaters. Lindsay Zanno, research assistant professor of biology at North Carolina State University and director of the Paleontology & Geology Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and Peter Makovicky, associate curator of paleontology at the Field Museum in Chicago, decided to see if diet was the determining factor when it came to size. Makovicky notes that "Having three closely related lineages of dinosaurs adapting to herbivory over the same geological time span and showing evidence of increasing size provided a near perfect test case."