Sauropodomorphs were adapted to browsing higher than any other contemporary herbivore, giving them access to high tree foliage. This feeding strategy is supported by many of their defining characteristics, such as: a light, tiny skull on the end of a long neck (with ten or more elongated cervical vertebrae) and a counterbalancing long tail (with one to three extra sacral vertebrae).
Their teeth were weak, and shaped like leaves or spoons (lanceolate or spatulate). Instead of grinding teeth, they had stomach stones (gastroliths), similar to the gizzard stones of modern birds and crocodiles, to help digest tough plant fibers. The front of the upper mouth bends down in what may be a beak.
One of the earliest known sauropodomorphs, Saturnalia, was small and slender (1.5 metres, or 5 feet long); but, by the end of the Triassic, they were the largest dinosaurs of their time, and throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous they kept on growing. Ultimately the largest sauropods, like Supersaurus, Diplodocus hallorum, Patagotitan, and Argentinosaurus, reached 30–40 metres (98–131 ft) in length, and 60,000–100,000 kilograms (65–110 US short tons) or more in mass.
Initially bipedal, as their size increased they evolved a four-legged graviportal gait adapted only to walking slowly on land, like elephants. The early sauropodomorphs were most likely omnivores as their shared common ancestor with the other saurischian lineage (the theropods) was a carnivore. Therefore, their evolution to herbivory went hand in hand with their increasing size and neck length.
They also had large nostrils (nares), and retained a thumb (pollex) with a big claw, which may have been used for defense — though their primary defensive adaptation was their extreme size.
Distinguishing anatomical features
Sauropodomorphs can be distinguished as a group on the basis of some of the following synapomorphies:
- The presence of large nares.
- The distal part of the tibia is covered by an ascending process of the astragalus.
- Their hind limbs are short when compared to their torso length.
- The presence of three or more sacral vertebrae.
- The teeth are thin, flat and are spatula-like, with bladed and serrated crowns.
- The presence of a minimum of 10 cervical vertebrae that are typically elongated
- The presence of 25 presacral vertebrae
- The manus had a large digit I