Farm vehicles now weigh almost as much as the heaviest dinosaurs

Farm vehicles now weigh almost as much as the heaviest dinosaurs

Depicted as the giant, friendly “veggiesaurus” in the movie Jurassic Park, sauropods were the biggest of the dinosaurs. The heaviest were thought to weigh in at around 60 tonnes – similar to the weight of a fully laden combine harvester. Tractors and other machinery used on farms have grown enormously heavier over the past 60 years as intensive, large-scale agriculture has become widespread. A combine harvester is almost ten times heavier today than it was in the 1960s.

The weight of animals or machines matters because soils can only withstand so much pressure before they become chronically compacted. They may not look it, but soils are ecosystems containing fragile structures – pores and pathways which allow air to circulate and water to reach plant roots and other organisms. Tyres, animal hooves and human feet all apply pressure, squashing the pores, not just at the surface but deeper down too.

Soil compaction can cut plant growth and harvests, and increase the risk of floods as water runs off the land and reaches waterways more quickly. The scientists involved in the new study took a look at how much compaction is being caused by these giant farming machines and compared it with the sauropods who lived over 66 million years ago. They found both to be big culprits of compaction.

The study points out that as the weight of farm machinery has grown, tyre sizes have ballooned too, adjusting the area of contact between the vehicle with the soil to reduce the pressure on the surface and help avoid sinking. It seems that animals evolved with a similar strategy – increasing foot size with weight to help avoid sinking into the soil.

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