In honor of the release of the new Jurassic World movie (over twenty years after the release of the original Jurassic Park film) I thought to write a blog on dinosaurs. I was after all a dinosaur nut as a kid, and I mean nut. Even before Jurassic Park came out I was obsessed with the strange prehistoric creatures. Just ask my mother how many dinosaur toys and books I owed. When I saw Jurassic Park for the first time I was spell-bound seeing Brachiosaurus walking across the park for the first time with that John Williams score in the background that reminds me even 22 years later that there is still plenty of mystery in the world. Over the past two decades though so much of what we know and we thought we knew about dinosaurs has changed. Here’s some big leaps I might have never imagined when I was a kid playing with model T-Rexes and Triceratops.
Big Things Come in Small Packages
I knew of course even as a kid that not all dinosaurs were giant titans like brachiosaurus. I knew some were quite smaller, but still when I thought of dinosaurs I always thought of the big ones, but really these were the exception to the rule. Most, probably close to 90% of all dinosaurs, were no bigger than a chicken or a small dog. It was the little guys who dominated the earth millions of years ago.
When I was a kid what happened to the dinosaurs was still considered the big mystery of the eon. While the theory that an asteroid landing in Mexico around the end of the Cretaceous was proposed a few years before I was born, it was still hotly contested, though I do remember it gaining more traction all the time. Other theories involved volcanos, abrupt changes in climate, supernovas, etc. Now the asteroid theory is pretty much accepted fact. If you’d told me as a kid that I’d live to see science confirm what killed the dinosaurs I wouldn’t have believed it.
Make Your Blood Run Warm
It’s pretty much established fact now that at least certain dinosaurs were warm-blooded animals, with the possible exception of some of the larger species. This was a theory just beginning to gain traction 30 years ago when the majority of scientists still believed dinosaurs were cold-blooded like all modern reptiles, but the growing data on their body chemistry and evidence of their link to modern-day birds (which are all warm-blooded) pretty much confirmed this theory. If you look at the history of dinosaur depictions, especially in movies you can see a gradual evolution if you will. The oldest movies featuring dinosaurs tended to use real reptiles blow up to look bigger and scarier. They also moved slower and more mechanically like modern-day cold-blooded crocodiles or lizards. But overtime these portraits evolved to show sleeker and more animated creatures moving and acting more like birds. The image of dinosaurs as slow, stupid, and brutish creatures has become, well “extinct.”
Long Live the King
While Jurassic Park made the Velociraptor famous, the big star that every little boy said was his favorite dinosaur was of course Tyrannosaurus Rex, literally the king of them all. It was just assumed T-Rex was the badest dinosaur on the Mesozoic block. Now we know of several species of predator that were larger and fiercer than old Rex, including Giganotosaurus and Spinosaurus (who was featured in Jurassic Park III). There is also ongoing debate as to whether T-Rex really was the powerful apex predator often depicted in books and movies or was more of an opportunistic scavenger. Though this king still has his loyal fan base and remains the most popular dinosaur in people’s imagination even Jurassic Park decided to go with one of his bigger rivals in the last film. You’re still number one to me, Rex.
Birds of the Feather
The theory that dinosaurs shared a strong evolutionary history with modern-day birds has been around a while. I remember reading about their notable similarities in skeletal structures to birds as a kid, but now we know for a fact that some dinosaurs did actually have feathers. The link between dinosaurs and birds is now established fact. What’s more is the presence of feathers on some of the most popular dinosaurs, like velociraptor, show that we have been depicting the creatures wrong for ages. Most current scientific depictions of the raptor make it look more like a relative to the vulture than the giant two-legged lizards in Jurassic Park. I can imagine in time many of the dinosaur figurines children play with will also all have feathers and look nothing like the ones I played with.
We’re Both Accidents
Might be putting it a little too strong, but there is a fascinating connection we share with dinosaurs: Our developments were largely made possible by a catastrophic event. The dinosaurs emerged 201 million years ago following the worst mass extinction event in earth’s history, the Permian-Triassic Extinction. The tiny evolutionary ancestors to the dinosaurs had been small potatoes before this event, but the sudden elimination of so many other species left room for them to take control and eventually dominate in the planet. But the same forces that gave rise to the dinosaurs also destroyed them as we know when another mass extinction occurred at the end of the Cretaceous Period. This allowed for another new type of animal to come off on top, the mammal. Small and insignificant before, these little furry animals were able to survive and recover from the impact event easier than their reptilian neighbors and would spread across the planet. Eventually a particular order of mammal known as primate would give rise to a new species of great intelligence, dexterity, and self-awareness: Homo Sapien. Yes, the same asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs made room for us to evolve. Perhaps we’ve always felt some correlation between these two developments and maybe that’s why dinosaurs have often been the monsters and villains in so many sci-fi books and movies. The hero in Jurassic Park III, Dr. Alan Grant, put this subconscious fear into words when he tells a group of students that dinosaurs (raptors specially) would have become the dominant species if not for the extinction event.
But perhaps the biggest shock of all is…
The Dinosaurs Aren’t Extinct
I guess it depends on one’s point of view, but the fact of the matter is that we encounter the modern-day offspring of dinosaurs every day in the form of birds. When we say the word extinction we’re really talking about one of two very different processes. There’s catastrophic extinction in which an impact event (like an asteroid) or a sudden change in environment wipes out the unlucky species in its path. For a while it was assumed that all dinosaurs, great and small were wiped out in an extinction like this. But now we know that some featured reptiles did survive and evolve into modern-birds. In a way this type of evolution is also a process of extinction because it leads to species changing gradually to become a different species, and thus leaving the old species in the dust. So far as certain avian dinosaurs survived the extinction event and descended into modern-day birds, we still have dinosaurs living among us today. In a way this is the most exciting change in our knowledge of dinosaurs for me, because I spent most of my childhood wishing against hope I could see a real living dinosaur. Now I’m seeing one every time I look out my window. Yes, the kid in me would still love to see a real T-Rex or Brachiosaurus and modern-day birds are no substitute for these expressive creatures, but still it demonstrates an important lesson never to take for granted what we have. Living among us and beside us are the direct descendants of some of earth’s most impressive and majestic creatures. Birds in many ways can teach us more about dinosaurs and what they were like than fossils ever could. To know our past is to be keenly aware of our present and what is happening around us.
Haven’t seen Jurassic World yet, but hope to very soon. Peace!