Dinosaurs have captured imaginations for generations. They’ve inspired prospectors to venture into the frontier and countless films and books depicting their world. I was hooked at the tender age of 7 when my dad took me to see the original Jurassic Park. When we got home and my mom nervously asked me how I liked the movie, I reenacted the velociraptors by jumping on the couch and attacking its cushions with my teeth.
Though I did not grow up to become a fossil hunter, Steve Bruaette did. Dr. Bruaette is a paleontologist with the University of Edinburgh and his new book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of the Lost World describes how dinosaurs came to dominate the Earth for over 150 million years. His enthusiasm is infectious, giving you details about the world millions of years ago in a way that excites, not bores, your inner child. Dr. Brusatte also tells the story of his own journey, a boy that loved dinosaurs who saw scientists as rock stars and whose persistence took him around the world with the best researchers in the field of paleontology. I sat down with Dr. Brusatte to discuss what made dinosaurs so successful for so long and why they still have our attention.
Chris Anderson: Your passion for dinosaurs shines throughout your book. What was the species or experience that made you fall in love with dinosaurs? What do you think makes them so fascinating to so many people?
Steve Brusatte: I think animals like T. rex and Brontosaurus are more fantastic than any dragons, unicorns, sea serpents, or other creatures humans have created in myths or legends…but they were real! I think that is part of their fascination. I didn’t fall in love with dinosaurs right away. I wasn’t one of those five-year-old kids who knows all of the names and how to spell them. But my youngest brother Chris was, and it was through him that I got to learn about dinosaurs and eventually became enamored with dinosaurs.
CA: In the book, you tell the story of dinosaurs (or their close ancestors) rising shortly after a period of intense volcanic eruptions at the end of the Permian Era. Why were dinosaurs able to flourish then? What made them so adept for this time period?
SB: Dinosaurs had a really humble origin story. Their immediate ancestors, the dinosauromorphs, arose from some of the small, plucky, adaptable survivors that made it through the horrific end-Permian extinction. We don’t know exactly why they were able to survive when somewhere around 90 or even 95 percent of all other species died. But, the fact that these animals were fast-moving, fast-growing, upright-walking creatures may have played a role in their survival. We often see with mass extinctions that the survivors are small, adaptable animals that can eat a variety of food…and also are bestowed with a dose of good luck.
CA: When we think of dinosaurs, we often think of the long-necked sauropods such as Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus that dominated the Jurassic Period. What sort of natural selection pressures caused these animals to get so big? Why don’t we see animals of such size today?
BS: It’s a fascinating question and one that has obsessed paleontologists ever since the first giant sauropod bones were found in the mid-1800s. In fact, the first sauropod fossils were so huge that the people studying them could only fathom that they belonged to ancient whales, as whales are the only animals that reach these sizes in today’s world. There is nothing like a giant sauropod on land today. The biggest sauropods were the size of Boeing 737 aircraft!
There probably wasn’t one magic bullet that allowed them to grow so huge, but it was a combination of factors. Their long necks allowed them to reach high into the trees and essentially have their own buffet to eat from so they could gorge themselves. Their efficient lungs and fast growth rates allowed them to have a high metabolism and get big fast. The air sacs from their lungs hollowed out some of their bones, making their skeletons strong but lightweight. It was probably these and other things, in combination, that unlocked the ability to grow to biblical sizes.
CA: T. rex might be the most iconic dinosaur of all. What adaptations made T. rex, probably the largest land predator of all time, able to reign at the top of the food chain for millions of years?
SB: T. rex was the ultimate dinosaur, the biggest and baddest meat-eater to ever live on land in the entire history of Earth. It was a bus-sized bone-crunching machine. 40 feet long, 7 or 8 tons in mass, a head the size of a bathtub, with 50-some railroad spike teeth it used to literally break the bones of its prey. So it had brawn and plenty of it. But it also had brains. It had a large brain, so it was intelligent. And it had very keen senses, particularly of smell, sight, and hearing. It was probably that dual threat of brains and brawn that was its secret weapon.
CA: Current research shows that a few dinosaurs are alive today as birds. What traits and adaptations of modern birds have been inherited from dinosaurs?
SB: I could keep you here for hours listing off all of the features. But here are a few. Today’s birds share hundreds of features of the skeleton with dinosaurs–things that are not seen in any other animals. For example, wishbones and hollowed-out bones. Dinosaurs grew fast like birds do today, and they had extra efficient lungs with air sacs, which we know about because they left marks on the bones where they literally invaded the bones to hollow them out.
Many dinosaurs protected their nests and cared for their young like birds do today–we know this from fossils of parent dinosaurs that died on top of their nests. But nothing beats feathers. Feathers are only seen in birds today. They are a unique signature of birds. But we now know that many dinosaurs had feathers too, and some even had wings. This isn’t guesswork. There are thousands of dinosaur skeletons from China preserved covered in feathers!
CA: The story of dinosaurs can really be told through mass extinctions; massive volcanic eruptions allowed for dinosaurs to flourish in the first place and of course the asteroid impact lead to their demise 65 MYA. Why were the dinosaurs able to survive mass extinctions they did? Why was the asteroid finally able to take them out?
SB: Dinosaurs were an empire. They were nature’s ultimate success story, surviving for 150+ million years, enduring changing climates and environments, rising and falling sea levels, spikes in temperature, and volcanic eruptions. They evolved as their home, the supercontinent of Pangea, literally split apart into the continents of today. I think their key to success was their diversity. Dinosaurs came in all shapes and sizes. Some were enormous like the jet-sized sauropods, but some were only the size of pigeons, and everything in between. Some ate meat and plants, but others ate bugs, nuts, shellfish, and all sorts of things. Some were fast runners, others burrowers, others able to live in trees, and some even able to fly.
This diversity allowed them to survive for so long. But when it came down to it, when a six-mile-wide asteroid falls out of the sky one day, that’s a really bad day and it was in that sudden chaos of the asteroid impact and all it wrought (wildfires, tsunamis, earthquakes, nuclear winter, then global warming) that dinosaurs quickly found themselves in a poisoned world that they just weren’t able to endure. Most mammals died too–only a few small, omnivorous, adaptable species made it through. And they are our ancestors! If they didn’t eke it out, then mammals would have also gone extinct.
CA: For students who are interested in studying dinosaurs, what is one piece of advice you would give to them, especially if they live in places without a lot of fossils?
SB: I grew up in one of the most geologically uninteresting states: Illinois. So I know what it’s like! Read, read, read. There is so much you can learn from books, and today, the internet. Set up a google news alert to follow the latest discoveries as they happen. Email your favorite paleontologist or follow them on Twitter. Visit museums if you can, and volunteer if that is on offer. And study as much science and math as you can at school, but don’t forget about writing and language skills: all good scientists need to communicate their findings.
New dinosaur discoveries are happening in China nearly every week. Read about the dinosaur boom in Smithsonian Magazine.
The Natural History Museum has a dinosaur directory, where you can learn about hundreds of species of dinosaurs.
1 Comment Posted
Id suggest Robert Otey’s book – Gravity is a Myth. Our universe is governed by electrical attraction (from the smallest to the largest bodies)- NOT gravity. Gravity is 10×39 times WEAKER than the force of electrical attraction. Dinosaurs (at least the largest ones) help support this idea as demos have been done to show that blood would have TOO much problems flowing up to their large heads through the very long necks given the MODERN day force of gravity calculations. So at the least…we have to reevaluate changes to the gravitational field in Earth’s history. However, if electrical attraction is the dominant force in the universe, much more can be explained (ie the rise of VERY large animals at the time of the dinosaurs). Just a thought!