Dinosaurs do matter to our future. Of course, I am not suggesting that there will be a time machine where a bespectacled parasaurolophus jumps out and yells, “You must plant Okra, before it’s too late!” … although that would be cool. But thinking about dinosaurs could be helpful to us, as explained in a fascinating little book by Kenneth Lacovara called Why Dinosaurs Matter.
I highly recommend the book, or at least Lacovara’s TED talk on YouTube, but let me debrief you. Consider this a book report that might contribute to saving the planet. It’s the scientific variation of the saying:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.Santayana
Dinosaurs Are a Metaphor for Abundance, Not Failure
So what lessons can dinosaurs teach us? If you see an 8.5 mile wide asteroid heading for your neighborhood, bend over and firmly place your head between your knees… or something a little less primitive?
Lacovara’s strongest point is that dinosaurs were an incredibly successful branch on the tree of life. They had zillions of species, ranging from smaller than a chicken to bigger than a Boeing 737. Their reign covered nearly a third of the span of time that multi-celled life has been on earth–three times as along as us mammals. The biggest irony, in fact, is that the word “dinosaur” is used as a metaphor for being outmoded or incapable of change because the dinosaur kingdom’s capacity to diversify and adapt is still unparalleled. They didn’t really “go extinct” as much as being extinguished by an extra-terrestrial bolt of lightning. Besides, technically, they’re not extinct–but we’ll get to that.
Hadrosaurs Get Into Everything
One proof of their success is their diversity. Take the hadrosaurs, a branch of the plant-eaters, one of the earliest and most frequently discovered among the fossil records. Like deer and rabbits, hadrosaurs multiplied frequently and quickly, were designed for speed and agility, and ate every veggie in sight. Given how many and how tough the predators were, the hadrosaurs still impressively managed to splinter into 60 different varieties. Hadrosaur bones have been found on every continent except Australia (including Antarctica).
Their head crests alone had enough assortments to make a milliner weep. The hadrosaurs include my favorite, oft-mentioned dude, right in the middle there: the parasaurolophus. Steadfast, brave, always on the alert for trouble amid the ferns, Ms. P. was ever-ready to toot her head-trombone at the first sound of stomping.
And the teeth! Hadrosaurs had four or five rows of teeth. Plant-eaters today, like elephants and kangaroos, have similar rows which grow in to replace old chewers that fall out. But the hadrosaurs also had an extra hinge in their jaw that moved back and forth as well as up and down (and sideways). All varieties of eating, all the time.
Killer Bananas and Seam Rippers
Speaking of teeth, we should next talk about the king. The Big Kamehameha. He was 40 feet from nose to tail, taller than your house. His teeth could grow to be a foot long, which is why paleontologist Robert Bakker called them “killer bananas.” He was deemed T. Rex before many species of dinos had even been discovered, but he’s never lost the fame and the flash. He’s still the king.
Rex himself got a bad rap and became a metaphor for failure–undeservedly so–since he was one of the most fearsome predators of all time. He was giant, lightning fast, and had both excellent vision and smell. Those movies where the scientist advises “just stay still”? I call B.S. T.Rex could see, hear, and smell you. The only possible chance if you didn’t launch a handheld rocket in time would be to dart sideways. The only thing Rex couldn’t do well was change direction.
But what about those tiny arms?
Tiny Arms: It’s a Feature Not a Bug
Ha-ha. T-Rex can’t pass the salt. T-Rex can’t be happy and know it. T-Rex can’t reach the toilet paper. Know what? Having arms is not evidence of success. Didn’t you watch any of the Paralympics? Humans might need arms because our legs are so feeble and body armor non-existent. But T-Rex not only didn’t need grasping arms, the atrophied arms were part of its strength.
…the puny arms of T. Rex represent one of its greatest strengths…a key adaptation that allowed it to terrorize its landscape and dominate its ecosystem…Lacovara, Why Dinosaurs Matter
How so? First of all, think of the tiny arms as similar to the fur which we’ve lost. Arms are no more needed to a T. Rex than an appendix is to a human. Furthermore, remember that arms aren’t free. The muscles that attach arms to the shoulder actually compete with other muscles. Which ones? The ones that attach to the jaw. If you don’t need arms, then you can have a really, really big set of banana-sized, razor-sharp teeth, on a jaw that could slice through concrete. Or a stegosaurus skull in one bite.
Besides, the two fingered, clawed arms did have a function. Once that massive mouth grabbed you by the whatever–neck, leg, arm… oh, you have a loose arm waving about grabbed by a T. Rex? Too bad you have all those extra unnecessary appendages! Anyway, once Da King had you up close and personal in its teeth, it could use those three-foot-long arms as seam rippers to open you up and expose all the good stuff. So don’t mess with Tiny Arms.
Surviving the Pinprick on the Earth
Even T. Rex couldn’t handle the Chicxulub asteroid, though. The Earth handled it just fine. Eight-and-half-miles wide was a mere “pinprick” in terms of our planet’s scale and size. We’ve been hit by plenty of asteroids before; the earth can shake it off. But if your biodiversity was dependent on light, warmth, and plenty of tropical plants, then you were in trouble. There are estimates that 75-90% of species died off in the wake of the asteroid.
However, several categories of life did not die off. Bacteria and insects did pretty well. Many types of fish and reptiles–ancestors to sharks and crocodiles, in particular–continued to flourish. On land, there were two other types of animals which made it through the Dark Days of the Paleogenic Era. One of them was still a dinosaur.
I’m still old enough to remember learning that Reptiles and Birds were different members of the animal kingdom, but we have to let go of that. It’s like thinking the Earth is at the center of the solar system. It’s just wrong, as I learned a few years ago. Based on physiology, modern birds and ancient birds are on the same part of the family tree as dinosaurs. They’re now called “avian dinosaurs.” (Please feel free to see Lacovara’s detailed explanations as to why penguins are dinosaurs and pterodactyls are not.)
But flying birds and those that lived in trees were not the ones that survived the asteroid. Given the mass climate event that happened, the birds which evolved best were able low to the ground or even lived underground. They likely ate seeds and insects, as they still do today. So they were more like turkeys, perhaps, than eagles. Yep, turkeys made it first to the promised days; eagles had to wait to evolve.
Mammals also survived the dino-calypse, as we often like to point out to our reptilian friends. But these were not mammals like us bipedal flailing sacks of meat. Like the birds, the mammals which survived were small, low to the ground, capable of burrowing, and eating whatever. They had sharp strong teeth, good eyesight (to see in the darkening days), and fur. This picture of Purgatorius unio in The Guardian is a pretty friendly version of the earliest mammal.
Why It Matters
So here’s the payoff. This incredibly diverse, widespread, long-lived group of creatures were killed off by a freak event, an extra-terrestrial rock that just didn’t happen not to deviate enough out of our path. It wasn’t about lack of adaptation; they couldn’t see what was coming. At least we can. We’re at the beginning of a mass extinction event. Let’s not even debate who or what caused it; we know we’re there. Given this, we can learn two things by looking back at the past.
First, we can learn humility. T. Rex as one of the most powerful predators in 600 million years still couldn’t survive it, despite his superior adaptations. Being a superior creature on the planet isn’t enough to outlast everything.
Secondly, the mini-turkeys and tree shrews that made it past the K-Pg event were funny-looking and small, with very few of what we’d deem superior adaptations. They just had the adaptation that worked for the time.
When I moved into my neighborhood some twenty years ago, we were the only house on the block that didn’t have a lawn. Today, after several waves of drought years and more in the future, my neighbors have changed. Now there are only two houses with lawns, and one guy waters his with reclaimed wastewater. Our local counties divert and recycle between 75-80% of waste away from landfills. I couldn’t have imagined that as a kid, but adaptation is very possible. The national recycling average is still only 35%, so we have some work to do, but we can get there. We can get to 99% if we want to.
We can figure this out, and we can change. The faster we do it, the less suffering and damage for future generations. Because, although T. Rex did have those huge, efficient jaws, he did have a tiny brain. That’s where H. sapiens does have an advantage.
If only we can use it.