Bones sinking like stones All that we fought for Homes, places we’ve grown All of us are done for And we live in a beautiful world Yeah, we do, yeah, we do
“Don’t Panic” by Coldplay (1999)
Do we know everything about dinosaurs? What if they built cities out of rock that turned to the dust in which their bones lay? What if they wrote stories on parchment which disintegrated and scattered to the winds? We don’t know whether they spoke languages; their brains were too small–we assume–to do so. We know that some dinosaurs ate other dinosaurs based on the bones. That they walked upright, lived near rivers, protected their young, and covered all the continents, including Antarctica. Two hundred million years was a long time to flourish. Some of it is still a mystery.
Humans have only been discovering things about dinosaurs for about 200 hundred years (happy bicentennial Mary Ann Mantell!) There may be a lot more dino-history buried in those formations. We already know quite a lot from a relatively little, a lot to imagine from just a few bones. If a vertebrae is six feet tall, how big must the creature who carried it have been? (A: 75 ft long)
Those scientists dudes–and dudenas–are so smart! They can tell you how much oxygen a dinosaur was using. They can figure out where the bubonic plague came from, 700 years ago. They can use new computers to rescan old pictures to look for earth-nudging asteroids. Exploring the universe with tools, logic, and an understanding of the behavior of things, they can describe what happened in places they can’t see and have never gone. Knowledge spreads ever-so-slightly outward into the vastness of the unknown.
Strangely enough, it gives me a warm and fuzzy sense of comfort. As the kids say, Science gives you All the Feels. But let’s not get it tangled up with Belief.
Hot Blood Begets Hot Thoughts and Hot Deeds
Whether dinosaurs were hot-blooded or cold-blooded is a century-old argument. It was two whole classes in my semester of Paleontology 2A, back in the 1980s. Dr. Jasmina Wiemann at CalTech may have come across clues that explain why it’s been so hard to determine. The answer is a little of both.
Dinosaurs were reptiles. They lay eggs, and they don’t have fur/hair–I will spare you the much longer explanation involving clades. Modern reptiles are cold-blooded, ectothermic; they rely on external sources to raise body temperature enough to move around. They have slow metabolisms, so are very thrifty with their energy movements. Mammals and other creatures are endothermic or warm-blooded, with fast metabolisms. We can move around even when it’s not warm or sunny, even though we’d rather burrow under the covers. And some of us have such low metabolisms that even thinking about Cheetos causes bloating. But I digress.
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.
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.