What are the elements of dinosaur science?

27th August 2002

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Which scientific disciplines need to be understood in order to study dinosaurs?


Subjects that have been suggested include the following.


Comparative Anatomy
This is perhaps the bed-rock of most dinosaur science. Knowing how the vertebrate skeleton fits together, and how it functions, is foundational to understanding the significance of fossils, recognising particular genera and species, and any substantial discussion of issues such as dinosaur weights, speeds and metabolism. Also, there have been several recent finds (some disputed) of fossilised remains of soft body parts including hearts and skin impressions: interpreting these requires a grounding in anatomy.

Vertebrate Classification
The principles of classification are indispensable for understanding how various dinosaurs are related to each other, and this FAQ accordingly includes a lot of material on classification principles. Beyond this, understanding current ideas on the classification of vertebrates in particular helps us to see how dinosaurs fit into the rest of the world - and, particularly, how they are related to living species.

Birds and their relatives and
Reptiles and their relatives
Birds and reptiles are the dinosaurs' closest living relatives, so knowledge of how they work can be useful in interpreting dinosaur remains. For example, the air-sacs in the necks of modern birds such as the ostrich are functionally and structurally similar to those of Brachiosaurus and related animals. While we have only limited remains of dinosaurs (and little or nothing in the way of soft parts), we can sometimes hypothesise details of their anatomy based on what we know of living birds and reptiles.

Some understanding of physiology is a prerequisite for understanding the issues in the dinosaur metabolism debate.


Geological Time
Dinosaur evolution can only be understood in the context of geological time.

Necessary to understand the circumstances under which bodies can be fossilised, and to make deductions based on the type of rock in which they are found. This kind of reasoning explains why the fossil record is not necessarily a good sample of what animals were alive at any give time, and can give clues to how the dinosaurs lived and died: one obvious example is that in some cases, we can tell that dinosaurs became trapped in tar pits.


Radiological Dating
Techniques such as potassium-argon dating and rubidium-strontium dating are fundamental to our ability to put a date on fossils, relating them to the span of geological time and therefore to specific dinosaur groups, yielding insights into evolutionary pathways. (The better known carbon dating technique is only good for fossils up to about 100,000 years ago.)

Process of Fossilisation
In order to interpret fossils correctly, we need to understand what they are, how they are formed, how their chemical constituents are affected by the surrounding rock, etc.


Mechanical analysis of the size and strength of dinosaur bones, and calculations of the stresses which they would be able to bear in life, yields information which helps us to estimate dinosaur body weights, running speeds, etc., and so make inferences concerning their behaviour.

Social Studies

Apart from the history of palaeontology itself, it helps to have an understanding of the philosophical background of the 19th century: how fossils were viewed; the gradual acceptance that the fossil record demonstrates the occurrence of extinction (something that was not widely accepted for a long time); and the religious vocation of many palaeontological pioneers.

And Then ...

To all these subjects we could add yet more. For example, some prominent paleontologists including Robert Bakker and Gregory S. Paul have the advantage of illustrating their own work, giving it far more immediate impact than words alone can have. You could make a case this is one of the reasons that Bakker's arguing in favour of warm blooded dinosaurs has had more effect than Ostrom's similar arguments. Anyone wanting to emulate them will need a grounding in art techniques as well as biology, zoology, etc.

If this list appears intimidating, that's understandable. However, some of these subject are far more central than others: it's certainly not necessary to understand 19th century philosophy in order to think coherently about how sauropods supported their weight!

We might summarise by saying that the crucial elements are probably comparative anatomy - particularly how the vertebrate skeleton works - and classification. These subjects provide a common foundation for all the various outlying areas of dinosaur science.

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