What are the elements of dinosaur science?
27th August 2002
Which scientific disciplines need to be understood in order to study
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.
- 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.
- Dinosaur evolution can only be understood in the context of
- 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
- 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
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.
- 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.