Dinosaur FAQ: Introduction

12th December 2000

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Why study dinosaurs?


Life is short, there's too much to do, and the world is full of fascinating things. Of all the things I might decide to plough my meagre spare time into, why would I choose dinosaurs?


If you need to ask this, then why are you reading this document? :-)

There are at least four reasons why dinosaurs are worth learning about.

1. You Can Learn Quickly

In most sciences, it takes years of dedicated study to get the point where you can even understand the state of the art, let alone make any contribution to it. Physics, for example, has reached such absurd levels of specialisation that one graduate student may be totally incapable of understanding another graduate student's thesis.

Fortunately, there are still a few sciences left in which it's possible to come quickly up to speed with the core subjects, and vertebrate palaeontology is one of them. To quote from Chris Brochu's recent message on the DINOSAUR mailing list:

Date: Sun, 19 Nov 2000 17:46:24 -0500 From: chris brochu To: dinosaur@usc.edu Subject: Re: A Bambiraptor/Dinofest Question [...] the number of sciences where serious nonprofessionals can make a real contribution is relatively small. Paleontology is one; others include archaeology, herpetology (range extensions are often published in things like _Herpetological Review_), ornithology (Christmas counts are an important source of ecological information), and astronomy (many, maybe most, asteroids and comets are first spotted in backyard observatories).

The document is here to help you. By the time it's finished, it should have told you all you need to know to be able to read and understand current research papers.

... and then, you can write some :-)

2. Palaeontology is a Living Science

The state of the art in palaeontology moves perhaps faster than in any other science. It seems that hardly a week goes by without some important new discovery being made. Books written twenty and even ten years ago can be embarrassingly out of date. Statements like ``everything you know [about T. rex] is wrong'' are commonplace.

Whether you consider this A Good Thing or not depends on your personal inclination. It can be frustrating to wade through a fascinating book only to find a few weeks later that most of what you learned from it is no longer considered likely to be true. But it's certainly exciting!

3. Dinosaur People Are Good People

I don't know why it should be true, but it is: dinosaur people are almost without exception helpful, polite, patient, hospitable and tolerant. It's a joy to share a mailing list with them. Pretty much every dumb question I have sent out to the various individuals on this list has received a prompt, helpful reply - even from people who have never heard of me, and often going into levels of detail far deeper than I had anticipated.

Even when an argument breaks out on the list (which happens all the time), disagreement is generally expressed politely, with arguments always centering on issues rather than personalities. It's a breath of fresh air. You could hardly wish to find a more pleasant bunch of people.

4. Dinosaurs Are Wonderful

They're marvellous! They're gorgeous! They're wonderful and beautiful and breathtaking and staggering! They make me happy and excited and enthusiastic, they fill me with amazement and awe. When you deal with dinosaurs, you can touch the bones of an animal that lived two hundred million years ago! You can see the skeletons of animals that weighed 75 tonnes! You can see predators fifteen times as big as the most massive predators that still walk the earth!

Even the names of dinosaurs and their groupings are strangely compelling. Giganotosaurus; Coelurosaria; Daspletosaurus; Therizinosaurus; Zuniceratops; Macronaria; Sauroposeidon; Ornithischia; Ornithodira; Tetanurae; Thyreophora; Mamenchisaurus; Parasaurolophus. Aren't these just gorgeous words? Don't they flow across the tongue like warm honey? Mmmm ... Nice!

The bottom line is, dinosaurs are cool, and you know it!


What are the elements of dinosaur science?


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.


How can I make a career in palaeontology?


How can I make a career in palaeontology?


This subject is covered extremely well in the very first FAQ of the Dinosaur Mailing List, which predates this document by more that a year. It's maintained by DML co-administrator Mickey Rowe, and you can find it at www.psych.ucsb.edu/~rowe/dinosaur/FAQs.html

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