It rises from the dark waters like some behemoth from the deep, and lets out a blood-curdling roar. It’s feeding time. One of the most iconic scenes from Jurassic Park III is where the long-snouted, sail-backed giant theropod dinosaur Spinosaurus emerges from underwater to try, yet again, to eat our beleaguered rabble of misfortunates. It’s always been the way these dinosaurs have been portrayed, including one of Spinosaurus’ close cousins Baryonyx from the UK. With their long snouts, bulbous tips, and pointy teeth, it’s often been thought that spinosaurid dinosaurs were quite a lot like modern crocodiles. But how much of this is true?
Often the early evolution and radiation of the first dinosaurs is an overlooked part of their tale, in favour of the more dramatic but arguably no less important tales of their later radiations and extinctions. It is actually a fairly poorly understood part of their evolution too, with the timing, and actual mechanism that drove them to become the most successful land group ever still a bit of a mystery.
We are, however, learning more and more about this important phase of their history, in a time known as the Late Triassic some 231-201 million years ago. A new fossil site from this time in Poland – probably not one of the places you’d associate with important fossils – is helping to fill in the blanks. Usually, dinosaur-bearing sites from around this time are known from the southwestern United States and southern South America, so a European locality can potentially tell us quite a bit!
In palaeontology, there are so many things more important than dinosaurs. For example, the study of large-scale patterns in the history of life on Earth, commonly known as macroevolution, is all about uncovering patterns of speciation and extinction. We are currently about to enter the sixth mass extinction within the last 542 million years of life on Earth, so figuring out exactly what happened during periods of elevated extinction and ecosystem catastrophe is pretty damn important if we want to offset as much damage as possible.
Recently, a suite of new papers have been published giving detailed insight into the environmental and biological patterns and processes throughout the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, an event 252 million years ago that saw the demise of greater than 90% of life on this planet (numbers vary depending on which measure you use). What I’d like to offer here are bitesize summaries of each, and show that there is much more important research out there in palaeontology than just ‘woo new dinosaur’.
For some years now, Mary Schweitzer and her team have been researching the idea that organic molecules can be preserved for millions of years, specifically within dinosaurs. They have used a plethora of chemical and biotechnological techniques to demonstrate that, within animals like Tyrannosaurus rex, it is possible to find the residue of structures such as blood vessels and even proteins. Naturally, her research has been met with a whole wad of stiff resistance from the scientific community, seemingly for no other reason than “We don’t like the sound of that..”. Scientific rigour ftw!
Let’s go meta. Recently, ecologist extraordinaire Dr. Jacquelyn Gill (or is it Professor cos of that weird American system?) wrote a wonderful review article on the extinctions that affected many large mammal species during the last 50-10,000 years. This period is known as the Quaternary, and was a time when ice ages were running rife between warmer periods, and herds of enigmatic mammals roamed the steppes. It’s also a time when many wonderful animals, such as mammoths, disappeared from our planet forever, apart from rare fuzzy sightings from drunk Russians that later turn out to be a bear, or nothing. The result is that although we have a spectacular range of mammals decorating our landscapes today, this is but a shadow of mammals’ true splendour back just a few thousand years.
There’s a lot of talk these days about science communication. Some people spend their lives debating the differences between outreach, public engagement, and science communication, and how they all mean different things. As a scientist, and I’m quite sure I can speak on behalf of the entire community, we don’t give a toss what you call the model – let us interact with people. And by interact, we mean get reciprocal. This is true science communication or whatever fancy name you want to call it, and it’s where people give something back and get physical with the science. Great platforms for this include discussion sessions, café scientifiques, science festivals, and of course, citizen science.
Dinosaur skeletons are a thing of pure beauty. Being able to see and touch something that has been dead for millions of years instills a sense of wonder; what did they look like, how did they behave, were they like anything we see today? Palaeontology is a science that raises more questions than it answers, but these questions are the ones that drive the science, but also maintain that sense of fascination that no other scientific field can lay claim to.
Every now and then, we are blessed with a true jewel. Many can lay claims to the discovery of a dinosaur bone, even fewer to that of a whole skeleton. Celebrity status is achieved when one finds something that truly stands out, a dinosaur preserved in immortality with flesh, and these are the rarest of all.