Despite being dead for millions of years, our love affair with dinosaurs, as a culture, will likely be immortal. We dress up like them to do stunts on jet skis, we obsess over fossils, but what we know in the broad sense is static. After all, what could change?
A lot, it turns out. The New York Times has a fascinating look at the work of Matthew Baron, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Baron has spent three years doing the scientific grunt work of scanning fossils and comparing their anatomic features. And, in the process, he started finding that much of what we’ve taken for granted about dinosaurs is completely wrong.
To this point, identifying a dinosaur comes down to hip bones. Ornithischia, or bird-hipped, dinosaurs are separated from Saurischia, or lizard-hipped, dinos. That was decided back in the 1880s and has been used ever since, albeit with some actual science done later on to justify it. But Baron’s computer analysis looked at far more anatomic features and completely reordered the family tree of dinos. The biggest change is that Velociraptors, and their brethren, get a separate branch, Therapoda, all to themselves, and that dinosaurs probably spread from Scotland instead of South America. Oh, and sidenote: All this was spat out by a computer using off the shelf software in five minutes.
Just as interesting, though, is that apparently most of the dinosaurs we know and love sprang from one common ancestor, which was basically us, but dinosaurish:
Based on his tree, Mr. Baron believes that the original dinosaurs were small, two-footed animals with large grasping hands, as others have said before, but also omnivorous. Early dinosaurs had both knifelike teeth for eating meat and flatter teeth for chewing plants.
That raises a bunch of intriguing questions, if we can find the fossils to back it up. Why didn’t dinosaurs evolve like humans? Just as importantly, why didn’t humans evolve like dinosaurs?
Needless to say, this will probably be the source of endless scientific arguments, and even Baron is careful to make clear that this tree is based on statistics and observation. It’ll need a lot of field work to prove true, and it may not hold up. But even critics agree that Baron’s done his homework, and that everything we know about dinosaurs may be about to change.
(via The New York Times)