By Hillary Mayell
National Geographic News
December 17, 2002

If you ever wanted to grow up to be a dinosaur hunter, now is the time to do it. Fossil finds and improvements in technology over the last decade have spurred stunning advances in the field, and there is no reason to think that the pace will slow anytime soon.

In the last couple of years, paleontologists have unearthed the biggest meat-eater ever (as yet unnamed, but pity poor T. rex, who is losing status fast); Paralititan stromeri, the second biggest dinosaur ever to walk the face of the Earth (think small building on legs); and Sarcosuchus imperator, a crocodilian who wanted to be a dinosaur, but didn't quite make the cut. On the other hand, he was the size of a large school bus with jaws long enough to accommodate your average NBA player.

The incredible advances in understanding can be divided down two lines -- technology and available materials, said Mark Norell, chairman of the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.

"The technology is changing all the time," he said. "Today we can use CAT scans to look inside fossils, we can use computers to generate very detailed biomechanical models that can tell us things like range of motion and speed. Mass spectrometers can date fossils with a tremendous amount of precision, and we can use remote sensing and satellite imagery to narrow down the places where we look for fossils."

"The other thing is the phenomenal amount of spectacular fossils that have been found," he continued. "I don't think if anyone had told us ten years ago we'd be looking at the finds that have been uncovered in Argentina and Asia -- dinosaurs sitting on top of their nests, feathered dinosaurs -- any of us would have believed it."

Reevaluating Dinosaur History

Up until the 1970s, scientists thought of dinosaurs as big, dumb, slow, and cold-blooded -- essentially overgrown lizards. Today's explosion of interest had its genesis in the early 1970s when paleontologists John Ostrom and Bob Bakker made the case that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, active, and intelligent.

This radical reassessment has engaged paleontologists ever since. And who wouldn't be riveted by the questions that arise?

The globalization of fossil digs and a truly spectacular ratcheting up of technology since then has revealed a broadly diverse picture of dinosaurs that includes lots of small, dog- and turkey-size dinosaurs, as well as dinos that push the outer limits of what is physiologically possible in terms of size. In between is an array of evolutionary stops and starts; a banquet of possibilities in terms of filling specific ecological niches that includes huge size, small size; mouthfuls of weird teeth, partially formed beaks, frills, horns, and feathers.

Yes, feathers. It's more than possible that Tyrannosaurus rex, whose rep as a top-of-the-food chain vicious predator has made him an icon in the kingdom of Dinosauria, had feathers -- at least as a chick. The application of biomechanics to his physique shows that he wasn't very fast either. But more on that later.

Long Standing Uncertainties

"The question of whether dinosaurs were warm- or cold-blooded is no longer the focus it once was," said Thomas Holtz, a dinosaur paleontologist and director of the Earth, Life, and Time program at the University of Maryland.

"The majority of scientists would consider that dinosaurs certainly had elevated temperatures relative to living crocodiles, snakes, and turtles. Whether extinct dinosaurs had the same physiology as living mammals and birds remains uncertain. We haven't found the evidence yet to totally resolve it."

The warm-blooded/cold-blooded argument is now inextricably tied to the scientific tug of war over whether birds are descended from dinosaurs. Feathered dinosaur fossils found in extraordinarily rich fossil beds in northeastern China have brought the debate much closer to resolution. Only a handful of scientists oppose the birds-descended-from-dinosaurs point of view.

Having feathers does not mean dinosaurs could fly. Primitive feathers or a downy coat probably developed initially as a way to keep them warm.

Another long-standing and perhaps somewhat less vitriolic debate -- What wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago? -- has evolved over the years, said Dale Russell, the senior curator of paleontology at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences. "The extinction of the dinosaurs by an extraterrestrial cause has become the most popular theory," he said.

Defining the Family Tree

Early ideas of what dinosaurs looked like were based almost entirely on specimens found in North America and western Europe. Paleontologists looking in South America, Africa, and China, in deserts and the Arctic, have rewritten the book.

"Paleontology has really gone international," said Norell. "It's not that we'd never seen fossils from Australia, South America, Africa, and Antarctica. But the increased amount of research has given us an entirely different, more globalized picture."

One of the big tasks of biologists is to describe the history of life, said Holtz. Paleontologists and biologists are interested in the evolutionary relationships between the different groups of dinosaurs, patterns of common ancestry, the sequence of adaptations acquired, whether changes occur independently within different groups, and the sequence in which diversity took place.

"We can't resolve those things without knowing what the family tree of dinosaurs looks like," Holtz said. "The increased number of fossils from the southern continents and increased computing speed have contributed to great strides being made in fleshing out that tree."

Technology's Day in the Sun

Breakthroughs in scientific applications and techniques such as: scanning, computer modeling, and the application of biomechanics are also changing how we picture dinosaurs.

Scientists can tell a lot by studying soft-tissue anatomy, body coverings, early feathers, muscles, veins, arteries, cartilage, respiratory systems, and air sacs. Of course, the problem is that soft tissue is not fossilized.

One advance that has made a better understanding of dinosaur biomechanics possible is the leap forward in computer modeling of living systems.

"We know a lot less about the biomechanics of living creatures than people realize," said Holtz. "A lot of assumptions being made in the past were just that, assumptions, not tested in living forms. Only in the last five years have we had a detailed understanding of things like bird flight, running mechanics, what it takes to be a fast swimmer."

Larry Witmer, an associate professor of biomedical science at Ohio University and pioneer in this field, published a paper in 2001 on the correct placement of dinosaur nostrils -- they belong closer to the mouth rather than on the top of the head. What difference does it make if the dinosaur's nostrils were closer to his mouth than the top of his head? Nostril placement is key to the organization of the entire respiratory system, and has implications for how the creatures breathed, found food, ate, detected predators, reproduced, and regulated brain and body temperature.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History recently spent U.S. $1 million to remount their Triceratops horridus -- one of the first dinosaurs ever to go on display, based on bone scans and computer modeling.

And the running speed of Tyrannosaurus rex?

John Hutchinson, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Biomechanical Engineering Division at Stanford University and a colleague developed a computer model of the fallen king, and determined that the dinosaur just didn't have the leg muscle to be all that fast. Their model placed its top speed at the lower end of 10 to 25 miles (16 to 40 kilometers) per hour; not completely lumbering, but also not likely to beat a car traveling at 45 miles (72 kilometers per hour) as depicted in the movie Jurassic Park.

Not everyone agrees with Hutchinson's interpretation, of course. "That's ridiculous," said Gregory Paul, an independent paleontologist based in Baltimore, Maryland. "There's plenty of evidence that Tyrannosaurus rex was a fast runner."

Leonardo, a 77-million-year-old mummified duck billed dinosaur (Brachylophosaurus) found in northern Montana may provide much-needed soft tissue clues to researchers. Only four mummified dinosaurs have ever been found, and three of them were discovered in the early 20th century when excavating and preservation techniques were relatively rudimentary. Patches of Leonardo's skin, scales, muscle, throat tissue, nail material, a beak, and foot pads were all preserved.

Clues to Life as a Dinosaur

Leonardo's stomach contents are so well preserved researchers can tell what he had for his last supper. His stomach contained pollen from 40 different plants, which will help determine the diet and paleo-environment of the Late Cretaceous (98.9 to 65 million years ago) in that part of the world.

Paleontologists are not proud; they use everything they can find to learn more about dinosaurs.

Dino poop, known more technically as coprolite, and dinosaur vomit -- both of which would look like rocks to most of us -- provide information not available from fossils, information about what -- or whom -- a particular dinosaur ate, how it digested its food, and how the food was processed.

There is tantalizing evidence from such widely diverse areas as Montana and the Gobi desert that some dinosaur species practiced parental care, much as birds do, tending and feeding their young. Recent nesting grounds found in Spain and France have yielded embryonic fossils. Trackways found in Oxford, England, that look to be made by different types of sauropods -- big, long-necked plant-eaters -- have lead researchers to consider the possibility that dinosaurs may have traveled in mixed-herds.

"We have slight snippets of evidence that indicate some herding behavior, and some snippets that suggest some parental care," said Norell. "But you have to remember that dinosaurs were an incredibly diverse group of animals, so we're not talking about these behaviors in all dinosaurs."

To know "a lot of this stuff takes discovery of fantastic fossils, and you just never know what you'll find," he said.

The fossil record gives us only a minute fraction of what existed, and much remains unknown.

"Say there are 5,000 species of mammals today; if we go back a million years ago and look worldwide, we find just a tiny tiny percentage of that in the fossil record," said Norell. "And the fossil record a million years ago is going to be better than 65 million years ago."

"What makes the Liaoning Province in China so interesting is we're finding all these small theropod dinosaurs, and there's no reason to believe they didn't live worldwide," he said. "But there's no evidence of them; small things with delicate bones don't preserve well."

Dinosaur Photo Gallery:

Dinosaurs ruled the Earth for 160 million years before their sudden and still mysterious extinction.

In the 192 pages of National Geographic's new book National Geographic Dinosaurs, dinosaur expert Paul Barrett helps answer questions such as what were dinosaurs really like, how big were they, what did they eat, and how did they interact with each other.

More than 50 dinosaur profiles flesh out the details behind the fossil record. Range maps show where dinosaur evidence has been found all over the world. Size charts show how much larger or smaller dinosaurs were compared to humans. Each dinosaur genus is described. Mural artwork by Raul Mart makes Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous scenes seem vividly real. Take a look at a photo gallery of his paintings for the book...


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