The Dinosaurs Among Us

Monday, May 24, 2021

If it looks like a duck, it’s probably a theropod dinosaur.  This is an artist’s rendition of the 11 foot-long Deinonychus antirrhopus, which lived about 110 million years ago in the western United States.  Photo courtesy of Emily Willoughby and Wikimedia under CC BY-SA 4.0.

There is something really primordial about the way wild turkeys run.  Each spring, a lot of turkeys seem to be running away from me as I move through the woods in search of a gobbler.  It’s almost worth it to watch them run away, though, because it looks just like a scene out of Jurassic Park.  Although they are poor flyers, they are fast, agile runners, and their cadence and head bobbing as they run looks eerily similar to the film’s Velociraptor.

That is not mere coincidence, however.  Jurassic Park portrays many dinosaurs running like turkeys because scientists have realized that birds are dinosaurs, and that many of them likely moved just like turkeys.  Although many dinosaurs went extinct after a large asteroid changed the future of the planet 66 million years ago, some did not.  Those dinosaurs—many already quite bird-like when their cousins died off—evolved into the modern birds we know and love.

In fact, although birds are separated into their own specific group of animals—Class Aves—many scientists think this is a mistake, and believe they are better placed within the same class as lizards, snakes, turtles, and their closest living relatives, the alligators and crocodiles.  Birds are, like all dinosaurs, part of the Class Reptilia, the reptiles.

Birds and Velociraptor are “theropod” dinosaurs, a group of carnivorous animals that range in size from the diminutive Compsognathus (“compys” in the movies) to the monstrous Tyrannosaurus, and some that were even larger than T. rex.  Birds and these ancient dinosaurs share many traits, including hollow, air-filled bones, an elongate, flexible neck, identical feet, and even the wishbone.  Fossil evidence also shows that some ancient dinosaurs had feathers, probably originally used to regulate their temperature.  Other fossils have revealed evidence that some dinosaurs brooded their eggs and slept just like modern birds.

The most famous fossil bird reveals its reptilian ancestry perfectly.  Archaeopteryx (which literally means “old wing”) is a 150 million year old fossil that was unearthed in 1861, which coincidentally was two years after Charles Darwin published his seminal work On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection.  The discovery soon dissolved much of the doubt among scientists about the origins of birds, and in many ways solidified Darwin’s revolutionary ideas as well.

Archaeopteryx had numerous reptilian traits, but many bird traits as well.  For example, it had teeth, a long, jointed tail, and front claws, much like a lizard, all traits that modern birds lack.  The front claws are particularly amazing because they are part of the bird’s wing.  Although all of these traits suggested “reptile”, the wings, the number and shape of the flight feathers, and the structure of its wishbone and other skeletal features clearly showed that this was a flying, feathered reptile, or in other words, a bird.

The science didn’t stop in the late 19th century, however.  Discoveries in the late 1960s suggested, for the first time, that dinosaurs were endothermic, meaning they are “warm-blooded”, generating their own heat, and were active predators.  Before this, it was assumed that dinosaurs were like other reptiles, which are ectothermic, or “cold-blooded”, and because of this their activity was limited.  The discovery of new theropods with a small body, sleek posture, and those same enlarged claws that made Velociraptor so famous suggested an active, agile predator.  By the late 1990s, scientists had found even more dinosaur fossils with feathers on the bodies, making it clear that, unlike their scaled reptilian cousins, these feathered dinosaurs were warm-blooded, more like birds than reptiles.

Think about the implications of the dinosaurs among us the next time you are enjoying an Easter egg hunt with dyed dinosaur eggs, or when you eat some Buffalo dinosaur wings, a dino-omelet, Kentucky Fried Dinosaur, or Dino-fil-A.  Think about it when you watch any team named after a bird: the St. Louis Cardinalosaurs, Pittsburgh Penguinosaurs, Seattle Seahawkosaurs and the Atlanta Hawkosaurs come to mind.  Perhaps remember it as you are making a wish with the broken end of a dinosaur’s wishbone in your hand at Thanksgiving, not that much different than the one that used to help Tyrannasaurus rex run after prey.  Consider it as you fill your dinosaur feeders each day, get your binoculars out to add to your dinosaur life list, or listen as your dinosaur clock strikes noon with a very melodic, dinosaur-like call. Perhaps, like me, you will be thinking about it when you go out hunting for dinosaurs with (gasp) only a shotgun.  Whether in a duck blind or sitting silently against a large tree, many hunters spend an inordinate amount of time trying to mimic the sounds of dinosaurs, often with dinosaur decoys in front of them.

One of the greatest things about science is its ability to show connections among seemingly disparate things, like how the gravitational pull of the moon controls the tides, how carbon dioxide pollution contributes to climate change, or how wolf restoration can benefit endangered trout.  We can safely add birds to that list.  Although some birds, such as hummingbirds, seem far removed from their reptilian ancestors, a closer look shows that hummingbirds are no different than other birds: they share many of the same traits as any other theropod dinosaur.  Thankfully humans never interacted with dinosaurs like Velociraptor except in the movies, but there is something elegantly beautiful about the fact that we are living with dinosaurs now, and they are literally all around us.