There are things we will never know about dinosaurs – here’s why
Despite two centuries of incredible discoveries, an inability to locate fossils means that many secrets about these species will never be found, he says. David Hone
April 13, 2022
The study of dinosaurs has made some amazing progress over the last 20 years. The discovery of many full-fledged dinosaurs provides indisputable evidence for the evolution of birds from their non-flying ancestors, for example. We also have fossils that preserve old patterns of these long-extinct animals.
About 50 new dinosaur species have been named each year for the past two decades. New studies have emerged on dinosaur behavior, ecology, sex, physiology, brain structure, hearing and many more functions. It really is a treasure trove of data, and new research pathways continue to produce increasingly interesting and surprising insights about these animals. And yet, quite inevitably, the fossil record is incredibly incomplete. Despite all the progress that has been made over two centuries in studying dinosaurs, there are still countless things we do not know about them.
We may have some ideas about the colors of a few dinosaurs, but these are just a handful of individuals that may not even be as representative of their species, let alone a few others. We have done in-depth studies of how Tyrannosaurus Rex could stand, walk, run and turn, but there is nothing similar even for the other 30 species of tyrannosaurs, let alone other groups. These gaps can at least be filled with new finds one day, but what about the things we may never know?
Think of some of the strangest animals there are, those that are most different from their closest relatives or are stops for some long-lost group. Giant tortoises, marine iguanas and flightless cormorants in the Galapagos Islands; kiwi, kakapo and tuatara in New Zealand; Hawaii’s (now unfortunately extinct) rails; lemurs and extinct elephant birds in Madagascar; and so on.
What they have in common is where they live – islands, usually those that are both volcanic and far from other land masses, and they are often tropical as well. These are places where isolated populations can cling on and take interesting turns, as small groups develop under unusual conditions. They are often free from some of the constraints that come from the presence of competitors and predators, which can allow them to flourish where they have perished elsewhere, or to diversify and produce new and unusual forms.
The thing is, however, that such environments are awful for forming fossils. Small pieces of land are likely to have a limited number of large rivers and lakes with a lot of silt to bury animals. Tropical environments have very high decay rates, so dead bodies often do not last long enough to be buried. Volcanic islands can easily sink into the ocean and be left to tectonic activities, and such sites are generally very unlikely to be exposed on the surface where paleontologists can pick at them 100 million years later.
In short, no matter how bizarre we think dinosaurs are now, they most likely produced much more interesting and unusual animals on all sorts of islands in the Mesozoic era (about 252 million to 66 million years ago), but it is incredibly unlikely that we will ever find them. Either the fossils have never been formed or those islands have been destroyed and are now inaccessible.
Our knowledge of the evolution of animals on islands is sufficient to give us confidence that strange dinosaurs appeared in these places, although our understanding of the fossilization processes similarly tells us that we are unlikely to access the fossils in the future, no matter how much we have. dig.
We’ve learned so much about dinosaurs, and there’s still so much more to come. But there are fascinating gaps we may never fill, with only enticing tips about these wonderful ancient creatures.
David Hone is the author of The Future of Dinosaurs (Hodder & Stoughton).
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