Restoring That Sense of Wonder

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[Note from the author: Given the craziness of summer, I'm going to be a little lazy this week and repost something from my old blog. Many of the themes in this post echo Brian Switek's new book, My Beloved Brontosaurus. If you're intrigued by how our view of dinosaurs has changed recently, definitely check it out. Enjoy!]

These can be depressing times for a paleontologist – funding is poor for most, the job market is dim for many talented friends and colleagues, and rhetoric-ridden battles for scholarly publishing rage. That’s enough to suck the joy right out of the field. In instances like this, it’s nice to step back for a second and think about the really cool stuff going on.

So, I’ve put together a list of wondrous things that have happened in paleontology over the past several years. Why are they cool to me? Mostly because they challenge ideas that I acquired while a little, dinosaur-obsessed kid. And they also challenge ideas I’ve acquired as an “educated” professional. Sometimes it’s nice to have our comfort zone stretched.

Symbols of the new paleontological revolution: an eye-catching Sinosauropteryx crouches on top of mammoth DNA, overlain on a thin-section of dinosaur bone.

Symbols of the new paleontological revolution: an eye-catching Sinosauropteryx crouches on top of mammoth DNA, overlain on a thin-section of dinosaur bone. CC-BY-SA. Sources at end of post.

In no particular order:

  • We know what colors were on parts of the body of some dinosaurs. Really. How cool is that? Sure, it’s not perfect, and there is lots we’ll never know, but the mere fact that you can plausibly reconstruct parts of the pelage of a feathered dinosaur is amazing. Especially because I had always believed the truism that we’d know the texture of dinosaur skins, but never the color.
  • I can download a genetic sequence from a woolly mammoth. Or a Neanderthal. Or any number of extinct organisms. I had always known that Jurassic Park would never be a reality. It probably never will be (at least for non-avian dinosaurs). But to stare at the A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s of an extinct organism still gives me some goosebumps.
  • I can listen to a Jurassic katydid. Yes, yes, there are some assumptions in the reconstruction. But let’s suspend criticism for a moment, and accept that it’s probably at least a decent approximation. These are noises that haven’t been heard in 165 million years.
  • We know the sex of some individual dinosaur specimens. Thanks to studies of medullary bone and comparative anatomy, the seemingly impossible is made real. Wow!
  • Similarly, we know the age of some dinosaur individuals at death (give or take a few years). The notion that sauropods only got big because they grew for a century can’t be supported anymore. Once again – wow!

This is just my personal list – what’s on yours?

Sources for image: Mammoth DNA sequence in background from GenBank Accession FJ655900 (published by Enk et al., 2009); dinosaur bone histological section modified from Woodward et al. 2011 Figure 1C (colors inverted and adjusted); Sinosauropteryxmodified from original by Marty Martunuik. Image released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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