Selfies with dinosaurs – the angry birds of the chalk era

I managed to take a selfie with ‘real’ dinosaurs the other week, thanks to some clever SFX. Cool. But in other ways it wasn’t too remarkable – because the latest science says these remarkable creatures, who once dominated the earth and whose chief badass was Tyrannosaurus Rex, are still with us today. We call them ‘chickens’, and usually pressure-cook them in secret herbs and spices.

Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge...but I wouldn't want to meet a hungry one without a Stryker to hand, even so. Click to enlarge.
Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge…but I wouldn’t want to meet a hungry one. Click to enlarge.

That’s right. Birds aren’t ‘descended from’ dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs – specifically, a type of theropod that survived the comet extinction and spread to fill a variety of ecological niches today.

Most of their Cretaceous-era (‘Chalk-era’) relations, such as T-Rex – also a theropod – couldn’t fly. But that didn’t stop most dinosaurs being brightly coloured, feathered (mostly) three-toed, hollow-boned, bipedal egg-layers. Just like birds. And, of course, that means dinosaurs were almost certainly warm-blooded. Like birds. Angry ones. (Go download the app.)

All this was brought home to me a few weeks back when I visited an exhibition about Tyrannosaurs – a long-standing dinosaur family of which T-Rex was one of the last and largest – in Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum. I’ve already posted about the first part of the experience. The other part was the fabulous high-tech special effects that the museum used to bring their subjects to life.

That included some live action green-screen type SFX, fed back to museum-goers on huge screens – like this one. That’s me on the right, being checked out by my new friend Dino. Cool.

I'm on the right - a selfie I took with my SLR, green-screened and slightly foreshortened (uh.... thanks, guys) with some dinosaurs. Cool!
I’m on the right with SLR to my face in this selfie, green-screened and horribly foreshortened (uh…. thanks, guys) with dinosaurs.
I often walk on the Wellington waterfront. Until now, I'd never met dinosaurs on it... More green-screen fun.
I often walk the Wellington waterfront. Plenty of seabirds to see there, but until now, none of their ancient cousins. More live-action SFX fun in the T-Rex exhibition. I was lucky to take the photo – these things were moving. Note the feather coats and bird feet.
Velociraptor mongoliensis reconstruction, apparently life-size, which is bigger than I'd have thought (most of them were about the side of an annoyed turkey).
Velociraptor mongoliensis, apparently life-size, which at approximately 2 metres snout-to-tail is bigger than I’d have thought. Most of them were about the size of an annoyed turkey. Another hand-held ambient-light photo (note movement blur in the guy behind the display).

The whole exhibition, really, wasn’t about T-Rex. It was about what dinosaurs have become for us; symbols of total badass, which stands slightly against the fact that by the Cretaceous era they were actually feathered, bird-like and really pretty fluffy looking, including the ones that would have eaten you.

All this is a complete turn-about from earlier thinking. Victorian-age scientists looked on dinosaurs as slow, stupid, splay-legged, tail-dragging, cold-blooded lizards, doomed to extinction. The word ‘dinosaur’ remains a perjorative today in some circles for this reason. They were wrong, though in point of fact there HAD been large, splay-legged, exothermic animals in the Permian period (299-251 million years ago). There were two main land animal families at the time – the Synapsids (mammal ancestors), which included the fin-backed Pelycosaurs, like Dimetrodon. And there were the Sauropsids (reptile and dinosaur ancestors). Then came a Great Death, bigger than the one that ended the Cretaceous, that killed 90 percent of all life on the planet in less than 100,000 years. The jury’s out on what caused it, though climate change played a part. All the Synapsids died out, with the exception of a few species such as the Cynodonts, now regarded as mammal ancestors.

Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.
Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.

Dinosaurs came into their own two ages later, the Jurassic – and flourished particularly in the Cretaceous. By this time they were as far from their reptile ancestors as mammals were. Dinosaurs were feathered not for flight, but for display and insulation. They laid eggs in nests. They had hollow (pneumatised) bones. They fell into two types; Orthinischians (bird-hipped), which included the big quadrupedal herbivores; and Saurischichians, lizard-hipped dinosaurs which included the theropods and – paradoxically – therefore birds. Indeed, some of the Cretaceous theropods, like the various species of Troodon, were originally classified as early birds, which they weren’t. But only birds survived the K-T extinction event, 65 million years ago, apparently because they were small.

Did smarts play a part for dinosaurs? Apparently not. They were relentlessly tiny-brained. And the fact that dinosaurs flourished for tens of millions of years, out-stripping the mammals of the day, suggests that – despite our own conceits – intelligence wasn’t required for a survival advantage. But it’s possible they were smarter than we think. Their surviving cousins, today, offer insight. Crows are as pea-brained as all birds. Yet they can solve complex logic puzzles. So maybe dinosaurs had a different sort of intelligence from us.

More on that soon. But for now I’ll leave you with a final look at one of the biggest predators of the dino-era – the magnificent T-Rex, as seen in all good museums… especially one near me, just now. A feathered, hollow-boned, six-tonne carnivore with bird-feet, jaws with the strength of a hydraulic ram – 3000 kg worth of bite – driving home 15-cm long teeth. Speaks for itself, really.

The real thing - Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards, in all his glory. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.
The real thing – Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


3 thoughts on “Selfies with dinosaurs – the angry birds of the chalk era

  1. It has taken me a while to get to these posts, Matthew, but I wanted some time to savor them. They are wonderful! I hope you had a good time, as it seemed like you really were looking forward to the exhibit and the visit. Even to me, not a scientist in any way, it makes sense that the dinosaurs are with us…as chickens. In my volunteer work with an animal sanctuary, I have found chickens to be much more intelligent than most of us think. In fact, one of the veterinarians at the sanctuary has found them quite intelligent and loyal. I think it is as you say, our intelligence is not the only kind. Again, I really enjoyed these posts, and thanks for the wonderful pictures.
    Karen

    1. Glad you enjoyed them. It was a wonderful exhibition – very much in the spirit of the current trend towards wrapping the information up in entertainment, but that was completely appropriate to the subject matter. It’s the second exhibition Te Papa has held focussing on dinosaurs; the last, which included the bones of a sauropod, was very much in the older ‘static exhibit’ style. Curiously, the very first dinosaur bone ever identified as such, the thumb of an Iguanodon, is held by this museum – I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it. The bone was found in England by Gideon Mantell. His son, Walter Mantell, emigrated here in the early 1840s and, when his father died, brought back a trunk of various bits and pieces, including this bone. It’s such an iconic part of the whole history of our exploration of dinosaurs – and who’d have ever supposed it might end up in such a remote part of the South Pacific!

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