If the larger dinosaurs hadn’t been extinguished some 65 million years ago, what would today look like? To me the answer is largely in my own backyard, here in New Zealand.
Up until humans first landed here around 800 years ago, New Zealand was very much a ‘lost world’, a place where Jurassic forests survived, and where the classic dinosaur-age mix still roamed the forest floors. Actually, when we realise that the 65 million years since the end of the Cretaceous is a much shorter period than the 79 million year length of the Cretaceous era – the great age of dinosaurs – maybe that continuity isn’t too surprising.
Dinosaurs? Didn’t New Zealand have native birds? Sure. Still does. But it’s all in the way we classify the life around us. What, in short, is a dinosaur?
Back in the nineteenth century, when dinosaurs were first revealed to the world, discoverers such as Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen had a clear idea about ‘progress’ and ‘evolution’. To them, animal life began in a primordial ooze, from which emerged various clusters of animal families we classify as ‘clades’ – such as crocodiles and dinosaurs. But period ideology also demanded that evolution was a process of development in a specific direction. Each type – amphibians, reptile, dinosaurs and then mammals – was replaced in the dominant place in the world by the next in a chain of ‘progress’ that culminated in the ultimate pinnacle of evolution, the Tory-voting, club-attending Victorian gentleman.
From this emerged the image of dinosaurs as slow-witted reptiles doomed to be out-competed in a survival race that worked the same way as the industrial-age free market (the one that led to Europe collapsing into revolution in 1848). The term ‘dinosaur’ became a synonym for those who apparently failed to adapt to change.
That framework coloured the way dinosaurs were then seen for the next century and more – fuelling debates over whether they were warm blooded or not, among other things. As late as the 1980s, when Robert Bakker proposed that dinosaurs were indeed endothermic (generating their own body-heat), he was ridiculed.
From today’s perspective it was hilarious. All the paleontologists had to do was grab one of the dinosaurs around today and check it out. The fact that some were served up as dinner on the tables of palaeontologists adds particular spice to the ‘gotcha’.
But of course the evidence for that wasn’t accumulated until the late twentieth century. It turned out that most (most) dinosaurs disappeared not because they were incapable of adapting to change, but because something diabolical happened to Earth’s biosphere. It also turned out that some of the dinosaur clade survived. Birds.
See what I am getting at? It’s all in how we think about things. Humans have a terrible habit of categorising – and then in using those categories to re-define reality. But what happens if we mis-categorise? Instead of thinking of ‘birds’ as a separate type of creature, we could quite happily, I think, categorise them as dinosaurs.
In other words, dinosaurs – as a clade – weren’t extinguished 65 million years ago. They were reduced, but they adapted, and they survive today alongside all the other forms of life that have been around. And that, to me, is a very cool thought.
But wait, you say – wait, sure birds and dinosaurs were related. But didn’t birds evolve from dinosaurs – aren’t they different now? Well, maybe. But, if we’re to accept some of the latest discoveries – also maybe not.
More on the details of how all that works next week. And about New Zealand’s lost dinosaur world.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015