New Zealand – the lost world of the dinosaurs – part 1

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?

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.

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.

An 1863 reconstruction of Iguanodon vs Megalosaurus - complete with Iguanodon's thumb-bone wrongly placed as a nose spike. Classic Victorian-age thinking. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
An 1863 reconstruction of Iguanodon vs Megalosaurus. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

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


10 thoughts on “New Zealand – the lost world of the dinosaurs – part 1

    1. There was Garnet Wolseley – Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘very model of the modern Major General’. He was cool. Largely because they lampooned him. But cool nonetheless! 🙂

  1. I don’t care the argument that birds aren’t dinosaurs, they evolved from them. Mammals existed at the end of the Cretaceous. We, and other animals living today, aren’t the same as those early mammals so are we then, “not mammals?” Well of course not, and modern birds are are simply a dinosaurian adaption to the modern environment. They found a niche they could fill (many actually) and they’re filling it very very well. Dinosaurs didn’t fail at all. They’re one of the most successful, most adaptable, natural designs of all time. They’re still here with us, and thank goodness for that, because I do love chicken. 😉

    1. It’s official of late – birds have been taxonomically reclassified as an order within the wider dinosaur clade. Good stuff. Which means I ate some just last Saturday in a Tikka sauce. And very good it was, too, though not in the heat league of that chutney you wrote about! ☺

      1. Haha! 😀 At least you got some, “Dinosaur Tikka Masala.” That’s mighty good stuff. 😉 That’s cool that birds have been reclassified. It makes a lot of sense.

  2. Great post! Just in case the study of dinosaur bones wasn’t fascinating enough, the story behind the formative years of the field is also filled with incredible yarns. The rivalry between Mantell and Owen and the infamous Bone Wars are a couple of my favourites. It must have been an exciting time to be working in a field such as paleontology, trying to convince the disbelieving public (and for that matter academics) that giant reptiles used to roam in their backyards.

    Mantell’s son immigrated to New Zealand in 1839 and he inherited many of his father’s papers. They are in the Turnbull library and provide an incredible insight into the birth of paleontology. Te Papa also holds some early illustrations of Mantell’s discoveries as imagined in life, as well as the original fossil Iguanadon fossil that sparked it all.

    1. I’ve always thought it amazing how the younger Mantell ended up here – along, eventually, with his father’s archive and prize dino-bone collection. He presented as such as gadabout at the time – snagged by George Grey from building the Porirua road and told to ‘go and buy the South Island’ (sort of) except he was too busy looking for moa bones. He was ragged relentlessly for that one – there’s a cartoon somewhere of him riding a moa.

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