When a dinosaur fossil is excavated, it is not uncommon to find the dinosaur in what is known as the death pose. The long neck is bent dramatically backwards and the mouth is gaping open, as if the dinosaur is letting out one final bellow.
For a long time, palaeontologists believed that dinosaurs found in this pose had remarkable neck flexibility. For example, the Elasmosaurus was originally thought to have a snake-like neck that could bend and curl around, even being able to lift its head above the water, as seen with the image of the Loch Ness Monster. However, in reality, the neck would have been too stiff and heavy to move around like that, meaning that Elasmosaurus would have swam around with a straight neck, barely lifting its head above water.
It is still unclear exactly why dinosaurs are often found in the death pose.
Traditionally, it was believed that the strong ligaments holding the neck bones (vertebrae) contracted as they dried out, bending the neck backwards where there are more ligaments.
Others refute this theory, instead suggesting that the dinosaur remains would be rearranged by water currents, or that the carcass would naturally bend backwards when floating in water.
Finally, another group of scientists believe that the pose happens in the final moments of the dinosaur’s death throes, suggesting that they experience opisthotonus (arching of the back muscles, as seen in tetanus) either due to lack of oxygen in the brain, or poisoning.
It is fascinating to think that although these dinosaurs have been dead for 66 million years, we still have so much to learn from them.
Brontosaurus (“thunder lizard” in Latin) is one of the most well-known dinosaurs. It is the poster child of the sauropods, a group of massive four-legged dinosaurs with very long necks and tails, known as some of the largest animals to ever walk on land.
After going extinct around 66 million years ago, the Brontosaurus was rediscovered in fossil form in 1879 by palaeontologist O.C. Marsh, who is infamous for his rivalry with another palaeontologist called Edward Drinker Cope as part of the “Bone Wars”. The Bone Wars was the fierce competition between the two palaeontologists, involving aggressive digging to discover as many dinosaurs as possible, while both tried to slander and impede each other through dishonest, unprofessional means. This dispute resulted in rushed announcements of new discoveries sometimes, leading to fascinating stories such as Cope accidentally putting the skull of the Elasmosaurus on its tail instead of the neck.
So what does the historical context of the Bone Wars have to do with the Brontosaurus? In 1903, another palaeontologist argued that the Brontosaurus was actually a specimen of the already discovered Apatosaurus. Two years later, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the first mounted sauropod skeleton and named it a Brontosaurus. However, they had accidentally used the skull of a different dinosaur called Camarasurus, mounted on the skeleton of an Apatosaurus. With no further evidence supporting Brontosaurus as a separate genus, the scientific community agreed that the Brontosaurus was really just an Apatosaurus.
Despite this news, Brontosaurus remained hugely popular amongst the general population thanks to its early publicity. At the same time, Brontosaurus not being a real genus of dinosaur became a popular factoid (false information accepted as fact due to popularity). In a field such as palaeontology where evidence can be scant or incomplete, such misclassification is common. For example, the Triceratops is in fact simply the juvenile form of another dinosaur named the Torosaur.
But then in 2015, a group of scientists used computer modelling to analyse sauropod fossil data including the original fossil discovered by Marsh. What they discovered was that there were enough differences between the Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus, such as differences in pelvic bone structure, to classify Brontosaurus as its own genus. After more than a century, the Brontosaurus has had its name cleared and restored to its former glory.
The story of the Brontosaurus is a great example of one of the principles in science: nothing is 100% true. Science never proclaims something as the one truth. We can hypothesise, support it with evidence and construct a theory that makes sense of the cosmos, but we can never be sure that we definitely have the answer. In the face of new evidence and re-examination of the analysis, what was once regarded as “truth” can easily be proven to be wrong.
This is an unpopular aspect of science, because people tend to want security and certainty to soothe their anxieties about not knowing. But instead, we get to stay curious and continuously question the nature of the universe and how everything works, making fascinating discoveries and learning something new every day.
For how boring would life be if we had nothing more to learn?
Did dinosaurs have red or white meat? Typically, we think of white meat as coming from poultry, such as chicken, duck, turkey, while red meat come from large mammals such as cows, pigs and deer. So if you were to hunt down a stegosaurus or a triceratops and cooked it over a barbeque, what colour would their meat be?
The redness of meat comes from a protein called myoglobin, which carries oxygen from the blood to the muscle cells. It is similar to haemoglobin, which gives blood the characteristic red colour. An important note is that when you see reddish water drip from meat from the butchers, you are seeing myoglobin, not blood (the blood is drained when the meat is prepared).
The difference in colour between red and white meat come from the type of muscle fibres and their myoglobin content.
Red meat is made from slow-twitch fibres, which are useful for sustained activities such as walking or to keep standing. They exert a smaller force over a longer period of time, meaning they require more oxygen for aerobic respiration (a more efficient way of burning fuel using oxygen). Ergo, red meat is full of myoglobin, hence its deep rich red colour.
On the other hand, white meat is made offast-twitch fibres. These fibres are better suited for quick bursts of energy, such as flying or quickly responding to a threat. These fibres use anaerobic respiration (no oxygen), which allow for a quicker, faster burn of energy, but only for a short time. In birds, the breast muscles are typically very white, but they do have some slow-twitch fibres in other muscle groups such as their wings and legs, which is why there is a distinction between light and dark meat.
So how about dinosaurs? Dinosaurs are the ancestors of birds and reptiles, so it would make sense for them to have had white meat. However, the majority of dinosaurs, especially large ones such as sauropods, would have had very powerful muscles with slow-twitch fibres, making their meat quite red. A good example are ostriches. Even though they are birds, their meat is as red as beef because they have powerful leg muscles for running. Smaller animals such as raptors probably had more white meat akin to modern poultry, as they would require sudden bursts of energy for ambushes.
As for how they would taste, that is something we could not answer until Jurassic Park becomes a reality.
What would the world be like if the dinosaurs had not gone extinct? In 1982, palaeontologist Dale Russell proposed a thought experiment regarding the possible evolutionary path of a species called Troodons. The Troodons were small, bird-like dinosaurs from the later periods of the reign of dinosaurs. They grew up to 2.4m in length and about 50kg in weight, standing on two slender hind legs. The most interesting feature of Troodons was their very large brain – six times larger than any other dinosaurs relative to their body weight. This would have most likely allowed the Troodons to be quite intelligent relative to other species, allowing it to utilise crude tools such as rolling a boulder off a cliff.
Russell believed that had the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event did not happen 65 million years ago (when a giant meteor struck Earth), the Troodons could have evolved in a path similar to humans, expanding their brain size and using intelligence as a tool of survival. Although its brain size was substantially lower than that of a human, he believes that through evolution, by the present its brain would be the size of a modern human’s. He also believed that evolution would have shaped the Troodons into a “dinosauroid” form, much closer to the shape of a human being. The Dinosauroid (nicknamed lizard people) would have had two fingers and a thumb, large eyes, no hair, internal genitalia (like reptiles), no breasts and a navel (the placenta is instrumental in giving birth to large-brained offspring). Their language would probably have sounded like a bird song.
Given the history of Homo sapiens and our competition and ultimate demise of similar sapient species, it is unclear whether we would have won the survival war against the Dinosauroids, or whether we would have even had the chance to evolve to our stage, as mammals rapidly filled the niche after dinosaurs were wiped out. There is much criticism of Russell’s thought experiment of the Dinosauroid being “too anthropomorphic” (too human-looking), but as suggested in the book K-PAX by Prot, perhaps the humanoid form is the most efficient natural design for an intelligent life form. Realistic or not, it is a fascinating projection of a world that could have been.
If there is one thing we learn about dinosaurs, it is that they were wiped off the face of the Earth by an asteroid impact. Another feasible theory is that a supervolcano eruption completely destroyed the ecosystem, wiping out all life on Earth by either directly destroying them via a massive shockwave (if they were within range), or by slowly starving them as the resultant plumes of smoke would have blotted out the sun for years. But interestingly, scientists looking back over some extinction-level events of the past, discovered signs of both an asteroid strike and a volcanic eruption. This sounds to be extremely implausible, as the odds of both happening in the same era are near impossible (unless there is some extremely vengeful deity that hated the dinosaurs).
One theory that tries to explain all of this is the verneshot theory. To better understand the concept of a verneshot, imagine a cartoon character such as Yosemite Sam (the beloved red-bearded, gunslinging cowboy character on Looney Toons) shooting his gun wildly into the sky. Cartoon logic dictates that his bullets will eventually fall back on some unwary bystander. Now imagine if the Earth did the same thing, but instead of a bullet it shoots a giant piece of rock capable of causing mass extinction into the sky.
A verneshot occurs in a similar way a supervolcano erupts, where there is an incredible build-up of super hot molten rock. A supervolcano would be when this molten rock erupts as lava. In the case of a verneshot, massive amounts of carbon dioxide build up instead, leading to a pressure build-up under the crust. When the pressure becomes too much, the crust explodes, with the piece (of indeterminate size) being rocketed into space. However, the giant rock does not end up in space. Instead, it is only launched to a sub-orbital altitude, meaning it will come crashing back down to Earth due to gravity. Thus, a verneshot is when a volcanic eruption acts as a giant cannon to launch a piece of the Earth into the sky, which falls back to Earth as an asteroid-like object.
A gigantic dinosaur monster of 50m height and 20000t weight appears in the centre of Tokyo! The invasion of giant spiders! These are common scenarios in science fiction films. Mankind has always been fascinated by giant creatures. Whether it be a child or an adult, no one passes by the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex without being awestruck. Thus, it is very easy to use such creatures in movies. But the key point of every monster movie is the “stats”. A height taller than a high-rise building and a weight nearing one of a battleship excites people before the movie even starts. The problem is that this is very unscientific (considering it is a “science fiction”).
Let us look at the dinosaur monster first. The moment the monster steps on to land, it will be crushed like tofu. Every structure in its body will collapse and the skeleton will give way, causing 20000t of meat to crash to the ground. Simply put, the monster is just too heavy. Let us hypothesise that the monster is the shape of a gigantic T-rex. Tyrannosaurus rex was 15m tall and weighed 7t. If a 15m dinosaur is stretched to the height of 50m, the height becomes 3.3 times the original. But as the width and depth need to be expanded by 3.3 times as well, the weight becomes 37 times the original. The question is whether the monster can support its own weight. Just as the volume increased by a factor of 37, the cross-sectional area of every part of the body increases by a factor of 3.3 x 3.3 = 11. As muscle strength is directly proportional to the cross-sectional area, the strength only increases by 11 times. Thus, the load on a creature’s body is the same as the factor of expansion (e.g. there is 3.3 times the load on the monster’s muscles). But this is only when the T-rex was simply stretched. According to the stats, the monster weighs 20000t – 2800 times the weight of a T-rex. To support 2800 times the weight with 11 times the muscle, the load on the bones and muscle is 250 times. This is equivalent to having 249 people the same weight as you on your back. Of course, the monster cannot support this and its bones will become crushed and its internal organs will all burst, causing instant death.
Similarly, a giant insect monster also receives the same load as its expansion. But unlike an animal, insects have an exoskeleton instead of a skeletal system. This structure cannot support the load caused by the expansion (also, if you stretch an ant that is not even 1cm to just 10m, the load becomes over a thousand times). Ergo, the monster will collapse instantly. A giant monster is an unscientific creature that can only exist in our imagination.