Thursday, June 14, 2012

Extinct Animals Are Still Animals!

As someone with a degree in Animal Science, I find it gets a bit irritating when people ask what my involvement in paleontology has to do with my background.  I don't understand why some people think dinosaurs always need to be separated from the rest of the animal kingdom!  Being extinct (for the most part *cough* birds *cough*) doesn't stop them from being animals still.

I find many people tend to view dinosaurs with a different eye than they do for living animals.  Maybe its because no human has ever seen something like a Tyrannosaurus or a Triceratops alive and therefore its much more difficult to imagine them than it is to just go to a zoo and look at rhinos and lions.  Even so, I get the impression that dinosaurs are treated more like mythical monsters.  Granted, many fictional monsters are indeed based off of dinosaurs like Godzilla, for instance.  Its more than likely that many ancient mythical creatures that appear in folklore were inspired by the discovery of dinosaur bones by those civilizations.  Think about it.  Almost every culture including the ancient Egyptians, Aztecs, Mesopotamians, the Aborigines,the Chinese, ancient Greeks, Norse and even Native Americans all have their own sort of large reptilian monster such as a dragon in their stories.  These cultures were separated by great distances and thousands of years yet they all have these monsters in common.



I'm not saying these people had no imagination.  But the imagination still needs to be inspired by something.  They were probably finding dinosaur bones.  They just weren't calling them dinosaurs is all.  It is believed that one mythical creature, the griffin (part eagle and part lion), was inspired by Protoceratops bones being discovered by ancient nomads thousands of years ago in central Asia.

"Do we know each other?  You look eerily familiar..."

Regardless if they were the inspiration for mythical monsters or not, dinosaurs were still just animals like any critters alive today.  Yes sure, they probably fought and killed each other from time to time, which makes for great television, but they also probably spent a lot of their time sleeping, eating and having babies.  I say it all the time on my various blog posts but its so important to me that I can't help but continue to bring it up; The best way to understand long extinct animals is to look at animals that are alive today. 

Back in the Jurassic

Think of the natural world as a sort of major league sports team like baseball.  Professional baseball has been played for generations.  If you were to go back in time and watch a baseball game thirty years ago you would see two teams, a pitcher, a batter, get the idea.  Now flash forward to today and watch a game on television.  You will see the same game being played with the same rules but the individual people in each role will of course be different.  Nature works the same way.  Any ecosystem today has animals that each fill a certain niche.  A niche is sort of like a job description for an organism.  All organisms have their own niches in their natural habitats.  Go back in time and you will see dinosaurs had niches very similar, if not identical to those that animals occupy today.

Same scene back in the Jurassic

There are a few academic paths a person can choose when they want to go on to study paleontology.  Many people choose to study geology.  But paleontology is a field of many elements.  Backgrounds like ecology, anatomy and just all around general biology are just as important. 

Works Cited

Mayor, A. (2000). The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. ISBN 0-691-05863-6.

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