Dinosaurs loom large in the imagination of many kids and, for some, it’s an obsession they never really grow out of.
My passion for dinosaurs arrived much later in life. As a journalist in Hong Kong, I was lucky enough to interview some of China’s most eminent paleontologists and marvel at amazing fossils firsthand when the country was emerging at the forefront of paleontology’s biggest discoveries.
Science has transformed our understanding of these fantastic creatures in the past two decades in ways that surprise and delight.
I’m Katie Hunt, standing in for Ashley Strickland — and in this edition of Wonder Theory, I’m taking you on a deep dive into dinosaurs.
What do you remember about dinosaurs from childhood books or “Jurassic Park”? That dinosaurs were towering, grayish-green, evolutionary failures?
New research is upending what we thought we knew. Dinosaurs were much more diverse — and downright bizarre.
Some estimates suggest there were half a million species. Tiny birdlike dinosaurs could have danced in your palm while bus-size sauropods had a small head. They sported feathers, fur and bright colors.
And many dinos you might be familiar with did not live contemporaneously. In fact, the 80 million years separating Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus is greater than the time separating T. rex and you.
A long time ago…
There is still a lot we don’t know about dinosaurs, though, and one big mystery is sex.
Tantalizing insights into dinosaur courtship come from what we know about living animals, particularly birds. Some ground nesting birds signal they are good mates by a dance that involves a type of scratching called lekking.
Dinosaurs engaged in similar display behavior, according to fossilized “scrapes” left behind in 100 million-year-old rocks in the Dakota Sandstone of western Colorado.
Technology is helping paleontologists answer other big questions such as whether dinosaurs got sick. It turns out they suffered from some of the same diseases we do.
Flying reptiles called pterosaurs, which reached the size of small planes, dominated the skies as early as 215 million years ago.
What would it have been like to hop in a time machine and encounter one of these massive creatures?
Quetzalcoatlus, which lived 72 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous period, was a “giant flying murder head,” according to Mike Habib, research associate at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s Dinosaur Institute. This pterosaur walked around on its hands and feet, with folded wings.
Its skull was 50% longer than the skull of a T. rex, with a toothless beak. It would probably be making fast, strange motions like that of a bird. And it could punch off the ground in nine-tenths of a second. “These things are spring-loaded leaping demons,” Habib said.
Climate shaped the lives of our ancestors, with warmer periods sometimes allowing early humans to spread around the planet.
North and South America were the last continents to be populated. The melting of the North American ice sheets toward the end of the ice age, around 13,000 years ago, opened up migration routes between what’s now Siberia and Alaska.
Before then, making such a journey was assumed impossible because two massive ice sheets covered the upper third of North America 19,000 to 26,000 years ago. The ice and cold would have made much of the continent uninhabitable and the now-lost Beringia land bridge impassable.
But fossilized footprints found in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park have complicated this picture.
Turn, turn, turn
On September 22, we entered our second and final equinox of 2021.
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you know it as the fall equinox. For people south of the equator, this equinox signals the coming of spring.
Long before the age of clocks, satellites and modern technology, our ancient ancestors knew a lot about the movement of the sun across the sky — enough to build massive monuments and temples that served as giant calendars to mark the seasons.
And today, the changing of the seasons is still celebrated in places like China and Vietnam during Mid-Autumn Festival, while in Great Britain, where I’m based now, harvest festival has it roots in the autumnal equinox since pagan times. (Check out my favorite festival song, “Cauliflowers Fluffy.”)
Here are awesome stories from modern times.
— Rats are the denizens of subterranean depths — drains, subway stations and basements — but what happens when our cities flood? It turns out they thrive in a crisis.
— People in the world’s tallest nation are getting shorter, and researchers aren’t quite sure why.
— US Space Force, the newest branch of the US military, has released a new uniform prototype for its members. (It has serious Star Trek vibes.)
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