It’s one of the ultimate palaeontological fantasies; the chance to live in a world where dinosaurs don’t just exist as bones, where they instead live amongst us. But the fundamental question behind this fantasy is this; would we have managed to evolve in the first place if the asteroid had missed? Well, while it’s unlikely that most modern mammals would have evolved, with us though the situation is less clear, because we currently know of no dinosaur that ever managed to adapt to an arboreal lifestyle, which is where of course most of our ancestors lived and where our nearest relatives still live today.
In the case of we primates, it wasn’t so much the extinction of the dinosaurs that was crucial to our evolution, but rather instead the evolution of flowering of fruiting trees which occurred during the Late Cretaceous Period. Without a food source as sweet and succulent as fruit and flowers, it’s highly unlikely that we and indeed any of the primates would have ever evolved our forward facing eyes, grasping hands, agile brains and wonderful colour vision, which is crucial for when picking out ripe, colourful fruit in the green gloom of the forest.
Let’s imagine then that somehow that we managed to evolve in a world still dominated by dinosaurs. How would we interact with our dinosaurian neighbours? Well, quite likely we would utilise and marvel at dinosaurs in the same way that we do so with the animals that share our world today. Although things may be slightly different, for example in the absence of mammalian livestock, there would be no such thing as dairy produce, no wool and probably no domestic companionship due to the absence of dogs. We would probably use dinosaur skin as a substitute for leather, other than that we would probably mostly utilise the dinosaurs for their eggs, their meat and their charisma. For example, a Protoceratops was roughly the size of a pig, yielding high quantities of meat as well as producing a surplus of eggs. Meanwhile, the closest equivalent to a dog may come in the form of a Heterodontosaurus, a small, bipedal, herbivorous dinosaur with a parrot like beak and inquisitive nature. It would probably make an ideal pet, especially if you have young children.
What about the rest of the dinosaur menagerie? How would we interact with them? Well, we can gain an insight by looking at how we interact with our mammalian kin. As well as using them to produce food and goods, we also hunt them for sport. Maybe, instead of hunting down bears and the like for trophies, we’d be targeting sauropods and hadrosaurs and mounting their heads on hunting lodges instead of elk and bison. We would probably also have the dinosaurian equivalents of the so called pest species we know today, such as rats and foxes. It’s possible that aforementioned Troodon, instead of evolving into some kind of dinosaur humanoid instead developed into an intelligent, gregarious ‘pest’, invading our cities, raiding our garbage and generally serving as a source of irritation in the same way that squirrels, foxes and racoons often do with us.
Would Dinosaurs Have Survived The Ice Age?
There are some scientists that believe that the dinosaurs were an extinction waiting to happen. The belief is that even if the asteroid had have missed, then they would have been finished off by the brutal Ice Ages which began 2.5 million years ago and still continues today. The foundation of this theory is the belief that the dinosaurs were what we call reptiles, the connotations of this are that they were cold blooded, slow moving, sprawling, had scaly skin and weren’t altogether bright in the brain department. This was a belief that was particularly prevalent among early palaeontologists’ who imagined that the dinosaurs became extinct, simply because they couldn’t compete with our fast moving and intelligent mammalian ancestors.
But more recent discoveries have largely blown this belief right out of the water. Dinosaur fossils have been found in both Polar Regions, revealing once and for all that these animals were far more adaptable than previously thought. It’s likely that most, if not all of the dinosaurs were warm blooded, on account of the fact that they possessed large body sizes, with legs positioned directly underneath rather than sprawling at the side. Cold blooded reptiles need to have a sprawling body plan because their body temperature is governed by the environment around them, thus making it essential that they remain close to the ground. By analysing their bones, scientists have discovered that they possess far greater similarities with mammals and birds than reptiles, especially in terms of their growth rate which is much faster than contemporary reptiles such as crocodiles and turtles.
Dinosaurs were superbly adapted to the challenge of maintaining a consistent body temperature. In other words, they were more than ideally equipped to survive almost anything that the constantly changing planet could throw at them. We now know that some smaller dinosaur species possessed feathers, thus providing the perfect insulation against the worst affects of any Ice Age.
Are Dinosaurs Still Around Today?
This is the other great palaeontological fantasy, the notion that in some far flung corner of the world, far from the prying eyes of civilisation is a place where dinosaurs still exist. This fantasy was immortalised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterpiece, The Lost World, where a Victorian professor discovers a ‘lost world’ in an isolated area of South America. The notion of dinosaurs still existing today was taken to the extreme by the Jurassic Park film franchise which explored the consequences of reviving long dead dinosaurs through genetic engineering for business and entertainment purposes. Even more intriguing are the folk tales of tribal people such as the Baka Pygmies’ who live in the Congo rain-forest. Their tales speak of a mysterious large animal, termed ‘Mokele Mbembe’, which is thought to resemble a medium sized sauropod such as an Apatosaurus. There are also similar stories that are told among the tribes- people of Indonesia and New Guinea; it’s interesting how these stories tend to come from largely forested areas. But is there any truth behind these stories, or are they just a wild fantasy? Could any large dinosaur have possibly have survived for 65 million years totally undetected and totally isolated from the rest of the world. It would be foolish to dismiss it outright, because you just never know.
However, in one sense, the notion of dinosaurs still surviving today is not fantasy, it’s the truth and the evidence is everywhere; dinosaurs are all around us. I can guarantee you an encounter with a dinosaur, all you have to do is to walk into your garden and sit still and quiet for a minute or two. You may catch a glimpse of a bird say a pigeon or a crow, and there you have it; there’s your encounter, because you see, birds are dinosaurs. How do we know this? Well, all modern birds have wings that are basically enlarged hands, with the middle finger being the longest, the same trait is recorded in all theropod dinosaurs including Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus. The feet of birds is also a dead giveaway, especially in the large flightless species such as emus, which possess long scaly legs with three-toed feet, again with the middle toe being the longest. The footprints of emus and other large flightless birds bear an eerie resemblance to the theropod dinosaurs.
One of the most intuitive pieces of evidence that supports the fact that birds are dinosaurs is the humble wishbone, familiar to anyone who has enjoyed a good Sunday roast or Thanksgiving dinner. All modern birds have a wishbone, and so did the theropod dinosaurs, again including the most famous forms. In fact the wishbone is a very ancient feature of the theropod dinosaurs, appearing in some of the earliest theropods that lived during the Triassic Period such as Coelophysis.
Birds are dinosaurs, in the same way that we humans are apes, we share over 98 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees. Likewise, birds share a high portion of their DNA with theropod dinosaurs; being direct descendents. In fact, the most iconic of all the dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus is more closely related to modern birds than to the other kinds of dinosaurs and crocodiles who bear a superficial resemblance only. Like mammals, dinosaurs needed to solve the problem of keeping warm in a world that was gradually cooling down. They evolved a layer of downy filaments called feathers, which originally served the exact same function as fur in mammals. Flight, it seems came much later, and was merely a by-product of feather evolution rather than the cause of it.
Dinosaurs are not only here, but they actually outnumber the mammals in terms of species by almost double. It’s estimated that there are around 6000 species of mammal, while the birds/dinosaurs are way out in front with 10,000. So in a sense, you could say that the Age of the Dinosaurs never actually ended, and we just think that we’re on top. It’s likely that dinosaurs will be around long after we have become extinct. They may no longer inspire all of the superlatives we ascribe to their monstrous ancestors, but without them our world would be a very different place. We depend on dinosaurs more than we actually think; we eat them, farm them, hunt them, study them and marvel at them. Imagine if you could never eat chicken again, or marvel at the sight of an eagle soaring majestically across an azure blue sky, or be moved by the beauty of bird song when you enter a forest. The world would indeed be a sad place if all of the dinosaurs were truly extinct.