The word paleontology might not always inspire a lot of general interest, and yet we’d be hard pressed to find a kid who doesn’t love dinosaurs. The giant reptiles that roamed the Earth millions of years ago continue to captivate the interest of young and old alike. But what makes these extinct beasts so popular? The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould attributed the popularity of dinosaurs to three main qualities: they were big; they were fierce; most importantly, they are extinct – and there’s merit to this theory.
Many of the well-known dinosaurs, such as the Tyrannosaurus rex, the Brachiosaurus, or the Triceratops were all massive animals. But there are also other, considerably smaller dinosaurs that defy this theory – look at the Compsognathus, the Hadrocodium and the Microraptor. No matter their size, dinosaurs manage to capture interests.
Ferocity also has a major part to play in terms of popularity. Humans love the thrill of danger – we go bungee jumping, ride rollercoasters and watch horror films. Dinosaurs are as fierce as they come, but of course, they can’t hurt anyone – they’re extinct. They provide the ultimate leap of the imagination.
Finally, possibly the biggest contributing factor to dinosaurs’ popularity is the mystery around the their disappearance. After millions of years successfully roaming the Earth, their sudden mass extinction continues to haunt the human imagination: What killed the dinosaurs?
So, is it worth studying a group of animals that has been extinct for 65 million years? We certainly think so. Here are four reasons why:
1.The study of fossils – yes, including those of dinosaurs – are invaluable to scientists trying to understand climate change. A recent scientific expedition saw a team of scientists drilling into the crater long believed to have been caused by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. The extensive process, documented by the BBC, helped scientists understand what happened the day the collision happened. Scientists theorise that the asteroid was travelling at 64,000 km/h when it smashed into the Earth – so hard, and with so much energy, that it vapourised the ocean and completely obliterated the asteroid. The surrounding sea floor was forced outwards and upwards to extraordinary heights before collapsing in on itself, forming a ring 141 km in diameter. Earth’s climate was changed drastically: the Sun’s light and heat was blocked out by the ash cloud that rose as a result of the impact. Fossil evidence has helped scientists to understand all this, and more.
2. The study of dinosaurs is crucial to understanding to the mechanics of evolution. More than 700 species of dinosaurs have been found and identified so far, but there are hundreds more unknown. There is a huge amount of variation within the species we know: the Triceratops has the largest skull ever recorded, and the hadrosaur continually replaced its teeth as they wore out. What’s more, there are even creatures living today –like birds, turtles and crocodiles – that share evolutionary lineage with dinosaurs.
3. Scientists around the world today are undertaking extensive research on extinction, using dinosaur fossils to understand the biodiversity of the Earth millions of years ago. Human activity has severely altered Earth’s biodiversity, and succeeded in entirely wiping out hundreds of species. By studying extinction and the subsequent effect it has on food chains and Earth’s ecosystems, scientists can begin to understand the complex relationships between species and their surroundings.
4. Despite the popularity of dinosaurs, the general public knows very little about fossils and their distant origins. Some people believe that dinosaurs can be resurrected through the extraction of DNA found in fossils – although yes, that was mainly the fault of the film Jurassic Park. But on a different level, people simply don’t know how to uncover and excavate fossils properly. Precious samples are being discovered by people all over the world, but a lack of proper education on how to dig up and handle fossils means that many specimens end up getting damaged, sometimes irreplaceably so.
As our world changes, scientists continue to research dinosaurs, and for good reason. Whether it’s to gain an in-depth understanding of the animals in the hope of finally, unequivocally figuring out the actual cause of the mass extinction, or to gain a better understanding of the Earth’s ecology – there’s no denying the importance of studying dinosaurs!