A slow, painful death for dinosaurs: Just what I never wanted.

Science has proven me wrong so many times. So, so many times. There were all those misconceptions I had about leeches being sensitive and intelligent. There was the whole “Summer of Lead-Into-Gold,” which had me spending September in the hospital. And, of course, all my theories about unicorns – I won’t say what they were, only that they turned out to be embarrassingly wrong.

Well, science may have done it one more time. Here I was, going around and telling people that all dinosaurs died happy, and a couple of paleontologists have to go and make me look the fool.

Well-articulated fossil skeletons (that is to say, skeletons that retain their original arrangement of bones) are very often found in a position with their mouths open, and their backs, necks, and tails sharply arched. It has long been assumed by paleontologists that this common position is the result of drying tissues and rigor mortis causing the bodies to flex and become stiff, or that the bodies were pushed into the position by flowing water.
Opisthotonus in dinosaurs.: And I always thought that this guy died while dancing at his 100th birthday party.
Opisthotonus in dinosaurs.: And I always thought that this guy died while dancing at his 100th birthday party.

Cynthia Faux, of the Museum of The Rockies, and her co-author, Kevin Padian, from the University of California, Berkeley, think that these are actually unlikely answers, and offer their own theory as to how the dinosaurs (and other fossil skeletons) achieved this unique position: they died slow, agonizing deaths. This cheery theory contrasts sharply with my own – that dinosaurs lived long and happy lives (happy because they knew how totally cool dinosaurs are), until the buildup of decades’ worth of joy suddenly and ecstatically reached terminal levels. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

However, after reading some of Faux and Padian’s evidence, I may have to modify my hypothesis. Faux, a veterinarian as well as a paleontologist, studied the bodies of recently euthanized birds and mammals (animals that had been injured beyond chances of recovery) and found that neither rigor mortis, nor drying tendons, muscles and ligaments, caused the bodies to move into the arched-back position. They became stiff, but remained more or less as they were when they died. What does cause this position, known to neurologists as “opisthotonus,” is damage to the cerebellum as a result of suffocation, severe bleeding, poisoning, brain trauma, or any number of diseases.

As grisly as the theory is, it seems to make sense. The conditions that make for excellent fossil preservation – anoxic environments that keep a body from being eaten or decomposing – would also make for the sort of deaths described by Faux and Padian. An archaeopteryx falling into a Jurassic swamp, or a T. Rex getting caught in a massive rain of volcanic ash, would suffer awful deaths by asphyxiation, but they might also leave some great skeletons.

If the two paleontologists are correct, the theory could also further support the argument for dinosaurs being warm-blooded. Only dinosaurs, pterosaurs (flying reptiles like the pteranadon), and mammals exhibit the opisthotonic position. Cold blooded animals like crocodiles and lizards have lower metabolic rates, and might not have been so traumatically affected by oxygen deprivation.

One of the science museum’s own dinosaurs is actually displayed in this position. The smaller of our two camptosaurs is shown lying down with its back and neck arched, its mouth opened, and is described as being in “gleeful rigor mortis.” Wait – maybe the sign doesn’t actually say “gleeful.” That’s just how I’ve always thought of it, I guess.

A dream-shattering article. Well, my dreams of Happy Dino Death theory grant money, anyway.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Ian Kemmish's picture
Ian Kemmish says:

Isn't that circular reasoning, though? You assume that the behaviour observed in dinosaurs is caused by the same mechanism as similar behaviour in certain groups of warm-blooded animals, and then you summon up the results of that assumption as further evidence that dinosaurs were warm-blooded.

If you knew that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, that would support the hypothesis that the causes were the same in both cases. Conversely, if you knew that the cause was the same in both cases, that would support the hypothesis that dinosaurs were warm-blooded. But you can't eat your cake and have it too.

And there's a third hypothesis that took me about ten seconds to come up with. If your neck muscles had spent 30 years supporting a head that weighed half a ton, and you suddenly fell on your side for the first time in your life, your head would probably snap back, too....

posted on Mon, 06/11/2007 - 12:19pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:


posted on Fri, 04/01/2011 - 11:32am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

You're right about the circular logic; one can't say that animals are warmblooded because they behave this way, and that they behave this way because they are warmblooded. I think the idea here was just that *if* this theory is correct, then it would fit in with the warmblooded argument, but not that it could necessarily be used as evidence for the warm-bloded argument. If that makes sense. Anyway, it was good to point that out.

Your other theory is pretty interesting. I'm not sure about it, though. I mean, is that assuming that dinosaurs spent their whole lives in a perfectly vertical position, and that they never relaxed those muscles? I don't know that it would make much sense to have a body design that practically kills you if the weight of your head isn't pushing downwards constantly. I don't think it's something you could find a modern analogy to, which is suspicious. The other thing is that this position is seen not just in massive-headed tyrannosaurs, but in much more delicate creatures like pterasaurs and smaller dinosaurs. Then again, I suppose the neck muscles would have been proportionate in smaller animals.
So I don't know.

posted on Mon, 06/11/2007 - 2:20pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

very sad and painful way to die. it wouldent be fun.

posted on Mon, 06/11/2007 - 2:41pm
SUMONE's picture
SUMONE says:


posted on Fri, 06/15/2007 - 4:57pm
Philip Wagler's picture
Philip Wagler says:

Interesting that all of these findings would support the evidence of a global flood and the collapse of a layer of atmosphere that provided for a higher concentration of oxegen as described in the bible and numerous flood stories from different civilizations throughout history.

posted on Thu, 09/06/2007 - 11:43am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I'm not sure about that.

Are you saying that a high oxygen layer collapsed? Or that the collapse provided more oxygen? The whole idea of this research is that these animals died in extremely low oxygen environments - they asphyxiated (or suffered some injury or infection that deprived their brains of oxygen), and the anaerobic environments facilitated their preservation.

If you mean that the collapse lowered oxygen levels, I don't think that works either. Not all fossils are found like this, and those that are found in this pose died across a span of millions of years. But I guess that's assuming one accepts geological dating.

posted on Thu, 09/06/2007 - 1:41pm

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