Sep
11
2008

Scientists blaspheme dinosaurs…using science!

A crurotarsan: Pretty cool, but don't put any bets on it.
A crurotarsan: Pretty cool, but don't put any bets on it.Courtesy ArthurWeasley
Just as those of us who have hands know the backs of them well, just as all of us know that the Hulk is stronger than the Thing, just as we know that it’s a good idea to keep our lips off that thing… We all know that dinosaurs are pretty awesome. They are, perhaps, the most awesome.

Dinosaurs did, after all, strut their fine stuff across the surface of the planet for more than 150 million years. How else would one explain that, if not for the fact that dinosaurs were clearly more awesome than any and all of the competition? It can’t be done.

Except…

Scientists at the American Museum of Natural History are now saying that at the outset of their reign, the during Triassic, dinosaurs succeeded where other groups did not simply because they were lucky. Dinosaurs didn’t make it because they were stronger or able to adapt more quickly, but because they did well at the craps table. As it were.

See, the reptiles that survived the Permian extinction would eventually give rise to dinosaurs and a group called “crurotarsans.” The only living descendants of the crurotarsans are crocodiles and their ilk, but during the Triassic the group included a wide range of large predators, armored herbivores, and agile little crocodilians. At the end of the Triassic, however, the crurotarsans became almost entirely extinct, while the dinosaurs flourished.

When one group dies out and another succeeds under the same conditions, scientists usually expect to find that the “winning” group has a greater range of physical traits, or appears to be able to adapt much faster. The study done by the AMNH indicates the opposite in this case: as a group, the crurotarsans had twice the range of body plans as the dinosaurs, and seemed to be adapting just as fast. Subjected to the changing environmental conditions at the end of the Triassic, the greater variety of body designs should have given the crurotarsans a leg up in surviving to the Jurassic.

Not only should they not have died out, but the scientists behind the study say that if they could have bet—during the Triassic—who would dominate the planet for the next 130 million years, they would have picked the crurotarsans, not dinos. It just so happened that the crurotarsans were hit particularly hard at the end of the Triassic. Of all the extinction-inducing changes that could have occurred, the planet went through one that the crurotarsans couldn’t deal with: global warming. Dumb luck.

It seems like the study was missing something, however. What was it about global warming (or about the crurotarsans) that made them die out, even with their great diversity? Even if luck was the reason, what was the mechanism?

I’m inclined to think that the dinosaurs’ coolness had something to do with it. Sort of an opposite James Dean effect.

How about that, though? But for the roll of the biological dice, children across the world could have lunch boxes and notebooks covered in crurotarsans.

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