Corkboard of Curiosities have done it again! Click on the image below to read a lovely explainer on what taphonomy is.
Image by Corkboard of Curiosities
... would we mammals be 'scurrying' at the feet of our dinosaurian masters?
Prof. Jonathan Losos recently gave a talk (summarised in this article by Cameron Hill) and stated that it is arrogant to assume that humanity is the pinnacle of evolution, and somehow inevitable over a long enough evolutionary time scale. Which I completely agree with.
But the assertion that, if the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction hadn't happened, meaning that non-avian dinosaurs weren't wiped out 65 million years ago, that they would still be ruling today? I'm not so sure.
What if certain groups of mammals had opportunities to out-compete non-avian dinosaurs? (Yes, those opportunities usually come around when mass extinctions occur and niches open up for the taking). However, there is evidence that non-avian dinosaurs were already on the decline before the K-Pg mass extinction event (see here, here, here, and here). Perhaps new niches would have opened up for mammal groups even without an asteroid crashing landing in the Yucatán Peninsula. Or any other group of animals, for that matter. New research proposes that it was the avian dinosaurs (birds) ability to eat seeds that allowed them to survive the K-Pg extinction. If the non-avian dinosaurs were declining anyway, would avian dinosaurs still have taken this seed-y niche?
It comes down to how we identify faunal turnover in the fossil record, and how we understand the causes for changes in the 'dominant' clade. Mass extinctions are commonly invoked to mark the end of one clade's reign and the start of another - from synapsids (often known as 'mammal-like reptiles') dominating the Permian then suffering mass extinction at the Permian-Triassic boundary, after which pseudosuchian diversity increased throughout the Triassic until the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event. Then, dinosauria took over newly created niches and ruled the rest of the Mesozoic until the K-Pg event, where synapsids (in the form of mammals) once again took the reins.
If non-avian dinosaurs had survived the K-Pg extinction event, how sure can we be that they would still be around today? I don't think we can say for certain that another extinction event wouldn't have happened between 65 million years and now. Perhaps the pseudosuchians (in the form of crocodiles) would have taken over once again. I think it's reasonable to propose that continental drift and ice ages would have inevitably occurred as they did, regardless of what animals were alive. Physics (and geography) will do what it wants to do, after all. Would non-avian dinosaurs, even with their proto-feathery fluff, have survived ice ages or 'ice house' conditions? They had survived a period of global cooling at the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary, but it was not technically an ice age. What about the pseudosuchians? Furry mammals didn't appear to do too badly in our evolutionary history, but they were already in dominant niches prior to various ice ages.
One thing is for sure: I one-hundred percent agree with Prof. Losos that humanity, or even bipedalism in any animal, is not inevitable in Earth's evolutionary history.
Lest we forget this horrifying vision of an alternate Earth, ruled by humanoid-dinosaurs or 'dinosauroids'. This would not have happened. I hope.
Image by the Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottowa, Canada.
They've done it again! The fabulous creators at Corkboard of Curiosities has a very clear and succinct run down of cladistics - how we determine which groups of animals are more closely related to one another. Head over there to find out how!
Image by Nate Carroll and Tammi Heneveld
What does a palaeontology student do on a typical work day? And what about a non-typical day? Head over to UQ's new blog, Small Change, and find out! Hint: it involves a little bit of reading papers, a little bit of lab work, with a sprinkle of lunch-time Twitter perusal.
Soapbox Science is coming to Australia for the first time!
As a part of National Science Week 2016, Soapbox Science will take place in Brisbane where leading female researchers will talk about their scientific projects and why they love science.
Soapbox Science is a public speaking and outreach event aimed at encouraging girls and women to take up careers in science. You can hear all about why these scientists love their jobs, ask questions about their research, and see that women belong in the sciences just as much as men do.
I will be speaking at this years Soapbox Science event at King George Square in Brisbane, on the 20th August between 1-4 pm. My talk title (coming as no surprise to long time readers of this blog) is: “Fossil forensics: how taphonomy helps us understand the death and decay of dinosaurs”. Keep an eye out for updates between now and August!
About the author
Dr Caitlin Syme is a palaeontologist who recently finished her PhD at The University of Queensland, studying the taphonomy (preservation state) of fossil non-avian dinosaurs, crocodiles and fish from the Winton Formation, Queensland, Australia. Think forensic science or CSI for fossils, and you're on the right track!
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