Why Today is the Golden Age for Dinosaur Discoveries

As more countries open their borders to paleontology, a new generation of dino hunters is uncovering almost one new species a week.

Illinois-born Stephen Brusatte is one of the stars of modern paleontology. A former National Geographic grantee, he has discovered 10 new dinosaur species. He has also led groundbreaking scientific studies that have rewritten the history of these magnificent creatures which, thanks to Hollywood and countless children stories, haunt our imaginations today like never before.

In his new book, The Rise And Fall Of The Dinosaurs, Brusatte tells the epic tale of the dinosaurs’ rise to dominance and extinction, taking us on a thrilling journey back in time to the Mesozoic Era, and across the world to the far-flung places he has hunted for fossils, from Argentina, to China, to the American Southwest.

When we caught up with him by phone at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, where he is now a fellow, he explained how new technology is revolutionizing our understanding of Tyrannosaurus rex; why China is a hotspot for fossil dinosaurs; and how many of today’s paleontologists are women.

Let’s jump right in with the dinosaur that has captured our imaginations more than any other. Give us your “unauthorized biography” of T. rex, and explain how new technologies are enhancing our understanding of “The King Of The Dinosaurs.”

T. rex is surely the most famous dinosaur of all. It’s an icon. I think you could show a picture of T. rex to pretty much anybody on the planet and they’re going to know what it is. There’s something about its body, the huge head, tiny little arms, long tail, muscular legs; everybody recognizes it. It’s the size of a bus, about 13 meters, or 42 feet, long, weighed 7 or 8 tons, and could crush through the bones of its prey, it had such strong bite forces.

To me, it’s the epitome of dinosaur success. I don’t think anybody can look at a T. rex and see dinosaurs as failures or evolutionary dead-ends. And so many people are studying T. rex that we know more about it than we do about a lot of living animals. It is a Mesozoic muse for a lot of scientists, me included! [laughs]

New technology is helping a lot. Probably the best example of that is CAT scanning, which we can use to look inside dinosaur skulls. This has revealed the brain, the sense organs, sinuses, blood vessels, and nerves that are hidden inside the skull of T. rex. We can build digital models, which reveal that it had a pretty large brain! Its brain size relative to its body was somewhere in the range of chimps, so it was a smart animal, much smarter than people give it credit for.

Its brain also had huge olfactory bulbs, so it was a great smeller and sniffer. It would have used its nose to seek out its prey. We can also tell from its inner ear, the cochlea, that it was really good at hearing a whole range of sounds, including low-frequency ones. It had big, forward-facing eyes and big regions of the brain that controlled the sense of sight. That’s a very different image of T. rex than the one a lot of us grew up with. It was an animal that had not only brawn, but brains as well.

Your book opens with you discovering a new species of dinosaur in China. Put us inside that moment, and explain why you call this “a new golden age of discovery.

Right now is the best time in the history of dinosaur research. People are finding more dinosaurs nowadays than ever before: about 50 new species a year, which is incredible. That’s a new species each week, on average. Not a new bone or skeleton, but a totally new species.

A big part of the reason is that many places around the world have opened up over the last few decades, like China, Mongolia, and Argentina—vast countries with lots of deserts and mountains, full of rocks bursting with dinosaur bones. A lot of those places were very hard to work in a few decades ago for western scientists. Even more problematic was the fact that those countries didn’t have many homegrown paleontologists. Now you have this huge group of young people in China, Argentina, and other places, studying dinosaurs. And they’re making a lot of new discoveries.

China is the hot spot. Probably about half the new dinosaur species are coming from there. One of the species is Jianianhualong. You look at this thing and it cries out, “bird.” It has a slender, lightweight skeleton, feathers all over its body, and even wings. But it wasn’t a bird. It was a raptor dinosaur. It’s one of the dinosaurs that is telling us that things like feathers and wings didn’t first evolve for flight. Feathers probably evolved to keep dinosaurs warm and wings probably first evolved as display structures, like advertising billboards. Only later were they co-opted into air foils.

Scotland is not a place most of us associate with dinosaurs. But you recently made an exciting find there, didn’t you? Give us a sense of the place—and explain what these giant footprints have revealed about the Middle Jurassic.

When you think of dinosaurs, you think of places like Mongolia or the Badlands of the western United States, so when I moved to Scotland about five years ago I knew I was coming to a place where it would be difficult to find dinosaurs. But I did know that there was one place in Scotland that had started to yield some tantalizing clues: little bits of dinosaur bones, teeth, and footprints.

This is the Isle of Skye, a majestic, enchanted island off the west coast of Scotland, with a Tolkien-esque landscape. Today it’s cold and rainy, but 170 million years ago Skye was very different. It was much warmer and equatorial, more like Florida or Spain today, and it was bursting with dinosaurs! Their bones were preserved in the rivers, deltas, and lagoons of the island.

A few years ago we found a big dinosaur track site in an ancient lagoon, with hundreds of tracks of Sauropod dinosaurs, the big, long-necked dinosaurs. It was enough to convince Nat Geo to fund an expedition, and when we went back to Skye we discovered interesting new track sites. The one we announced most recently contains Sauropod tracks up to 70 centimeters wide. The size of a car tire! [laughs]

There were also tracks of some of the meat-eating dinosaurs left by dinosaurs wading in shallow water. We can see the left-right, left-right, zig-zag pattern as the animals moved around. But it doesn’t look like they were doing anything interesting. [laughs] They were just lingering around this ancient lagoon. What we’re seeing with these tracks is a day in the life of a bunch of 170-million-year-old dinosaurs.

It’s now accepted fact that the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid. But it wasn’t always that way. Take us inside the amazing detective work done by Walter Alvarez to prove this cataclysmic event.

Walter Alvarez is one of my heroes. He’s an eminent scientist who came up with the idea that an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs. Ever since the first dinosaurs were studied by scientists back in the early 1800s, the obvious question had been, “Why aren’t these animals here anymore; what happened to them?” People came up with all kinds of theories ranging from the plausible, that they gradually declined as the climate changed, to the ridiculous, that mammals ate their eggs or some kind of super virus knocked them out. Walter was the first person who came up with a robust theory that an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs.

He came to that idea when he was studying paleomagnetism in Italy, looking for magnetic minerals so he could tell how the continents had moved around over time. These rocks just so happened to have been deposited right at the end of the Cretaceous period, the last hurrah of the dinosaurs, and into the Paleogene period, when mammals started to blossom. Right in between the Cretaceous and Paleogene rocks was this thin strip of clay about a centimeter thick: the line between life and death. It’s like when a flight data recorder goes dead. Walter realized that this is where the extinction occurred.

At the end of the eighties, a crater was then found in the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula by an oil company geologist. And that sealed the deal that there was this 100-plus-mile-wide crater that could be dated right to the end of the Cretaceous—the exact same time as the dinosaurs died—and that thin clay layer was deposited around the world.

That crater would have been made by an asteroid or comet about 6 miles wide, which would have struck the earth with the force of over a billion Hiroshima bombs, at speeds faster than a jet airliner. It unleashed immediate chaos: tsunamis, wild fires, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. And probably within hours, days or weeks, most of the dinosaurs were dead.

Not many women get a mention in your book. One is the paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor. Tell us about this intrepid young woman, why dinosaur hunting is still such a boys’ club, and what can be done to change that?

It’s not the case that she’s one of the few women. It used to be an old men’s club, certainly back in the 1800s, when paleontology started. But over the last few decades that’s started to change. My lab here in Edinburgh, for instance, is very female dominated. Of my eight PhD students, seven are female.

Jingmai O’Connor is one of the people who exemplifies this new generation, both in terms of her diversity and career path. She grew up in California, half Irish-American, half Chinese. After she did her PhD in California, she moved to China. She now lives in Beijing, speaks Chinese, and I would say she’s the world expert on the earliest birds being found in China.

People assume a scientist is a white guy with a beard and lab coat. Jingmai is young and female, covered in tattoos and piercings, DJs in her spare time, and is a really relatable person. When you meet her, you probably have no inclination that she’s the world expert on the origin of birds! [laughs]

Let’s end with the easiest, but perhaps hardest, question: what excites you so much about dinosaurs? And how can their epic story help us navigate our own pathway to the future?

Dinosaurs are awesome; there’s no better way of saying it. It’s amazing to think that animals like T. rex and Brontosaurus actually lived on the same planet we live on now. I think that dinosaurs are more fantastic than dragons or unicorns, than all the creatures humans have invented in myths and legends. And dinosaurs were actually real!

But dinosaurs are not just creatures that lived a long time ago. They offer clues as to how evolution works and how the Earth has changed over time. Each new dinosaur fossil we find, whether it’s a footprint on the Isle of Skye or a fossil bird in China, is a clue that helps fill in the picture of dinosaur evolution.

That’s the story I’ve tried to tell: where dinosaurs came from, how they rose to dominance, how some got really big while others grew feathers and wings. In telling that evolutionary story, we can learn some lessons because dinosaurs lived for a long time. I hate it when I hear people use the word “dinosaur” as a slur! T. rex, brontosaurus, or stegosaurus ruled the Earth for over 150 million years! Homo sapiens has been around for just a couple hundred thousand years. So, to me, dinosaurs are the greatest success story in the history of evolution.

There’s a lesson here for us because right now we are wearing the crown that the dinosaurs once had. We’re the dominant creatures on the Earth and if the dinosaurs could disappear after such a long success story, who’s to say we can’t? That’s one of the things I want people to think about as they read my book.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Lead Image: T. rex is the most recognizable dinosaur that ever walked the earth, says the author of the new book, The Rise And Fall Of The Dinosaurs.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

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