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Are Birds the Only Surviving Dinosaurs? Paleontologist Stephen Brusatte Digs Deep into the 'Lost World'

American palaeontologist Stephen L. Brusatte / News18.

American palaeontologist Stephen L. Brusatte / News18.

In an interview with News18.com, American palaeontologist Stephen L. Brusatte explained how birds evolved out of the remaining dinosaurs, who survived the comet/asteroid hit.

From Alan Grant (Jurassic Park) to Ross Geller (Friends), many memorable onscreen palaeontologist characters have tickled children’s and adults’ curiosity about dinosaurs for years. The sudden disappearance of dinosaurs from our planet sixty-six million years ago, their rise as the dominant species has all been explored in popular culture in great (albeit not always accurate) details. However, we had seldom heard stories of the time when dinosaurs were not dominant, let alone the fierce and terrifying creatures that they appear to be in most Hollywood retelling.

In American palaeontologist Stephen L. Brusatte’s latest book, titled The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, he re-traces the evolution of dinosaurs from their utterly unremarkable start as small shadow dwellers to their dominant days, posts the eruption of a volcano in the Triassic period, which led them to their zenith in Jurassic and Cretaceous periods during which they ruled the earth until a giant asteroid/comet struck the planet and caused a momentous extinction occurrence in this planet’s history and erased most (but not all) dinosaurs from the face of the earth.

In the book, Brusatte’s narrative is engaging, as he recreates the mysterious rise of dinosaurs from their humble beginnings. He presents a new history of the dinosaurs based on scientific research and ground-breaking discoveries done by him and other palaeontologists in the recent past.

Brusatte, who was a speaker at the Jaipur Literature festival 2021 recently, has named fifteen new species, and led several pioneering research and fieldwork in palaeontology. In an interview with News18.com, Brusatte explained how birds evolved out of the remaining dinosaurs, who survived the comet/asteroid hit. He described how the dinosaurs, millions of years ago, weathered climate change and discussed how diseases like cancer and gout afflicted them. Here are a few excerpts from the interview.

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What does the evolution of dinosaurs tell us about climate change and the shifting of continents?

Dinosaurs were a dynasty of evolution — they lived for over a hundred million years, and they experienced many things: volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, changing climates, drifting continents. Dinosaurs tell us that species are very adaptable over long time periods, but also that even the most dominant species can get in trouble or even go extinct when the environment quickly changes.

What are some of the plausible theories that explain dinosaurs’ dominance after the spilt of Pangea?

Dinosaurs originated in the Triassic Period, over 230 million years ago, when all of the lands were connected as one. But they did not become dominant quickly. Instead, for many tens of millions of years, they were overshadowed by their crocodile cousins. Then, as Pangea split apart, huge volcanoes erupted and caused a mass extinction. The crocs were decimated, the dinosaurs were the survivors. And I don’t know why! It is a big mystery, and it needs to be solved by the next generation of palaeontologists.

What are some of your most memorable field trips and fossil discoveries?

I’ve been fortunate to study dinosaurs with many amazing and interesting colleagues in many places around the world. It is the best part of my job and the part I miss most during the pandemic. My favourite discovery is one we made in Scotland in 2015. We were on the Isle of Skye, looking for dinosaur bones. We had a long day and didn’t find anything. Then as we were walking back to our vehicles, we noticed some huge holes in the rock, about the size of a car tire. There were dozens of them. It dawned on us: these were dinosaur footprints, made by enormous long-necked dinosaurs from the Jurassic. It was the biggest dinosaur site in Scotland, with the most fossils.

Just like humans are categorized as mammals, birds are often said to be dinosaurs. Did the early bird species resemble dinosaurs? How did some of the birds’ species survive the asteroid?

Birds evolved from dinosaurs, which makes them dinosaurs. They are part of the dinosaur family tree. The same way that bats are a type of small mammal with wings that can fly, birds are a small type of dinosaur with wings that can fly. And they are the only dinosaurs that survived the asteroid. Being able to fly helped, and they probably also were able to eat seeds when all of the forests collapsed, and they grew fast. All of these things probably helped them. The very first birds resembled dinosaurs like Velociraptor, but the birds that survived the extinction would have looked more like today’s birds.

Is there fossil evidence that dinosaurs suffered from illness/diseases? What are these diseases?

Yes! There is an entire field of palaeontology called paleopathology—the study of ancient disease. Some diseases leave their marks on bones, which means they can be fossilized. We know that some dinosaurs had gout, bone disease, and various types of cancer, and even that one dinosaur had a parasite infection similar to the infections some modern birds get.

Tell our readers something about the book you are working on currently.

In the Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, I told the story of dinosaur history: where they came from, how they became so big and so dominant, and how they went extinct. I’m now following that up with a book on mammals. It doesn’t have a title yet. But I am nearly finished. It should be published in the summer of 2022. It will tell the story of mammal history, beginning 325 million years ago when the mammal lineage split from the reptile line on the family tree, and continuing through time, with mammals surviving the dinosaur extinction and then diversifying, spreading around the world, and evolving into everything from elephants and whales to bats and primates, and ultimately us. It will be written for the general reader, so you won’t need a science degree or experience studying fossils to enjoy it!

According to you, what are some of Paleontology’s best and worst depiction in popular culture?

There are a lot of bad depictions, and I won’t go down that route. But there are many good depictions too. Two stand out: Jurassic Park and Walking With Dinosaurs. They are not perfect, of course. But both franchises have strived to make entertaining, realistic dinosaurs in line with current ideas. I am the science advisor for Jurassic World now, and I can promise you the next film (to be released in 2022) will have some amazing dinosaurs, including some cool new ones. I’ve also worked with Walking With Dinosaurs, particularly the 2013 movie. The filmmakers were really dedicated to making the dinosaurs accurate, which is a hard thing to do when making a blockbuster movie. So many people around the world have been inspired by the dinosaurs in these two franchises, and will be for many more years to come.