Princeton University Press
Princeton University Press What shade of dinosaurs existed? The solution is obvious after watching the Jurassic Park movies: drab, brown, or at most, dull green.
Has there ever been a more tediously colored set of animals than those seen throughout those movies? dryly questions British paleontologist David Hone in a new book.
How Quickly Did T. rex Run? Hone corrects the record. Some dinosaurs displayed patterns of vibrant patches, dots, or stripes, as well as red, white, or iridescent black coloring. For instance, the Chinese tiny dinosaur Sinosauropteryx is described as “ginger with white stripes.”
How do scientists recreate the colors of ancient animals that haven’t been in 65 million years (birds are an exception; more on them later)? The “packages of pigments” called melanosomes that are present in cells are the key, according to Hone. Melanosomes are present in many living creatures, including humans, as well as in rock formations that once housed preserved dinosaur skins or feathers. The fact that a melanosome’s form completely matches its color type is quite lucky. Therefore, even though the fossil melanosomes are currently colorless, we know what they should have contained and can infer the colors from that.
Hone set out to develop a book that emphasizes both what is known and what is unknown about dinosaurs. (With regard to the title, one of the unknowns is how quickly T. rex ran.) He beautifully strikes this balance. The book doubles as a guide for anyone looking to pinpoint key knowledge gaps while being jam-packed with engrossing accounts of dinosaur research advancements. He bemoans the fact that the data is “frustratingly incomplete” when it comes to color information, for example: Only a small number of dinosaurs have been researched thus far, and it is uncertain if colors were vivid or subdued. The extent of color variation between species, sexes, or individuals through time is unknown.
Although I love to watch or learn about practically any animal, I somehow managed to avoid getting dinosaur fever as a child or adult until recently. Hone’s approachable style of explaining everything, from the fundamentals to the more complex facets of dinosaur research, fascinated me.
Around 1,500 species of dinosaurs existed throughout their time on Earth, and they were present in almost all of its ecosystems. Dinosaurs actually lived “on mountains, in deserts, lakes and seashores, temperate and coniferous woods, and across all manner of temperatures, rainfall, snow, winds, and other differences in both climate and weather,” despite the misconception that they lived in tropical swamps.
Dinosaurs can be categorized into one of three clades. Theropods, which include Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor, are bipedal, frequently carnivorous dinosaurs. Brontosaurus, Brachiosaurus, and other sauropodomorphs had enormous bodies and long necks, and they all moved on all fours. Plant-eating ornithischians, which included Triceratops and Stegosaurus, frequently wore bone plates and crests.
How much time did the dinosaurs rule for? Here’s where I make a complaint. At various instances, Hone claims that dinosaurs existed for “130-something,” “150,” or “180-ish” million years. Even in a book about what is still unknown about dinosaur research, an inexplicable disparity of 50 million years is not insignificant and is perplexing to readers.
However, Hone excels when he gets into the specifics. In addition to discussing dinosaur appearance, he also discusses dinosaur descendants, extinction, origins, preservation, diversity, evolutionary patterns, habitats, anatomy, mechanics, physiology, and coverings. It’s hard to pick a favorite part here, however the reproduction chapter was one of the most amazing.
In that chapter, Hone offers a photograph of a huge oviraptorosaur’s egg nest that he took in China. The statement in the description, “The eggs are laid in numerous layers in a ring and the animal likely sat in the centre,” confirms what we can see in the picture. The irony of this dinosaur caring for its eggs is that its scientific name, Oviraptorosaur, literally translates to “egg thief.” When this dinosaur’s skeletons were first discovered near eggs, researchers assumed it was devouring the eggs of other dinosaurs rather than breeding. According to the location of their egg beds and the makeup of the eggshells, dinosaurs known as titanosaurs apparently did not brood, but instead warmed their eggs using volcanic heat. According to Hone, that action is “completely unexpected.”
We still don’t fully comprehend the reproductive biology of dinosaurs. Did the male or the female alternate sitting on the eggs? Backing up to the mating processes, Hone once more displays his dry humor: “How on earth are you going to get two awkward and extremely prickly ankylosaurs together, or some of the gigantic multi-ton bipedal theropods, or the biggest of the sauropods?”
The only remaining dinosaur species are the birds, which number 10,000. About the origin of the bird lineage, Hone has a lot to say, once more striking a balance between solid data and unanswered issues. We do know that birds did not evolve solely after the infamous extinction event of 65 million years ago because birds and dinosaurs coexisted for around 100 million years. Pterosaurs, a type of flying reptile, non-avian dinosaurs, and “extremely huge numbers” of bird lineages all disappeared at that time. The bird species that survived were those that were mostly limited to the ground but could still fly, which may indicate that arboreal birds suffered more severe habitat loss.
What about that extinction event, though? Yes, the Yucatan Peninsula asteroid strike in Mexico continues to be the top candidate to account for the extinction of dinosaurs. But Hone intriguingly muddles that narrative. He suggests that the dinosaurs might have perished even if the asteroid “had glided by Earth without so much as a scratch,” as they were already battling to survive in a world that had been significantly transformed by prior volcanic events.
Hone asks readers to take a quick online survey after the references section, tucked away at the back of the book, to find out who could have been motivated to learn more about dinosaurs. Hone says that tracking the effects of her efforts on the public encourages her to continue. I believe he will soon receive a lot of wonderful news.
At William and Mary, Barbara J. King is an emerita biological anthropologist. Her sixth book is titled Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity. Visit her Twitter page. @bjkingape