Thursday, April 30, 2009

T. rex in the news again! or, The dinosaur parable?

Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid hit the earth in what is now the Gulf of Mexico and the resulting environmental changes killed off the dinosaurs, opening the way for the subsequent evolution of mammals.

Or not. This scenario has been taught to schoolchildren for decades, but Gerta Keller and Thierry Addate, geoscientists at Princeton University and the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, have reanalyzed old data and collected new and they suggest that the asteroid hit 300,000 years before the mass extinction. Theirs isn't a paradigm-shifting suggestion because they don't reject the environmental impact theory, proposing that rather than an asteroid, the environmental change could have been due to the explosion of massive volcanoes and the resulting dust in the atmosphere blocking out the sun and so on. Some scientists have replied in defense of the asteroid theory. But, it is a further reminder that every scientist before yesterday was wrong, at least to some extent. Is the instant death idea so fixed that if it wasn't an asteroid we need another cloudy explanation?

Ah, but everyone has in mind the Disney animated view of a herd of Brontosauruses grazing, then looking up curiously at the flaming meteor and its ensuing dust-cloud obscuring the sun then grimacing in terror (cartoon reptiles can fear in their eyes), then staggering, and plopping down dead (with a few farewell quivers from the tips of their tails, accompanied by ominous strains from the bass section).

So perhaps you can pick your favorite dust cloud. Whether or not any global dust-cloud can cause such extinctions (leaving countless species of all sorts, including reptiles, alive) is one of the debates that have accompanied the dust-cloud theory. But there probably has been a bit too much uncritical acceptance of the one-hit-killed-all (except those it didn't) theory.

Melodramatic global smudges provide a parable for what happened, since we certainly all know that the T. rex really is gone (unless it went under water to get away from the dust, and became the Loch Ness moster!), but may not be an accurate reflection of the actual day-to-day facts at that time deep in the mists of history.


Chris Berez said...

That's very interesting, although I'd thought the idea of the killer asteroid as the end-all solution had fallen out of favor years ago. The idea I'd become familiar with, and one that I'd thought was growing in popularity, was that the dinosaurs were already dying out due to climate change that was causing vegetation to die out, thus limiting food supply for plant-eaters, which caused food shortage for meant-eaters, and so on. The dinosaurs were on their way to extinction, and the asteroid simply finished things off.

It seems like this new theory isn't all that far off from the one I'd been following. Even if it's true that the asteroid event took place 300,000 years before the extinction of the dinosaurs, it seems to establish the same idea that climate change due to increased volcanic activity was already wrecking havoc on the dinosaurs, and that the idea of the asteroid being the sole cause of the extinction is clearly false.

The fact that most people still hold a "Fantasia" view of things when it comes to the dinosaur extinction is indeed sad, but hardly surprising. Appropriately enough, you mention another Hollywood-inspired misconception when you talk about the commonly held perception of "a herd of Brontosauruses grazing, then looking up curiously at the flaming meteor...". From what I understand, such objects enter our atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per second. So the idea that anyone, dinosaur or man, could stand and gaze complacently at the object of their doom is flat-out ridiculous to begin with.

Anyway, this kind of thing is still very exciting to those of us who care. And hopefully some day when channels like History and Discovery are less concerned with covering ghosts, UFOs and cryptozoology and return to covering subjects actually supported by reality, the views of the general public will have a chance to change as well.

Anne Buchanan said...

Your points are well taken, Chris. A sudden single explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs is quite appealing in its simplicity, but the real answer probably involves a web of complex interacting factors, as you say. Like most things, including genetics, as we continually try to point out, so this shouldn't be a surprise.