Monday, November 30, 2009

Why Dinosaurs Matter

Why bother studying dinosaurs? I ask myself this question from time to time. I was spurred to consider it again, earlier today, by a post at Archosaur Musings. In it, Dave Hone lets loose on a sloppily designed pterosaur toy. I have to admit, it's really fun to see a paleontologist rip apart a bad toy like this. I enjoy writing the occasional rant, but I'm paranoid that I'll commit a factual blunder, which would be all the more embarrassing for the righteous anger with which it was delivered. I don't actually get spitting mad over a mislabeled duckbill figurine. Seriously, I don't. Really. Honest.

Hone's post made me question why I should feel this annoyance in the first place. What does it matter to me that some kid's toy Parasaurolophus looks more like Corythosaurus? Will it really make a difference? If he cares enough to actually read the packaging, he'll probably have forgotten by the time he grows up. I know in my gut that dinosaurs are worthy of study, and of public attention. And I know that it's not just for the sake of knowledge. Especially as we've learned that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, that they aren't just novelties. Their evolution has lasting effects on the world.

Conveniently enough, one of the next blogs on my reading list was Scott Sampson's new The Whirlpool of Life, and he was kind enough to answer this question quite eloquently. Here's an excerpt; be sure to head to the blog to read the whole post.
...dinosaurs offer an exceptional access point into the Great Story—our story. They can help us forge links between the distant past and the present day (e.g., modern birds as living dinosaurs) and insert us back into the flow of deep time (Tyrannosaurus lived closer to you in time than to Allosaurus or Stegosaurus). These ancient creatures can be used to demonstrate that every ecosystem on Earth, whether in the Mesozoic or the present day, is the culmination of millions upon millions of years of co-evolution between and among life forms.
I love his illustration of the immensity of time, comparing the time since the K-T event with the span of time between Cretaceous T. rex and Jurassic Allosaurus. Puts things in context in a handful of words. From what I've read at Whirlpool, Sampson is a fine writer and a great communicator of science. His recent book, Dinosaur Odyssey, is on its way to me and I'll be reviewing it shortly.

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