Dinosaurs, those big, lumbering creatures that stir the imagination of children the world over and hold a fascination even for most adults, are the subjects of numerous movies and even religious controversy. Where did they live? How did they survive? What did they eat? How big did they really get? All questions asked by young children which adults need to know.
These questions can all be combined into one: what are the ways that information about dinosaurs is discovered? How does anyone gather information or become an expert about something that disappeared long before any humans existed? It is through a combination of hard science mixed with a bit of calculated guesswork and a touch of artistic license or speculation thrown in. Few realize that paleontologists are not just scientists, but also dinosaur detectives!
The last dinosaurs are estimated to have disappeared about 65 million years ago, but some are considered even older. How do scientist know? Is it based upon hard fact, calculated guesswork or just speculation? It is determined using geology and chemistry mixed with guessing. The geology is based upon the fact that certain rocks form at set rates through known processes. If the rock is of a certain type or size there is a good idea of when it formed based upon pressure, time, and chemical requirements such as isotope levels and decay. If a paleontologists finds evidence of dinosaurs in it, then the dinosaur likely existed when the rock was forming. Over the centuries, all the rocks containing dinosaur fossils have been over 65 million years old or older. Some dinosaurs may have survived past into more recent times and just not died in the appropriate place to become fossilized, but not likely.
Size and shape of the dinosaurs, as well as dietary habits, are estimated primarily from bone structure and teeth. Muscles and tendons attach to bones in certain ways in animals today and scientists believe the same was true for the dinosaurs. A bone of a set size means that a specified amount of muscle was required to move it and the ridges can tell how muscles were attached; too much muscle breaks the bone and not enough won’t move it. There is some variation, but not much in animal physiology; bigger bones mean bigger muscles. Teeth tell what an animal likely ate; sharp teeth indicate meat eaters and flat teeth are usually for chewing plants.
Another way of determining what dinosaurs ate was through Coprolite’s, fossilized dinosaur manure. These are carefully examined using electron microscopy and the contents analyzed. The structures are compared to know things such as plants and insects. It is then estimated that this was what the dinosaur consumed! A mixture of science and speculation! Of course they may not know which manure fossil came from which dinosaur!
Feet and skin texture is easily shown in fossils from when they ran across mud that quickly solidified or the dinosaur died in it. The mud was like concrete and the dinosaur like a child that runs across it, footprints and even the ridges can be seen. They also show that some dinosaurs had feathers! What they don’t show is pigmentation. No one knows what colors the dinosaurs were, that fact is added through the artistic license!
How does anybody gather information about something they never saw, such as dinosaurs? Just like a good detective through analyzing all the available remaining evidence and piecing together the know facts with current conditions. Then combing that with calculated guesswork and using their imagination! Paleontologists are scientists with a variety of knowledge and they are also definitely dinosaur detectives!