November 23, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Simplest Explanation: Dinosaurs Drowned

Why are dinosaur skeletons so often found with head arched backward and tail up?  The simplest explanation, according to one experimenter, is that they drowned in water.

“When palaeontologists are lucky enough to find a complete dinosaur skeleton – whether it be a tiny Sinosauropteryx or an enormous Apatosaurus – there's a good chance it will be found with its head thrown backwards and its tail arched upwards,” begins an article in New Scientist.  This phenomenon has been known for a century.  There’s even a name for it: the “the opisthotonic death pose.

Alicia Cutler and her colleagues at Brigham Young University decided to check out why this happened so often for dinosaurs.  Some had suggested dessication.  Kevin Padian’s theory was that it represented the dinosaur’s final death throes.  Cutler tested how plucked chickens reacted to dessication and dunking.  According to the article, “it all comes down to a dip in the wet stuff.”  The dunked chickens immediately went into the characteristic opisthotonic death pose.

Would results differ in salt water?  Some might think so, but Cutler said, “Although the roads to the opisthotonic death pose are many, immersion in water is the simplest explanation.”

In other dinosaur news, PhysOrg reported a nest of 15 Protoceratops juveniles found in Mongolia, the first nest of their genus ever found.  The paleontologist from University of Rhode Island said “I suspect” they were buried in a sandstorm, but admitted they had to be buried rapidly to be preserved in such detail.  And although extinct marine reptiles are not dinosaurs, PhysOrg also reported on an exceptionally-preserved mosasaur fossil discovered in western Kansas. Live Science said of this specimen, “In the fossilized skin samples, the researchers can see not only the animal's scales, but also imprints of the protein fibers that made up its skin.”  The discovery was reported in PLoS ONE by Lindgren et al.1

Live Science reported a nest of bird fossils from the dinosaur era that they say was buried in a local flash flood.  The article states, “the limestone block contains remarkably complete egg fossils, representing hundreds of eggs”.  Speaking of birds, PhysOrg reported evidence of a dinosaur that ate birds.  A fossil of Microraptor gui (depending on how one classifies this as a dinosaur) appears to have a small bird fossil in its stomach.  And what could it possibly mean that a giant long-necked titanosaur has been found in Antarctica?  See Live Science for details.

1. Lindgren J , Everhart MJ , Caldwell MW , 2011 Three-Dimensionally Preserved Integument Reveals Hydrodynamic Adaptations in the Extinct Marine Lizard Ectenosaurus (Reptilia, Mosasauridae). PLoS ONE 6(11): e27343. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027343.

OK, so does that make a global flood the inference to the best explanation for this death-pose phenomenon?  After all, we’re talking about a wide range of fossils all over the globe, from tiny to huge.  Many have in common an observable characteristic that can be caused by immersion in water – so common it has been popularly called “the dinosaur death pose” (see headline of New Scientist’s article, “Watery secret of the dinosaur death pose”).  It should be no secret that it’s watery.  After all, we’re talking about experimental science here, not the teachings of some historical text.  Where does the evidence lead?

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