Dino Extinction Story Is a Fable, Paleontologist Says
What they tell you on TV and in biology class about birds outlasting the dinosaurs has paltry little evidence.
Stephen Brusatte [U of Edinburgh] knows a few things about dinosaur fossils (3/16/16, 12/04/15). He also knows what he doesn’t know—what no paleontologist knows (10/06/15). The usual story of dinosaur extinction, summarized in his piece in Current Biology, “How Some Birds Survived When All Other Dinosaurs Died,” goes like this:
It almost seems like storytelling: the dinosaurs had their day, most died, some birds survived, and then those birds blossomed into today’s species.
He had opened his article with the TV drama version—the one showcased by many natural history museums about “The dinosaurs that got away” —
Sixty-six million years ago a ten kilometer wide asteroid smashed into the Earth, impacting with the force of several million nuclear bombs. The world changed in an instant. First came the global heat pulse and the earthquakes, then the tsunamis and wildfires. Volcanoes went into hyperdrive. Dust spewed up from the collision and blocked out the sun, a nuclear winter set in and ecosystems collapsed. It was a bad time to be alive. Tyrannosaurus rex, that most fearsome of dinosaurs, suddenly found itself the victim. One moment it was at the top of the food chain, the next it was gone. Many other dinosaurs went extinct as well: smaller meat-eating cousins of T. rex, the colossal long-necked sauropods, horned plant-eaters like Triceratops, the duck-billed and armored dinosaur species. But one peculiar type of dinosaur made it through the apocalypse and survives today: birds.
But then, at the end, he suggests this account is worse than storytelling:
A fable is defined as “a story not founded on fact.” Have evolutionary scientists been engaging in confabulation?
Brusatte’s remarks come in the context of his opinions about a new theory recently put forth in Current Biology by Derek Larson and colleagues. Larson suggests, from a study of teeth before and after the extinction, that birds survived because they lost their teeth and grew beaks. Since seeds can survive catastrophes than other food sources, the birds with beaks were able to eat them, and survived.
It’s a “clever” hypothesis, but is it true? Brusatte can think of a lot of alternative explanations for why one branch of birds, the neornithines (“new birds”), survived.
It’s an ironic twist that a study of dinosaur teeth concludes that losing teeth may have been the key to enduring the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact. But this may not be the final word on the subject. There may be other ways that neornithines differed from the more primitive toothed birds that perished: perhaps they grew faster, had higher metabolic rates, or had a more advanced system of muscles that allowed them to fly better, farther and more efficiently. Maybe some, or all, of these features were superpowers that gave the neornithines better odds of surviving when the asteroid hit, a better lottery ticket for dealing with a global meltdown.
May, perhaps, may have been… these words ratchet up the perhapsimaybecouldness index. And his references to “odds” in a “lottery” make his speculations about as scientific as the Stuff Happens Law. Brusatte can’t help it. For the evolutionary scenario, there just isn’t enough evidence to go from fable to fact.
Even many fossil specialists have grown weary of a riddle that was once exciting but now seems played out. But the sheer volume of research on the end-Cretaceous extinction belies an inconvenient problem: we still know very little about how dinosaurs were changing during the waning days of the Mesozoic, during the run-up to the asteroid impact. That’s because fossils of these last-surviving dinosaurs are virtually unknown outside of western North America, and even in these celebrated dinosaur graveyards there are very few specimens of small dinosaurs, especially birds and their very closest meat-eating cousins, such as the dromaeosaurids (the Velociraptor clan) and troodontids (a group of fast running brainy dinosaurs). Their skeletons were so fragile that few of them endured the requisite rigors of death, fossilization and burial so that they could be found by intrepid paleontologists some 66 million years later.
Presumably the impact (the Chicxulub crater near the Yucatan) occurred closer to western North American than to other parts of the globe, so why aren’t good fossils found farther away? Isn’t China where the most detailed fossils of “feathered dinosaurs” are found? Fragility of skeletons doesn’t seem to be a problem there or in the Solnhofen beds of Germany.
Another “inconvenient problem” is evident from his graph: all the dinosaurs went extinct (in the evolutionary account, based on the millions-of-years geologic column), but these did not: amphibians, mammals, lizards, crocodiles and birds. Even butterflies survived, as well as many delicate plants and insects. Why didn’t a single small reptilian dinosaur make it through?
Because there is no convincing proof of the evolutionary account in the record, Brusatte turns hopefully to Larson’s tale on the far side:
If we want to understand what happens during sudden extinction events—what lives, what dies, how the world is reshaped afterwards—we need to peer deep into the fossil record, where even humble dinosaur teeth can tell an important tale.
Remember: this is from one of the world’s leading authorities on fossils and dinosaurs.
No Evolution Here, Mate
Aggravating the dinosaur extinction problem is the complete disappearance of marine reptiles, while numerous flimsier animals and fish survived just fine. What many may not realize is that they appeared abruptly in fossil record, too. Science Daily says that a new fossil is “breaking all the rules about what ichthyosaurs are like.”
The way this new species evolved into such a different form so quickly sheds light on how evolution actually works. “Darwin’s model of evolution consists of small, gradual changes over a long period of time, and that’s not quite what we’re seeing here. These ichthyosauriforms seem to have evolved very quickly, in short bursts of lots of change, in leaps and bounds,” says Rieppel.
Horner Told a Tale
Jack Horner, well-known dinosaur hunter, was the model for the Jurassic Park scientist. He was the advisor on that movie and all the sequels. Live Science posted an interview with Horner, who curates the museum at Montana State. Because of dyslexia growing up, Horner could not meet the requirements of college for a degree. “No, I do not have a degree of any kind,” he told reporter Laura Geggel. “I got two honorary doctorates, but I do not have a normal degree — not a bachelor’s, a master’s or a Ph.D.” That has not stopped him from achieving expertise on dinosaurs in other ways. His latest work, nicknamed “Chickenosaurus,” attempts to retro-engineer a bird by making it look more like a dinosaur.
In this article, he did not mention the discovery of soft tissue in T. rex that left him “shocked” when Mary Schweitzer found it (CBS 60 Minutes, 8:50 ff). “How could that be?” he comments. Leslie Stahl says the find poses “a radical challenge to the existing rules of science, that organic material can’t possibly survive even a million years, let alone 68 million.” She recounts how Schweitzer and Horner were initially attacked when they published these findings, indicating that no scientist would have predicted that stretchy soft tissue and blood vessels could survive so long. Since then, of course, numerous other examples of soft tissue in fossils have been discovered (6/10/15), some even older (1/21/16). See lists with references compiled by Brian Thomas (ICR) and by Bob Enyart.
Darwinians are masters of confability. We think people deserve truth from their scientists, not fables.