by Steve Brusatte
This book about the “Age of Dinosaurs”, which lasted nearly 200 million years (see blue highlighted Mesozoic era), was an entertaining read. The general public underestimates the length of time dinosaurs lived. There is more time between Stegosaurus and T. rex (80-95 million years) than there is between T. rex and us today (66 million years). The Age of Dinosaurs started after the Permian extinction at 252 million years ago – the biggest mass extinction of all times[i] – endured a mid-Cretaceous extinction event, and ended with the asteroid-strike extinction event 66 million years ago.
When the dinosaur age began in the Triassic Period the Earth’s continents were one land mass; by the end of the Cretaceous the placement of continents would look familiar to us today.
However, this book is not a “new history of a lost world” as the subtitle says. It is mainstream information that is presented in basic terms without too much in-depth explanations. The book seems written for people who lack background in the subject matter. It tended to gloss over things that could have used more explanation.
For example, he says,
and early synapsids, progenitors of mammals that are often annoyingly, and incorrectly, described as mammal-like reptiles (although they are not actually reptiles) in kids’ books and museum exhibits.
They’re also described as mammal-like reptiles in various biology and evolutionary books and textbooks, so obviously there seems to be some confusion even among those who write about fossils. I would have liked to hear why it is incorrect.
He also glossed over the fights between two opposing groups on the origin of birds. There were the minority group Birds Are Not Dinosaurs (BAND) versus the majority group Birds Are Dinosaurs (BAD). The controversies coloured the whole field and deserve mention as part of the history.
Their sometimes vitriolic clashes probably led BAD to accept a hoax in order to disprove the BAND people once and for all. The faked fossil—which some media dubbed “The Piltdown Chicken[ii]”— embarrassed prominent scientists and National Geographic. It gave ammunition to BAND who likened the proponents of BAD to religious fanatics willing to accept any flimsy excuse to support their views. It also had geopolitical ramifications still in effect today.
Yet, none of this is even hinted at in Brusatte’s book. Since Brusatte is quite young maybe this was “ancient history” to him and not interesting enough to include.
My favourite section was his summaries of the physiology and behaviour that dinosaurs and birds had in common. He covers the one-way breathing system briefly (birds and dinosaurs both obtain fresh air from exhalation as well as the usual inhalation), and some ideas on feather evolution and development. If you want to know why birds are now classed as a type of dinosaur this book gives concise summaries. If you want more details on dinosaurs check the endnotes for book recommendations.[iii]
Overall, I liked this book quite a bit. Some reviewers found his tone off-setting, even narcissistic, but I did not. His tone brought characters and places to life. I look forward to any future books when he’s had more of a career and has developed that sense of history of his own profession.
Below, I’ll cover a bit of history of the “Piltdown Chicken” and the BAND vs BAD fights, mainly because a large part of my current work involves birds and I watched this mess unfold in real time.
Birds and Dinosaurs
Brusatte writes that by 1969 there were thousands of dinosaur bones that were “astonishingly birdlike”, and by the 1980s most paleontologists had come around to thinking birds evolved from dinosaurs.
Birds are a type of theropod; they are rooted in that group of ferocious meat-eaters that most famously includes T. rex and Velociraptor … The Liaoning [extraordinarily rich fossil site in China] fossils sealed the deal by verifying how many features are shared uniquely by birds and other theropods: not just feathers, but also wishbones, three-fingered hands that can fold against the body, and hundreds of other aspects of the skeleton. There are no other groups of animals—living or extinct—that share these things with birds or theropods: this must mean that birds came from theropods. Any other conclusion requires a whole lot of special pleading.
BAND did a whole lot of special pleading. BAD fell for a hoax.
Below, are some science headlines I collected for my classes on this subject when I used to teach. Unfortunately, my old notes did not have links attached, but the headlines or quotes will give you an idea of the BAD-BAND back-and-forth.
- Sept 1999: feathered birds found in fossils that predate theropods. Birds NOT from theropods.
- Sept 1999: National Geographic: we can say that birds are theropods as confidently as we say that humans are mammals. Birds FROM theropods (the Piltdown Chicken, see below).
- April 2000: Dinosaur with downy fluff, primitive flight feathers. Birds FROM theropods.
- April 2000: measurement of forelimbs of various theropods and birds gives more evidence for birds FROM theropods.
- June 2000: Ancient feathered animal challenges Dino-Bird link. “calls into serious question many theories about an evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds” Birds NOT from theropods.
- June 2000: “a bold challenge to birds from dinosaurs theory” Birds NOT from theropods.
- Sept 2000: Microscope bone evidence supports Dino-Bird evolution. Birds FROM theropods.
- Dec 2000: Finding contradicts the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Birds NOT from theropods.
- Dec 2000: Fossil is “beyond question a bird“, not a feathered dinosaur. Birds NOT from theropods.
- Dec 2000: “for the first time we have something that is unquestionably a dinosaur with unquestionable feathers“. Claimed to be the missing link between birds and dinosaurs. Birds FROM theropods.
- June 2001: New fossil provides insight into origin of birds. Birds FROM theropods.
- Feb 2002: New species “help counter, once and for all, the position of paleontologists who argue birds did not evolve from dinosaurs” Birds FROM theropods.
- Aug 2002: Bird “hands” present proof that birds could not have descended from dinosaurs. Birds NOT from theropods.
The Piltdown Chicken
On October 15, 1999 the National Geographic Society announced the discovery of their newest fossil called Archaeoraptor liaoningensis. A month later their November magazine carried an article of this fossil entitled, “Feathers for T. rex? New birdlike fossils are missing links in dinosaur evolution”. It was conclusive proof that birds were the last living descendants of dinosaurs.
The fossil was examined by several people. Philip J. Currie who helped found the Royal Tyrrel Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta was instrumental in bringing the fossil to National Geographic’s attention; he was a vocal BAD supporter, and he agreed with National Geographic’s conclusion when they said “…we can now say that birds are theropods just as confidently as we can say that humans are mammals”.
BAND members Storrs Olson (curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution), and Larry Martin (paleontologist specializing in bird fossils at the University of Kansas) were not pleased. Olson, after looking at pictures, did not think the feathers were actually feathers (he was wrong). Martin proposed that the pieces of the fossil had been assembled, and could include more than one animal (he was right). They would have found reasons to reject a genuine fossil—as they had before—but this time they were correct to do so.
Not all of the BAD groups accepted the find either. Before National Geographic published their November piece, they were hoping that a scientific journal would publish the discovery to make it official. However, both Nature and Science (the two top science journals in the world) wouldn’t publish because they had concerns about providence (where exactly the fossil came from, was it smuggled out of China, etc).
And, even Currie had some concerns after Timothy Rowe at the University of Texas and an expert on CT scanning of fossils argued the specimen had been made from a number of fossils, and that the tail did not belong to the body. However, the National Geographic print cycle was already too far ahead to pull the story. Currie calls this episode the greatest mistake of his career.
In 2000 an investigation did indeed show this fossil was a combination of the tail of a dinosaur, and the body of a bird. Because this fossil was pressed in-between two layers both layers held an imprint of the fossil. Comparing the two layers revealed that the National Geographic’s layer had been altered.
Before this evidence came out, though, Olson, in a strongly worded open letter dated November 1, 1999, said:
The idea of feathered dinosaurs and the theropod origin of birds is being actively promoted by a cadre of zealous scientists acting in concert with certain editors at Nature and National Geographic who themselves have become outspoken and highly biased proselytizers of the faith. Truth and careful scientific weighing of evidence have been among the first casualties in their program, which is now fast becoming one of the grander scientific hoaxes of our age—the paleontological equivalent of cold fusion.
He had stronger words for National Geographic.
National Geographic glorified this illicit specimen with their article…They ignored all the contrary evidence and gave in to a campaign of propaganda. It is completely bogus. There is no such thing as a feathered dinosaur. It’s like saying Elvis Presley is on the dark side of the moon. [emphasis added]
National Geographic did eventually launch an investigation. John Pickrell in his book quotes the investigative reporter, Lewis M Simons, who in National Geographic’s October 2000 issue wrote,
It was a tale of misguided secrecy and misplaced confidence, of rampant egos clashing, self-aggrandizement, wishful thinking, naive assumptions, human error, stubbornness, manipulation, backbiting, lying, corruption, and, most of all, abysmal communication.
This tale covers continents and has everything but sex and murder (and if that was included it wouldn’t be surprising).
It even led to new discoveries. Further CT scans by Rowe revealed that the Archaeoraptor fossil was from 88 different pieces of a number of different fossils. Two of those species were unknown to science. The tail was from the first known Microraptor, while the front half was a primitive bird that was subsequently named Yanornis in a 2002 Nature paper entitled ‘Archaeoraptor’s better half’.
Fascinating bit of history to see unfold in real time.
[i] If you want to know more about the Permian extinction then When Life Nearly Died by Michael Benton is a gripping read as scientists figure out what, how and why nearly all life disappeared. If you want to read about the five major mass extinctions then Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World is another engrossing tale of death and life and the clever detective work done to tease answers out of the ancient rocks. Those two books read are two of my top five favourite non-fiction reads.
[ii] Named after the faked hominid fossil Piltdown Man which took over 4 decades to prove as a hoax, although right from the beginning most early human researchers were so dubious about Piltdown Man they refused to list it in their charts of hominids.