‘The Dinosaur Looked Just Like A Bird.’
On average, a new species of dinosaur is discovered every week. Meet the paleontologists who are uncovering them.
The following is an excerpt from The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World
A few hours before light broke on a cold November morning in 2014, I got out of a taxi and pushed my way into Beijing’s central railway station. I clutched my ticket as I fought through a swarm of thousands of early-morning commuters, my nerves starting to jangle as the departure time for my train ticked ever closer. I had no idea where to go. Alone, with only a few words of Chinese in my vocabulary, all I could do was try to match the pictographic characters on my ticket to the symbols on the platforms. Tunnel vision set in, and I barreled up and down the escalators, past the newsstands and noodle joints, like a predator on the hunt. My suitcase—weighed down with cam- eras, a tripod, and other scientific gear—bounced along behind me, rolling over feet and smacking into shins. Angry shouts seemed to come at me from all directions. But I didn’t stop.
By now sweat was pouring through my downy winter jacket, and I was gasping in the diesel haze. An engine roared to life somewhere ahead of me, and a whistle sounded. A train was about to depart. I staggered down the concrete steps leading to the tracks and, to my great relief, recognized the symbols. Finally. This was my train—the one that would be shooting northeastward to Jinzhou, a Chicago-size city in old Manchuria, a few hundred miles from the frontier with North Korea.
For the next four hours, I tried to get comfortable as we crawled past concrete factories and hazy corn fields. Occasionally I nodded off, but I couldn’t steal back much sleep. I was far too excited. A mystery was waiting at the end of the journey—a fossil that a farmer stumbled upon while harvesting his crops. I had seen a few grainy photos, sent to me by my good friend and colleague Junchang Lü, one of China’s most famous dinosaur hunters. We both agreed it looked important. Maybe even one of those holy grail fossils—a new species, preserved in such an immaculate way that we can sense what it was like as a living, breathing creature tens of millions of years in the past. But we needed to see it ourselves to be sure.
When Junchang and I stepped off the train in Jinzhou, we were greeted by a band of local dignitaries, who took our bags and ushered us into two black SUVs. We were whizzed off to the city’s museum, a surprisingly nondescript building on the outskirts of town. With the seriousness of a high-level political summit, we were led through the flickering neon lights of a long hallway, into a side room with a couple of desks and chairs. Balanced on a small table was a slab of rock so heavy that it seemed the legs were starting to buckle. One of the locals spoke in Chinese to Junchang, who then turned to me and gave a quick nod.
“Let’s go,” he said, in his curiously accented English, a combination of the Chinese cadence he grew up with and the Texas drawl that he picked up as a grad student in America.
The two of us came together and stepped toward the table. I could feel the eyes of everyone, an eerie silence hanging over the room as we approached the treasure.
Before me was one of the most beautiful fossils I had ever seen. It was a skeleton, about the size of a mule, its chocolate-brown bones standing out from the dull gray limestone surrounding it. A dinosaur for sure, its steak-knife teeth, pointy claws, and long tail leaving no doubt that it was a close cousin of Jurassic Park’s villainous Velociraptor.
But this was no ordinary dinosaur. Its bones were light and hollow, its legs long and skinny like a heron’s, its slender skeleton the hallmark of an active, dynamic, fast-moving animal.
And not only were there bones, but there were feathers covering the entire body. Bushy feathers that looked like hair on the head and neck, long branching feathers on the tail, and big quill pens on the arms, lined together and layered over each other to form wings.
This dinosaur looked just like a bird.
About a year later, Junchang and I described this skeleton as a new species, which we called Zhenyuanlong suni. It is one of about fifteen new dinosaurs that I’ve identified over the past decade, as I’ve carved out a career in paleontology that has taken me from my roots in the American Midwest to a faculty job in Scotland, with many stops all over the world to find and study dinosaurs.
Zhenyuanlong is unlike the dinosaurs I learned about in elementary school, before I became a scientist. I was taught that dinosaurs were big, scaly, stupid brutes so ill equipped for their environment that they just lumbered around, biding their time, waiting to go extinct. Evolutionary failures. Dead ends in the history of life. Primitive beasts that came and went, long before humans came on the scene, in a primeval world that was so different from today that it may as well have been an alien planet. Dinosaurs were curiosities to see in museums, or movie monsters that haunted our nightmares, or objects of childhood fascination, pretty much irrelevant to us today and unworthy of any serious study.
A new species of dinosaur is currently being found, on average, once a week.
But these stereotypes are absurdly wrong. They’ve been dismantled over the past few decades, as a new generation has collected dinosaur fossils at an unprecedented rate. Somewhere around the world—from the deserts of Argentina to the frozen wastelands of Alaska—a new species of dinosaur is currently being found, on average, once a week. Let that sink in: a new dinosaur every…single…week. That’s about fifty new species each year—Zhenyuanlong among them. And it’s not only new discoveries but also novel ways of studying them—emerging technologies that help paleontologists understand the biology and evolution of dinosaurs in ways that our elders would have found unimaginable. CAT scanners are being used to study dinosaur brains and senses, computer models tell us how they moved, and high-power microscopes can even reveal what color some of them were. And so on.
It’s been my great privilege to be part of this excitement—as one of many young paleontologists from across the globe, men and women from many backgrounds who came of age in the era of Jurassic Park. There are a whole bunch of us twenty- and thirty-something researchers, working together and with our mentors from the preceding generation. With each new discovery we make, each new study, we learn a little more about dinosaurs and their evolutionary story.
That is the tale I am going to tell in this book—the epic account of where dinosaurs came from, how they rose to dominance, how some of them became colossal and others developed feathers and wings and turned into birds, and then how the rest of them disappeared, ultimately paving the way for the modern world, and for us. In doing so, I want to convey how we’ve pieced together this story using the fossil clues that we have, and give some sense of what it’s like to be a paleontologist whose job it is to hunt for dinosaurs.
Most of all, though, I want to show that dinosaurs were not aliens, nor were they failures, and they’re certainly not irrelevant. They were remarkably successful, thriving for over 150 million years and producing some of the most amazing animals that have ever lived—including birds, some ten thousand species of modern-day dinosaurs. Their home was our home—the same Earth, subject to the same whims of climate and environmental change that we have to deal with, or perhaps will deal with in the future. They evolved in concert with an ever changing world, one subject to monstrous volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts, and one in which the continents were moving around, sea levels were constantly fluctuating, and temperatures were capriciously rising and falling. They became supremely well adapted to their environments, but in the end, most of them went extinct when they couldn’t cope with a sudden crisis. No doubt there is a lesson there for us.
More than anything, the rise and fall of the dinosaurs is an incredible story, of a time when giant beasts and other fantastic creatures made the world their own. They walked on the very ground below us, their fossils now entombed in rock—the clues that tell this story. To me, it’s one of the greatest narratives in the history of our planet.
From the book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte. Copyright © 2018 by Steve Brusatte. Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.