Dinosaurs are often thought of as kid’s stuff. In America, at least, going through a “dinosaur phase” is just another part of childhood, and somewhere along the way we’re expected to stop acting like walking encyclopedias to Mesozoic life. Yet this narrow view of dinosaurs as nothing more than pre-teen kitsch obscures the essential truths these animals can share with us about evolution, extinction, and survival.
As paleontologist Michael Novacek argues in the video above, the history of dinosaurs is also our history–our mammalian ancestors and relatives snuffled and scurried through a dinosaur-dominated world for more than 150 million years. We can’t understand where we came from without considering dinosaurs. And, says paleontologist Matt Bonnan, “Dinosaurs put our place in the world into perspective.” By asking questions about dinosaurs–when did they live and what was the world like then?–the history of life on Earth comes into focus, and the answers to these queries help us better understand the pervasive forces of evolution and extinction through time.
These critical aspects of nature can be difficult to detect on the timescales of our lives, but become much more apparent when we can peek into deep time by sifting through the remains of creatures that roamed the Earth long ago. An individual dinosaur discovery might not have any practical use or even significantly change our understanding of the past, but when considered together with the ever-growing body of research about dinosaurs, it can help us understand how we came to be on this planet and may even give us some clues about the future–how species emerge and decline, how creatures adapt, and how life evolves after catastrophic extinction events.
What do you think is the best case for the importance of studying dinosaurs?