What Good are Dinosaurs?

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Among paleontologists, there is sometimes a feeling that dinosaur research is overhyped. Later this month at the Grant Zoology museum of University College London, paleontologist Mark Carnall will deliver a talk called “Dinosaurs are Pointless.” The description of the lecture describes dinosaur documentaries as hackneyed, and claims that dinosaur specialists have a “Freudian obsession” with finding the biggest dinosaurs. The attention given dinosaurs, according to the announcement, is disproportionate to their scientific value, and Carnall will attempt to put dinosaurs in their “proper place.”

It is true that dinosaurs have certainly had more than their fair share of media attention, but I must defend them. Dinosaurs are far from pointless. When dinosaurs were first scientifically described during the first half of the 19th century, for instance, the presence of such animals, along with the flying pterosaurs and ancient marine reptiles, indicated a world much older than previously thought and challenged religious ideas about the history of the earth. While the science of geology was already casting off religious strictures, dinosaurs helped convince people that the world had changed dramatically over long periods of time.

Then, as more dinosaurs were discovered, their disappearance became more troubling. How could such a diverse array of animals disappear entirely? During the 1980s, debates about the meteor that struck the earth 65 million years ago provided a compelling explanation for the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Contemplating their extinction helped motivate more philosophical considerations about our own extinction and global nuclear war.

Even more recently, the flood of feathered dinosaurs from China has provided some of the most striking evidence for evolution ever found in the fossil record. During the middle of the 20th century, some scientists felt that paleontology had little to offer the study of evolution. But in the past 20 years dinosaur specialists have ably demonstrated that the study of dinosaurs and evolution are inseparable.

Is a fragmentary dinosaur skeleton especially informative in fine-tuned studies of ancient ecology? Perhaps not, but the scientific value of dinosaurs should not be tarnished because of their popularity. They have been important to scientists studying evolution, extinction, and the history of life on earth, not to mention their role as ambassadors for science. It would be wonderful if members of the public took a greater interest in small Mesozoic mammals or ancient insects, but for better or worse dinosaurs have grabbed the imagination of the public in a unique way. They are modern day dragons that not only terrify, but educate.

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