It’s hard to turn around these days without bumping into a dinosaur. You see them everywhere: dinosaur tee shirts, dinosaur movies, dinosaur toys, and even frosted-crunchy dinosaur cereal. Every museum has competed to offer an exhibit of Real! Live! Dinosaurs that munch leaves, look you in the eye, roar, and move menacingly toward you. But there is more hype than fact in the current dinosaur craze. Not many people really understand what dinosaurs were.
Even the name — which every third grader learns is Greek for terrible lizard — is deceptive. For one thing, dinosaurs weren’t lizards. They were reptiles, certainly, but there are other reptiles — snakes, turtles, and crocodiles — that aren’t lizards, and neither were dinosaurs. Lizards, you see, crawl on their cowardly bellies, because their legs grow out from their bodies. No self-respecting dinosaur ever did that. These upstanding beasts grew legs under their bodies, got their bellies off the ground, and moved out! But weren’t they terrible? Taken as a whole, no. Common sense tells us that for every carnivorous tyrannosaur there had to be hundreds or thousands of placid vegetarians — otherwise T. Rex would soon have run out of prey. Do we call the present ruling order “terrible mammals” just because there are a few wolves among us? Of course not.
The old mental image we have of dinosaurs as huge, slow, stupid beasts is wrong, too. For one thing, they weren’t all huge. Even full-grown dinosaurs came in varieties as small as Chihuahuas. Plenty of them were people-sized. Some were the largest land animals ever, true, but of those none came close to our fellow mammal, the blue whale. Were those giants slow? The largest mammals — elephants, hippos, and rhinos — can run faster than you can. There’s no reason to think that even the behemoth Seismosaurus couldn’t move right along when he wanted to. And there’s plenty of evidence that many of the carnivores were outright roadrunners. The same applies to stupid: some more, some less — like us. Certainly, none had people-smarts, and probably none reached the level of our fellow primates. But we know that some were speedy pack hunters, preying on organized herds of much larger animals, like modern wolves — and wolves are pretty smart.
Some misconceptions about dinosaurs have already faded out. Even little kids no longer envision hairy cavemen being chased by allosaurs, or riding tamed brontosaurs. They know that the last dinosaurs were gone long, long before the first humans. But paleontologists are still working out some qualities of dinosaurs. We are discovering, for example, that some — maybe most — dinosaurs had societies: they lived in families, herds, or packs. And that means leaders, followers, rules of conduct, and social duties to perform. They weren’t just big, stupid individuals looking out only for themselves. Even their most reptile-like quality — cold-bloodedness — is being challenged. Some very knowledgeable people are offering some very convincing proof that at least some dinosaurs were warm-blooded.
But we can surely rest comfortably in one piece of knowledge about dinosaurs: they are extinct. And that certainly makes us feel superior, doesn’t it? Think again. Dinosaurs were the dominant beasts on earth — on land, in the sea, and in the air — for 170 million years. We humans, who like to think that we now rule the earth, have only been around for two million years or so. If you subtract our lifetime as a species from theirs, they still dominated the earth about 170 million years longer than we have. And they didn’t die out because our superior (mammalian) kind took over. Our ancestors lived all throughout the dinosaur era — as tiny, mouse like creatures, eating worms and sucking eggs: sort of in the unnoticed niches of the great dinosaur ecology. But they did become extinct, right? Not if by “extinct” you mean, “left no surviving descendants”. It has become well established in recent years that modern birds are direct descendants, via Archaeopteryx and other ancestors, of small, carnivorous dinosaurs (not the flying pterosaurs). The research these days is on just which branch of the dinosaur family tree birds took off from. But all the rest of