IF YOU think that a global natural catastrophe wiped out all dinosaurs 65 million years ago, then think again. According to astonishing findings in quarries in China, many smaller dinosaurs managed to survive climate change, volcanic eruptions and meteorites, and have ended up alive and well… in your back garden! They evolved into birds.
While many larger species, such as the Brontosaurus, the Tyrannosaurus Rex and other Jurassic Park stars, vanished off the face of the earth, other dinosaurs, more able to adapt or escape natural disasters, continued quite happily alongside emerging mammals.
The evidence and missing links are well presented at an international exhibition currently on show at Lisbon’s Natural History Museum. ‘Plumas em Dinossáurios’ (Fuzzy Dinosaurs), which runs until April 30, traces stunning new research and conclusions carried out on scores of dinosaur fossils discovered in North East China’s Liaoning province.
There, trapped in layers of volcanic ash and silt, are thousands of small chicken-sized dinosaurs of various species with feathers. The bone structures closely resemble those of modern-day birds, complete with wings and tail feathers, so scientists have now concluded that small dinosaurs evolved from forest floor scavengers and hunters to make for the trees, where they initially glided and later took flight.
The debate about the origin of birds has been raging since the late 19th century, when a handful of gliding dinosaurs with feathers from the Creatious period, known as Archaeopteryx, appeared around Solnhofen, Germany. In 1868, palaeontologist Thomas Huxley suggested that this winged gliding creature must have been the descendant of a small dinosaur, known as Compsognathus, which shared similarities with birds. More than 100 years later, American scientist John Ostrom observed that Archaeopteryx had identical bones to a light and agile dinosaur called Deinonychus.
In China’s North East province, 125-165 million years ago, the area was made up of a series of shallow and warm water lakes where volcanic activity was intense. Diverse animals, including dinosaurs, dinosaur-like birds, rodents and other small mammals and fish, have been perfectly preserved in compressed layers of volcanic ash and dust. In one case, an entire flock of dinosaur birds caught by a volcanic eruption and killed en-masse has been buried under lava and ash in a kind of pre-historic ‘Pompeii graveyard’.
We know now, from research carried out since the 1990s, that there were many varieties of Dinobirds, including those that lived in trees, mountains, on the shores of lakes and even on the water.
So, next time you feed ducks and pigeons at the park, remember you’re looking at dinosaurs that survived and evolved alongside turtles, crocodiles and snakes!
• For further details on the exhibition, contact the museum on 213 921 825 (Carla Cruz) or visit www.mnhn.ul.pt. C.G.