About unsolved Riddles with the extinct Animals

(last update: 3. Dec 1999)

First, I'm physicist and not biologist and therefore no real expert. Despite this, in the following I try to present some open questions with the fascinating reptiles and the current discussioned aspects, enriched with some own opinions.

Some matters will probably never resolved completely, but others may very well. Keep this in mind...

Look at my other page for links to dinosaur pages (last update 23. Jan 2000).

Why they vanished at all?

The most discussed problem is the extinction 65 million years ago, in which not only dinosaurs, but also pterosaurs and whale like reptiles (Ichthysauria and others) alongside with some other groups of animals were wiped out. At this time dinosaurs ruled the continents for more than 150 million years (!) and it is really hard to comprehend, why not even a single species of them could survive this mass extinction; in the 150 million years before there occured also catastrophical developments and events from time to time, no way threatening the reptile fauna in a similar manner.

For me, a combination of several factors seems to be most likely as explanation. A general tendency of global cooling may have millions before the extinction made the dinosaurs less successful and frequent as before, giving warm blooded animals like birds and mammals better chances to compete with the dominating reptiles. Than a catastrophical volcanism in the Indian Dekkan-Trapps occured, further worsening in hundred thousands of years the life conditions --- further cooling, air polluting, affecting the plants and so on. Finally a 10 km meteorid impacted at the Yucatan peninsula, not only creating the about 200 km diameter crater of Chicxulub, but also devastating finally an already damaged biosphere in an incredible harsh manner, killing many animals off right through fireball, shockwaves in the Earth crust and so on and creating an "impact winter", later followed by a soaring phase. Eventually the impact may have also worsened the Dekkan volcanism. The warm-blooded animals like birds and mammals may have gained their surviving by their lower sizes (less vulnerable for mechanical shocks) and better ability for temperature regulation... But the details are hard to unveil completely, due to the long time elapsed since then. For example, representative fossils of dinosaurs are hard to find in sufficient numbers for statistical purposes, when short time developments and/or events are to be scrutinized.

How intelligent they were?

You may have heard or read about the tiny brain for example of Stegosaurus. But this is somewhat a misinterpretation, slightly resembling to insects this jurassic dinosaur had also some massive sub brain like knots in his nervous system and may be therefore better developed in this respect as thought before.

Indeed, most dinosaurs had clearly less well developed brains than todays average mammals. But there were differences and a general tendency for advanced brain development especially at the end of the cretaceous period, immediately before their mass extinction. The groups with most intelligence in this era were the dromaeosauria, to which belong the famous Deinonychus as well as the now infamous Velociraptor (do you remember "Jurassic Park"? - I don't like the presentation of meat eaters as beasts with unbridled bloodlust), and even more the troodontids, also theropods and therefore meat eaters, and indeed dinosaurs despite the somewhat unusual name for such a species. This Troodon had a brain size compared to its human comparable height, which is similar to modern mammals. You may speculate, what could have happened in the long run, if these species Troodon had survived the mass extinction?

What about Body Temperatures?

First, cold blooded and warm blooded are somewhat inadequate terms. There are better ones, but for now I will stick to them. What is really meant, is the temperature kept in a small interval at a certain value (warm blooded), or is it varying according the environmental temperature (cold blooded), therefore often (but not always!) lower.

Today this question is broken down into several groups of the dinosaurs. For example the giant sauropods like brachiosaurus, apatosaurus and diplodocus may have kept their temperature constant by their sheer size without many active regulation mechanisms. This possibility is due to the very low surface to volume ration with such giant animals. This is a simple physical effect.

Some of the less sized theropods may have had similar to birds some feathers or other protection mechanism against strong cooling and an active metabolism, capable to heat the body considerable.

The biggest problem may be the larger theropods, mainly the carnosaurs. There the question is vastly open, related with the living style of these animals, of which the Tyrannosaurus Rex is the most popular, the most advanced and one of the biggest.

A new aspect was revealed a short time ago: it seems, that at least some theropods had some sort of "turbo" or "afterburning" capabilities, low energy consuming at most times and resembling "modern" reptiles, which are generally far less developed than the dinosaurs were, and than for short times activating this extra energy consumption while hunting or eventually even for fighting against rivals of the own species (they were probably similar "unfriendly" to each other, as many modern mammal meat eaters).

Generally speaking, together with their well moving capabilities --- unlike todays reptiles as crocodiles and lizards --- most of them may have been far more active, than previously thought.

Carnosaurs and Tyrannosaurus Rex...

One of the most hot debated topics is the nourishing behaviour of these animals, especially of the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex. There are two opposite opinions: some think, that these theropods were to heavy, to slow and too much demanding for food to move quickly around, and therefore were mainly eating cadavers of dead dinosaurs alongside with others. Others think, that the horrible equipment of these animals with teeth and claws at the end of their short arms forces the conclusion, that they were actively preying. A third group (I share this last view) think, that they were similar the bigger meat eating mammals of today: bears and big cats. Therefore they may have hunted actively at good occasions and then also eating dead animals, eventually also robbing other hunters their prey, and even killing big plant eaters, when it was feasible. This riddle may be solved with the decades to come... As mentioned above, this topic is strongly related to the question, if these animals were warm blooded. If yes, the active preying picture is far more probable.

Caring for minor Ones?

Already famous is the Majasaura: resembling colonies of birds, they built giant arrays of nests and caring for the young Majasaura, after they hatched from the eggs, arranged in the center of the nest. Similar to today colony breeding birds, this may have offered the usual advantage: better guarding and protection against meat eaters.

Maybe this was more widespread then previously thought: even sauropods may have helped the younger members to defend against carnosaurs and dromaeosaurids. This leads directly to the next topic:

Living in Groups

This was probably a common behaviour of many species of them. So it is thought about sauropods, the Iguanodon, ceratopsids like the Triceratops, the Ornithomimus and even with many dromaeosaurs. With the last, the background is of course contrary: as shown in "Jurassic Park", these probably hunted similar as wolves today even plant eaters bigger than themselves; and these theropods were really quick moving reptiles. Nearly for sure is this behaviour for the famous Deinonychus, which preyed in a group on an Iguanodon. But not all behaved this way, the bigger theropods like carnosaurs were probably as much for themselves as most todays bigger mammal meat eaters (like bears or tigers). In some cases, like the sauropods, the evidence for building groups is not totally clear, I have to remark.

Reproduction on a "big scale"

It's considered as probable, that the number of eggs of dinosaurs was comparable to todays crocodiles. But before laying eggs, they had to do a job --- the usual one. Now imagine these giant animals, especially the big sauropods like Brachiosaurus. Because these heavyweights were not able to carry there body on for example the two front legs solely and walked generally with three legs on the ground at any time, the pure mechanical problem of the huge load on their bones must have been important. Anyway, the male had to put himself onto the female, nearly doubling the load, severing the light, but strong bones of the female to break. Even with other, not so heavy species, like Ankylosaurus, this remains an open question: how they did it get worked? (The Ankylosaurus was armored totally, offering difficulties for that reason.)

Colors, Voices and so on...

Extremely speculative is the color of the dinosaurs. These features don't conserve at all and so do also the eyes, which could give hints. So only probability analyses remain as feasible way, to make some guesses about it. But it is not more, and unless the highly speculative project like "Jurassic Park" succeeds in rebuilding exact "copies" of dinosaurs, this will be impossible to tell.

The voices are often also speculative, but in some cases there are hints in the skeletons, the only parts, which conserve well. So Saurolophus and some related species had unusual elongated or other deviating head shapes, which seems to make likely the usage as acustical tools for loud noises of what type ever. But generally there is not much more known about this topic, than about the colors.

Birds --- the Offspring of the Dinosaurs (?)

Most experts agree nowadays, that the birds emerged from lower sized dinosaurs like the chicken sized Compsognathus. But the direct evolution into the famous Archaeopteryx may not have been as easy as straight at thought decades ago. There are evidences for both types of sidelines and several splittings into birds or bird resembling animals, making a real confusing picture at now, also in respect of evolution time. And the way, in which they acquired the flying and feathers, is also not as clear, as the experts wish. These features may have occured already in their dinosaur state, as well as already as early birds; the difficulties to classify intermediate forms like Archaeopteryx in every aspect of their body and the always difficult derivable behaviour make it no more easy. One of the not so many confirmed facts: birds were already present in wide areas in the late cretaceous period, existing while dinosaurs dominated the land and the flying pterosaurs were also widespread.

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