What if…the dinosaurs never died?
Think of that. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Of course, there is the somewhat unfortunate caveat that we, meaning humans, would likely not exist had T. Rex and friends (and meals and competitors) not perished under the clouds of a post-asteroid nuclear winter (or however, exactly, it happened).
But for anyone who was into dinosaurs as a kid (and isn’t that nearly everyone?), I think there must remain a bit of sadness that these big beasts we love all died. (Yes, I know: birds. But you know what I mean.) It’s a strange bit of tragedy to be aware of as a mostly coddled child: Yeah, those colorful brontosauruses (again, I know) and triceratopses you thrill to see in books at the local public library? They all died. It is real history that all of them, billions of them, trillions of them? — died. All at once. And that’s why you can’t see them in real life.
That’s also what makes this finding a bit heartbreaking: the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, well, it didn’t HAVE to end them. It wasn’t such a cataclysmic force that there’s no way the big lugs could have survived. Instead, it caught them when they were vulnerable.
A group of paleontologists found that a set of ecological stresses (volcanoes, sea level changes, temperature fluctuations, and probably all those brachiosaurus farts) had put the late-Cretaceous world of the dinos in a precarious position. Then the asteroid came and kicked them down the stairs.
It says something, too, about how the asteroid event has come to dominate the theories of how the dinosaurs’ age ended. When I was a kid, I remember there being a lot less certainty. The killer asteroid was just one of several equally plausible theories, e.g., widespread diseases, or volcanoes.
Over time, though, the asteroid has come to be accepted as THE answer. This surprised me when I started writing about popular science in recent years, and so became aware of dinosaur science for, really, the first time since the ’80s. The big-asteroid event had so come to dominate thoughts on dinosaur extinction that the idea that other factors played a role, too, now comes as a surprise.
So, this new finding actually seems to represent a return to previous ways of thinking about dinosaur extinction: volcanoes may have had their say. Other ecological stresses, too. The asteroid was the last word, but not the only one.