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What we know as dinosaurs were wiped out 66 million years ago by asteroid that slammed into the planet causing one of the great mass extinctions our world has ever experienced. But were ALL of them really killed off, or do they still live among us in the modern world.
It’s fun to think that there may be some long-lost dinos that are hidden out there somewhere waiting to be discovered by humans.
There’s the Mokele-mbembe legend in the Congo that is said to resemble a Brontosaurus. There’s also the Lochness monster in Scotland that sounds like a Plesiosaur.
But, there is no evidence to suggest that small pods of large dinosaurs survived the cataclysm that led to the rise of mammals and humans.
Nor is there a “Jurassic Park” amusement park where scientists have cloned a T-Rex and several other popular dinos using frog DNA and DNA found in ancient mosquitoes.
However, if you want to see a living breathing dinosaur, you could go to the zoo or even just look out your window, because, believe it or not, we do have dinosaurs walking among us. At least, the descendants of dinosaurs.
Perhaps the most recognizable reptiles on Earth, crocodiles and alligators are related to them.
And that’s easy to believe because of their teeth, their predatory behavior, their thick leathery scales, and their size and strength. Everything about a crocodile screams dinosaur. And that’s because they share a common ancestry Archosaurs going back 250 million years ago.
Crocodiles, while sharing a common ancestor with dinosaurs, actually evolved separately from them. That means they are related, but are considered separate.
To find a direct descendant of dinosaurs, we need only look to the skies.
That’s right. Birds, which crocodiles just happen to be even more closely related to than they are to other reptiles, are descended from those prehistoric reptiles that have been the stuff of nightmares since director Steven Spielberg brought them to life on the big screen.
As it turns out, scientists believe that smaller dinosaurs survived the extinction event and evolved into the birds we know and love today.
And what makes that make even more sense is that many dinosaurs had feathers, something the movies have tried to include as more discoveries are made and research on what dinosaurs looked like continues to progress.
According to National Geographic:
Ask just about any paleontologist, and he or she will tell you that life found a way and that some dinosaurs survived the mass extinction. That’s because today’s birds are the last remaining twig on an otherwise demolished dinosaur family tree, grown from fierce predators and sculpted by evolution into an array of flapping, feathery fowl.
“There is no doubt that birds are dinosaurs,” says Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “The evidence is so overwhelming, I would put it next to whether you’re going to question if humans are primates.”
University of Kent Professor Darren Griffin agrees.
His research team recently used mathematics to identify genetic characteristics of the first dinosaurs, and used birds to do it. They found that the number of chromosomes relates to the variation of species. There are 10,000 species of birds, and dinosaurs were also an incredibly diverse group as well.
“We think it generates variation,” Griffin told the BBC. “Having a lot of chromosomes enables dinosaurs to shuffle their genes around much more than other types of animals. This shuffling means that dinosaurs can evolve more quickly and so help them survive so long as the planet changed.”
And they certainly needed to do some serious shuffling in the aftermath of the asteroid strike. As a result, dinosaurs ended up being smaller with more feathers and did not need to take down large prey or eat a ton of grass to survive.
“The fossil evidence and now our evidence reinforces the idea that rather than birds and dinosaurs being distant relatives, they are one in the same,” lead research author Dr. Rebecca O’Connor added. “The birds around us today are dinosaurs.”
That evidence, first and foremost, includes Archaeopteryx.
Archaeopteryx is the oldest known bird, the fossil of which was discovered in Germany in 1860. It serves as a transitional form between birds and dinosaurs, which has since been reinforced by other discoveries such as Sinosauropteryx prima, a feathered dinosaur similar to a Velociraptor that was found in China in 1996.
National Geographic writes that the 1996 discovery “was a game changer among the dozens of spectacular species being mined from early Cretaceous rock formations in China,” which resulted in “a menagerie of non-avian dinosaurs and their primitive bird contemporaries, often accompanied by feathers, scales, and skin that are sometimes so detailed they even retain traces of pigment. Like Archaeopteryx, many of these animals are surreal mash-ups between the standard notion of a modern bird and classic images of a predatory dinosaur.”
So, dinosaurs as we think of them no longer exist, but their descendants and relatives live on in the form of birds and crocodiles.
And that’s really for the best considering none of us want to worry about being chased down and eaten by a ravenous T-Rex or Velociraptor, nor do we want to be crushed by giants such as the Brontosaurus.
We can simply go bird watching or visit a zoo, and while birds and crocodiles may not carry the same reverence that we have for dinosaurs, at least we can enjoy them without feeling like we are on the menu. And we do so with the knowledge that we are watching evolution and nature in action. No longer are we merely watching birds, we’re observing modern-day dinosaurs.
Featured Image: Wikimedia