"Alternative Evolution" of Dinosaurs Foresaw Contemporary Paleo Finds [Slide Show]
What if, by some fluke of evolutionary history, dinosaurs never went extinct? A geologist's imaginings of this scenario now bear a remarkable resemblance to creatures preserved in recent discoveries
Credits: John Butler/ The New Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon, Eddison/Sadd Edition
ANT-EATERS: No one expected to find ant-eating dinosaurs. That gig—engaged in by mammals such as pangolins today—was one dinosaurs showed no indication of taking up. When Dixon created his vision of an ant-eating dinosaur called the "Pangaloon," therefore, he drew on mammals for inspiration, but paleontologists have now discovered dinosaurs that might have raided anthills, after all. Since the early 1990s paleontologists working in North America, South America and Asia have found a variety of lightly-built coelurosaurs possessing elongated jaws, tiny teeth and stout little limbs tipped with massive claws. They are called alvarezsaurs. No one is entirely sure how these dinosaurs were making a living, but investigations of their arms by Fayetteville State University paleontologist Phil Senter have hinted that they would have been skilled at ripping into ant mounds or tearing apart logs in search of termites. Possible traces of wood-boring termites were even found in the same geological formation as a small alvarezsaur named
Albertonykus by Nicholas Longrich of Yale University and Phil Currie of the University of Alberta in 2009, although direct evidence that this dinosaur was slurping up termites like Dixon's speculative "Pangaloon" is still being sought by paleontologists. John Butler/ The New Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon, Eddison/Sadd Edition
DELICATE FINGER: The tree-dwelling dinosaur Dixon dubbed the "Nauger" was unlike any known dinosaur. Part woodpecker and part aye-aye, this dinosaur pecked holes in trees in order to snatch grubs with a specialized, elongated finger, but in 2002 two different teams of paleontologists described two specimens of a strikingly similar dinosaur. Known as
Scansoriopteryx, this tiny dinosaur possessed a ludicrously elongated third finger, and a paper by a team of Chinese Academy of Sciences paleontologists led by Fucheng Zhang suggested that this dinosaur may have been using this digit to skewer insect larvae much like the aye-aye and Dixon's hypothetical "Nauger." These scientists also proposed that Scansoriopteryx may have been one of the few arboreal dinosaurs, although the paleobiology of this creature has not been thoroughly studied yet. Sean Milne/ The New Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon, Eddison/Sadd Edition
BLACK, WHITE AND RED ALL OVER?:
Sinosauropteryx was not the only dinosaur to be reconstructed in living color. One week after the Sinosauropteryx paper was published, an international team of researchers led by Quanguo Li of the Beijing Museum of Natural History presented the feathered dinosaur Anchiornis in full color. They were able to accomplish this thanks to the shape of the tiny melanosomes preserved inside the dinosaur's feathers, and the resulting picture was of a black-and-white dinosaur with a rust-colored splash of feathers on its head. Serendipitously, this color pattern of Anchiornis resembled the palette Dixon had given his arboreal, nut-eating "Crackbeak. " Imaginary color patterns given to feathered dinosaurs can now be tested against reality thanks to these new techniques. Martin Knowelden/ The New Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon, Eddison/Sadd Edition
DINOSAUR SIGNPOST: Compared to many of Dixon's other creations, his hadrosaur-descendent the "Bricket" was nearly defenseless. The dinosaur lacked claws, horns, spikes or armor, but he did give it a tail striped with brown, red, black and white. "Stuck straight up in the air [in times of danger]", Dixon wrote, "its bright colours warn the rest of the herd of approaching predators." No one has found a stripe-tailed hadrosaur just yet, but just last year Chinese Academy of Sciences paleontologist Fucheng Zhang and co-authors interpreted the microscopic, pigment-carrying bodies in the feathers of the small dinosaur
Sinosauropteryx to mean that this small dinosaur had a similar red-and-white-striped tail. While not mentioned in the research itself, in news reports scientists involved with the study suggested that such a striking color pattern might have been used by the dinosaurs to visually communicate with each other. What's the good of a stripey tail if you can't show it off a little? Philip Hood/ The New Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon, Eddison/Sadd Edition Advertisement
UNEXPECTED FEATHERS: The "Dip" wasn't Dixon's only fluffy dinosaur. Many of his speculative creations—from the rhino-like "Monocorn" to the chubby "Balaclav"—were at least partly covered in fur-like coats. Recently discovered evidence suggests that feather-like body coverings might have been widespread among real dinosaurs, too. In 2002 paleontologist Gerald Mayr of the Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg and colleagues described a unique specimen of the small horned
Psittacosaurus with a brush of bristle-like structures growing out of its tail. This dinosaur was placed all the way on the other side of the dinosaur family tree from the coelurosaurs—about as distantly related to other feathered dinosaurs as it was possible to be while still being a dinosaur—yet it still had feather-like bristles. And in 2009 paleontologists led by Xiao-Ting Zheng of the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature described another bristle-tailed dinosaur they called Tianyulong. Specifically, Tianyulong belonged to a subgroup of herbivorous dinosaurs called heterodontosaurids, and, together with Psittacosaurus, this dinosaur demonstrated that many other species might have sported bristly manes or coats of fuzzy proto-feathers. Philip Hood/ The New Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon, Eddison/Sadd Edition
FUZZY PREDATORS: A fish-eater which stalked the fish-filled pools of mountain streams, Dixon's "Dip"
looked awfully strange for a predatory dinosaur. For one thing, the long-snouted coelurosaur was covered in a coat of "long silky fur" never before seen on any dinosaur. Only eight years after The New Dinosaurs was published, however, paleontologists Qiang Ji and Shu'an Ji of the Chinese Geological Museum described the remains of a small dinosaur covered in wispy dino-fuzz. They named the small animal Sinosauropteryx prima, and it was just the first of many feather-covered coelurosaurs to be discovered. Paleontologists now know that what seemed like an unusual body-covering for the "Dip" in 1988 was actually common among the coelurosaurs—a group which includes dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, Ornithomimus, Therizinosaurus, Mononykus, Oviraptor, and Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird. Denys Ovenden/ The New Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon, Eddison/Sadd Edition Advertisement Expertise. Insights. Illumination.
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