By Matt Blair
For over 160 million years, dinosaurs dominated the planet we now call home. No matter what scale you’re using to measure the history, that leaves a lot of downtime for those dinosaurs to let loose.
Such is one of the topics Western professor Dr. Thor Hansen will be covering during his lecture at 7 p.m. this Tuesday at the Bellingham City Council chambers, located on the second floor of the Bellingham City Hall. Hansen, who is a geology professor at Western and teaches a class on dinosaurs, will be discussing new discoveries in paleontology and how paleontologists are reconsidering many of the ways dinosaurs have been presented in mainstream culture.
In many media presentations about dinosaurs, simulations foster lifelike recreations of how dinosaurs may have acted physically and behaviorally within their environment. Often these simulations do not take all of the information into consideration. Movies such as “Jurassic Park” and television shows like the BBC program “Walking With Dinosaurs,” present dinosaurs in definite terms, as if all the behavioral evidence was observed firsthand by humans In actuality, there is little information about dinosaurs that we can be sure of, Hansen said.
“These programs, they never say what they’re basing their data on,” Hansen said. “They just say, ‘this is how it was.’”
To relate it to modern times, Hansen often refers to a modern skunk as an example of how little we actually know about dinosaurs.
“What if someone discovered a skunk’s bones in the future?” Hansen said. “They would see that it was small. They would see sharp teeth and assume it was carnivorous, see its short legs and assume it was slow and maybe realize that it was a predator. But all of the information we have about skunks and about their smell would be lost. You wouldn’t know a skunk’s unique features just by looking at their bones.”
One such discovery that has caused scientists to reconsider what they know about dinosaurs will be the topic of Hansen’s lecture. Recent findings at many dig sites have begun to show traces of feathers in dinosaur remains. This has led many paleontologists to speculate that dinosaurs may actually share a closer relation to birds than previously believed. Traditionally, dinosaurs are seen more as members of the reptile family than of winged birds.
“My lecture is kind of related to two specific things,” Hansen said. “We’re recovering new information on dinosaurs that’s changing what we already know about them. Secondly, we really don’t know that much about them to begin with.”
Because no one was alive to document the dinosaurs’ reign, Hansen said that all of the information presented about dinosaurs in the media is a result of reasoned speculation. When a new set of remains is found and examined, the results are often compared with current animals, which Hansen believes can lead to misconception.
“The real secret about dinosaurs is [that] we don’t know how they lived,” Hansen said.
With only the remains of these lost creatures, there is constant debate about how dinosaurs actually lived. In recent years a theory surfaced regarding whether the tyrannosaurus rex was a predator, as traditionally believed, or just a towering, terrifying scavenger.
Hansen believes that the evidence points to the tyrannosaur being a top-class hunter as opposed to a scavenger. Some fossils of triceratops have bite marks matching a tyrannosaur’s jaw line. Proponents of the scavenger theory suggest that because tyrannosaurs had such short arms, they were not apt to hunting smaller prey. According to Hansen, a tyrannosaur’s mouth was large enough to accommodate for its tiny limbs. The structure of a tyrannosaur’s skull also indicates that they had a superior sense of smell, an adaptation fitting for a hunter.
Still, Hansen maintains that many representations we have of dinosaurs are speculative. We may never truly know what life was like 65 million years ago or how dinosaurs interacted with our planet. That’s the excitement for Hansen: always discovering new information about earth’s great lost species.
“They’re [dinosaurs] just cool,” Hansen said. “They’re big monsters and we know so little about them. There’s nothing like them walking the earth today.”