Friday, 29 January 2016

I, FOR ONE, WELCOME OUR DINOSAUR OVERLORDS

OBJECT OF THE WEEK

BY: ROWENA MCGOWAN

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a soft spot for a certain kind of animal.

IT'S BUTTERFLIES, GUYS.
Photo credit: Laura Babineau


Unfortunately for me, dinosaurs went extinct years ago (although of course it was quite fortunate for the human race as a whole, as after the dinosaurs came the rise of the mammals). But what if dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct? What if they had survived to the present? Well, humans look quite different from their Cretaceous ancestors so it makes sense that dinosaurs would have evolved, too.

This week’s Object of the Week is the subject of a thought experiment addressing exactly this idea. Meet the dinosauroid.

Source.

It was based on a dinosaur called a Troodon. Troodon was a small theropod. Theropods were bipedal, carnivorous dinosaurs running the gamut from the Tyrannosaurus rex to the Velociraptor – they were also the ancestors of birds. Troodon, meaning ‘beautiful wounding tooth,’ was originally known from a single tooth, hence the name. It would have been about 2m long.


An up to date reconstruction of Troodon by Brian Cooley. Photo credit: Rowena McGowan



The reason Troodon is so special is its intelligence. Troodon had the largest brain in proportion to its body of any known dinosaur, meaning that it was probably also the smartest of the dinosaurs. Although it was much brighter than, say, a Stegosaurus, I wouldn’t worry about Troodon taking your jobs, even if it had stuck around. It was probably only as smart as a not particularly smart modern bird. Think ostrich rather than parrot.

Troodon also had binocular vision and grasping fingers that may have allowed it to manipulate objects, at least to a certain degree. All of these traits made it a perfect base for the dinosauroid.

The dinosauroid was created by Dale Russell and Ron Seguin in 1982 and was displayed at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. It posited a hypothetical evolution of Troodon if its brain had continued to grow. Its head is quite large, of course, to carry that big brain and the snout is shortened to compensate. Russell and Seguin gave the dinosauroid an upright bipedal posture with a severely reduced tail because they argued that this was the best way to carry the enlarged skull. They also made it viviparous (giving live birth, rather than laying eggs), because a placenta helps in cranial development. The hips are enlarged to accommodate giving birth to a large-headed baby.

Source.

Looks very human, doesn’t it? Is the human form really the default for an intelligent being? Some people say yes. But plenty of other scientists have said that the answer is no. The dinosauroid has been accused of being biased and far too humanoid. Paleontologists like Darren Naish see no reason why a dinosaur’s body plan should change so dramatically in order for its intelligence to increase. Naish believes that human posture was less the ideal form for an intelligent creature and more an artifact of our evolution. Had a dinosaur’s brain grown similarly, it might easily have retained its tail and horizontal posture and manipulated objects with snout and feet instead of hands. 

Of course, this is all speculation. The truth is, we don’t and will never know what hyper-intelligent dinosaurs would have looked like. But, if parallel universes do exist and in one of them, that comet never hit, I personally kind of hope that the dinosauroids looked a little bit like this:

Species go extinct but style is forever. Photo credit: Mike Ryan. Source.

Works Consulted

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/dinosauroids-revisited-revisited/

Russel, D. & Sguin, R. 1982. Reconstruction of the small Cretaceous theropod Stenonychosaurus inequalis and a hypothetical dinosauroid. Syllogeus 37, 1-43.


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