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Extreme Dinosaurs

The following passage is adapted from an article entitled “Extreme Dinosaurs” (© 2007 by John Updike).

  1. Before the 19th century, when
  2. dinosaur bones turned up they
  3. were taken as evidence of
  4. dragons, ogres, or giant victims
  5. of Noah’s Flood. After two
  6. centuries of paleontological
  7. harvest, the evidence seems
  8. stranger than any fable, and
  9. continues to get stranger.
  10. Contemplating the bizarre
  11. specimens recently come to
  12. light, one cannot but wonder
  13. what on earth Nature was
  14. thinking of.
  15. Tiny Epidendrosaurus boasted
  16. a hugely elongated third finger
  17. that served, presumably, an
  18. arboreal lifestyle, like that of
  19. today’s aye-aye. With the
  20. membrane they support, the
  21. elongated digits of bats and
  22. pterosaurs enable flight, and
  23. perhaps Epidendrosaurus was
  24. taking a skittery first step in
  25. that direction. But what do we
  26. make of such apparently inutile
  27. extremes as the elaborate skull
  28. frills of Styracosaurus?
  29. Dinosaurs dominated the
  30. planet’s land surface from some
  31. 200 million years ago until their
  32. abrupt disappearance, 135
  33. million years later. When the
  34. first dinosaurs—small,
  35. lightweight, bipedal—appeared
  36. in the Triassic, the first of three
  37. periods in the Mesozoic geologic
  38. era, the Earth held one giant
  39. continent, Pangaea; during
  40. their Jurassic heyday Pangaea
  41. split into two parts; and by the
  42. late Cretaceous the continents
  43. had something like their
  44. present shapes. The world was
  45. becoming the one we know:
  46. The Rockies were rising;
  47. flowering plants had appeared,
  48. and with them, bees.
  49. Throughout their long day on
  50. Earth, there was an
  51. intensification of boniness and
  52. spikiness, as if the struggle for
  53. survival became grimmer. And
  54. yet the advantage of skull frills
  55. and back plates is not
  56. self-evident. The solid-domed
  57. skull of Pachycephalosaurus
  58. seems made for butting—but
  59. for butting what? The skull
  60. would do little good against a
  61. predator like Tyrannosaurus
  62. rex, which had the whole rest
  63. of its prey’s unprotected body
  64. to bite down on. Butting
  65. matches amid the same
  66. species were unlikely, since
  67. the bone, though ten inches
  68. thick, was not shock-absorbent.
  69. The skulls of some
  70. Pachycephalosaurs, moreover,
  71. were flat and thin—bad
  72. designs for contact sport.
  73. Maybe they were just used
  74. for discreet pushing. Or to
  75. make a daunting impression.
  76. Dinosaurs have always
  77. presented adaptive puzzles. Of
  78. the two familiar dinosaurs
  79. whose life-and-death struggle
  80. was memorably animated in
  81. Walt Disney’s Fantasia (though
  82. in fact they never met in the
  83. corridors of time), T. rex had
  84. puzzlingly tiny arms and
  85. Stegosaurus carried on its
  86. back a double row of huge
  87. bony plates negligible as
  88. defensive armor and
  89. problematic as heat controls.
  90. Not that biological features
  91. need to be efficient to be
  92. carried along.
  93. In what sense are living forms
  94. improvements over the
  95. dinosaurs? All life-forms, even
  96. such long-lasting ones as
  97. crocodiles, will eventually
  98. flunk some test posed by
  99. environmental conditions.
  100. One can safely say that no
  101. dinosaur was as intelligent as
  102. chimpanzees. One can believe
  103. that none was as beautiful in
  104. motion as an antelope. But
  105. beyond this it is hard to talk
  106. of improvement, especially
  107. since for all its fine qualities
  108. Homo sapiens is befouling
  109. the environment like no
  110. fauna before it.
  111. The dinosaurs in their long
  112. reign filled every niche
  113. several times over, and the
  114. smallest of them—the little
  115. light-boned theropods—grew
  116. feathers and became birds.
  117. But other surprises certainly
  118. lurk. Gigantoraptor clearly
  119. belongs among the
  120. oviraptorosaurs of the late
  121. Cretaceous—90-pound
  122. weaklings—but weighed in
  123. at one-and-a-half tons and
  124. could have peered into a
  125. second-story window. While
  126. many of its fellow theropods
  127. were evolving toward
  128. nimbleness and intelligence,
  129. Gigantoraptor opted for brute
  130. size. But what did it eat, with
  131. its enormous toothless beak?
  132. The new specimens that emerge
  133. as tangles of bones embedded
  134. in rock are island peaks of a
  135. submerged continent where
  136. evolutionary currents surged
  137. slowly back and forth. Our
  138. telescoped perspective gives
  139. an impression of a violent
  140. struggle as anatomical ploys
  141. were desperately tried and
  142. eventually discarded.
  143. Dinosaurs continue to live in
  144. the awareness of their
  145. successors on the throne of
  146. earthly dominance. My second
  147. son collected plastic dinosaur
  148. miniatures and communed
  149. with them in his room. He
  150. loved them—their amiable
  151. grotesquerie, their guileless
  152. enormity. They were losers,
  153. in a game of survival our
  154. own species is still playing,
  155. but new varieties keep
  156. emerging to amuse and amaze
  157. us.