Caihong juji, an iridescent, pigeon-sized little paravian dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of China, art by Emily Willoughby
Are Dinosaurs Extinct? Modern Birds Connect us to Our Ancient Past
Dinosaurs are extinct, or are they? A paleontologist reflects on seeing signs of ancient prehistoric creatures while hiking.
Archaeopteryx, Art by Emily Willoughby
Despite growing up in rural Illinois, I didn’t pay that much attention to the biological world around me as a kid. I spent far more time thinking about sports and superheroes than anything in nature. Even the mysterious creatures of past eons didn’t grab my attention. (I’m one of the rare paleontologists who wasn’t obsessed with dinosaurs as a youngster!) But as a college student, I finally started paying attention.
In my different biology courses, I engaged with the living world in a host of ways. I used a microscope to study single-celled organisms in pond water. I learned to identify various species of plants in the field. I explored the anatomies of different animals at a high level of detail. I crossed varieties of fruit flies to understand the genetics of different mutations. Each of these experiences nurtured my growing fascination with living things and the unique ways that they have adapted to thrive on this planet.
It was in my vertebrate biology class that I looked at a bird through binoculars for the first time. Ever since then, I’ve appreciated the incredible diversity of birds, but in a fairly casual way. My wife Melissa and I have always paid attention to local species when on walks with our dog. We’ve also long had a bird feeder with generic birdseed hung up outside our house in west Michigan. I’ve even had the privilege to see some rare and exotic species when teaching in Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands, and New Zealand. But the COVID pandemic changed me in a pretty fundamental way: it turned me into a bird nerd.
During the spring of 2020, we invested in some new bird feeders and picked up a few different varieties of birdseed to give us some new forms of in-home entertainment. Pretty quickly, my family and I were hooked. We knew many of the most common species already, but we started to see birds we didn’t recognize. We used field guides and apps like Merlin to help us figure out what we were seeing. We even started to compile lists of exactly which species were visiting our yard using an app called eBird.
It didn’t take long for us to venture a bit farther afield, surveying area parks to add new species to our lists. Sometimes we even went out hoping to see a particular species. For my oldest son Kyler, a scarlet tanager was his holy grail—probably because it graced the cover of the field guide we had gotten him. The look of excitement on his face when we spotted one together for the first time is something I will remember forever.
My encounter with a modern dinosaur
I’ve also come to sincerely enjoy hikes with just my dog and some binoculars. These excursions allow me to slow down and make me feel a profound sense of connection with my Creator. On one walk, I encountered a great blue heron hunting in the margins of the Grand River. I watched it slowly wading in the shallows, flexing and extending its long slender legs as it went along. Without warning, it suddenly shot its head into the water and pulled out a fish with its bill. The heron was a species I had seen many times before; in fact, I’d even seen one catch a fish like this once or twice. But at that moment, I was struck by a resounding fact: I wasn’t out here watching birds—I was watching dinosaurs!
On one walk, I encountered a great blue heron hunting in the margins of the Grand River…at that moment, I was struck by a resounding fact: I wasn’t out here watching birds—I was watching dinosaurs!
Certainly, a statement like this can’t be said without generating at least some debate. But since at least the 1860s, some have proposed a link between dinosaurs and birds, especially after the discovery of Archaeopteryx from a limestone quarry in Germany. Initially, this species was known simply from an isolated feather impression in rock. But in the years that followed, several body fossils of this species were discovered as well. I was fortunate to see the Berlin specimen on display during a visit I made to the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin in 2014. But long before then, I had the chance to study a cast of this specimen in my undergraduate paleontology course at Calvin College.
I remember compiling a list of features that suggested Archaeopteryx was a bird. It had clear feather impressions in the limestone surrounding its body and long, wing-shaped arms. It even had a wishbone (what anatomists call a furcula). But at the same time, it had many features that seemed distinctly reptilian in nature. It had claws at the ends of its fingers, which didn’t fuse together as they often do in birds. It had a long bony tail, sacrum, and pelvis that lacked the elaborate fusion evident in the synsacrum of birds. Its upper and lower jaws were full of teeth.
If pressed to define whether Archaeopteryx were a bird, I probably would have said yes. But I also would have pointed out that things were a bit fuzzy given the strange mixture of traits it had. Were it not for the feathers, I probably would have identified it as a dinosaur. In fact, one specimen of Archaeopteryx was actually misidentified as a small dinosaur for a couple of decades due to the lack of clear feather impressions surrounding the bones!
The connection between modern birds and dinosaurs
Since the discovery of Archaeopteryx, the connection between birds and dinosaurs has only strengthened, thanks in large part to a variety of fossils from China. The various species have unique mosaics of reptilian and avian features, effectively blurring the boundary between dinosaurs and birds. There are still a few paleontologists who postulate that birds and dinosaurs are linked through a more distant reptilian ancestor. But the general consensus among paleontologists today is that the birds are literally descended from dinosaurs—theropod dinosaurs to be exact (the group that includes T. rex and Velociraptor).
Researchers have identified over 200 anatomical features that support this idea. Some features that were long thought to be exclusive to birds (such as the wishbone/furcula) have now been documented in theropods as well. Even feathers of various types are now known from a much broader array of ancient reptiles, including flying pterosaurs (which are not technically dinosaurs).
But given what we do know, it seems pretty reasonable to say that dinosaurs did not go extinct 66 million years ago after an extraterrestrial rock collided with our planet. Some of them managed to survive and diversify into one of the most speciose groups of vertebrates on Earth today.
Certainly, there are still many open questions here. How exactly are all these different groups of ancient species related, and which are the most closely related to modern birds? Why and how did avian flight come about? Why and how did feathers develop—did it have anything to do with ancient dinosaurs and their kin being warm-blooded? Future discoveries will undoubtedly help to answer some of these questions, while at the same time throwing some of our currently favored hypotheses into disarray. But given what we do know, it seems pretty reasonable to say that dinosaurs did not go extinct 66 million years ago after an extraterrestrial rock collided with our planet. Some of them managed to survive and diversify into one of the most speciose groups of vertebrates on Earth today.
In my experience, it’s not so difficult to see the influence of dinosaurian DNA in certain birds. I saw it when witnessing that heron on the hunt. I heard it when the call of a kiwi echoed through the darkness of a New Zealand night. I noticed it when seeing the massive claws on the foot of a gigantic cassowary at a zoo. But I’d encourage you to remember this profound connection to an ancient past the next time you see a chickadee eating sunflower seeds from a bird feeder in your yard, or when you hear a red-eyed vireo singing all day long from the treetops. As a meme on my colleague’s office door suggests, that vireo might just be shouting, “In my veins flows the blood of dinosaurs—dinosaurs, I tell you!”
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About the author
Charles Foster | Inhabit the World