Letter From Discover

The golden age of dinosaur discovery

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Recently a Discover editor visited the Field Museum in Chicago to hang out with a few scientists there, including Peter Makovicky, the curator of dinosaurs. In his lab, Makovicky pulled open a drawer and said, “Look what we found in Argentina.” In the drawer was part of a delicate and exquisite skeleton, a previously unknown species of dinosaur that Makovicky says was about the size of a wild turkey. The creature even looked a bit like a wild turkey, except that it had frightening rows of small, sharp teeth. Makovicky hasn’t published his find yet, but it’s indicative of a rush of discoveries from around the world. China is the principal source of the new finds by Makovicky and other leading paleontologists. In Liaoning Province, he unearthed a meat eater named Sinovenator changii, which was about the size of a chicken and apparently had feathers. Sinovenator is related to Archaeopteryx, the oldest known bird. Makovicky thinks the fossil strengthens the case that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Sometimes he speaks very casually about such amazing statements, and sometimes he just shakes his head about all the unanswered questions that the stream of new discoveries has raised. But his voice rises and intensifies when he says, “We’re living in the golden age of dinosaur discovery.” He seems quite pleased to be a paleontologist living in 2005.

Downstairs in the Field Museum’s main hall, Sue, the biggest, most complete, and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, was doing a good job of amazing, if not intimidating, that day’s busloads of schoolchildren. Sue herself is an example of how fast paleontology is moving along. Although she was acquired in 1997, it was only in 2003 that the definitive scientific paper on her, by Christopher Brochu, was published. The monograph, which offers exact measurements and photos of Sue’s bones, has helped researchers refigure how fast a typical T. rex moved and how big it grew. Industrial CT scans of Sue’s skull done at Boeing’s Rocketdyne laboratory showed that Sue had large areas in her head devoted to sight and hearing. But even more interesting was the space allocated to two huge olfactory bulbs, which were almost as large as the rest of Sue’s brain. Like a bloodhound, Sue probably relied on her sniffer.

Almost within sight of Sue, on the second floor of the museum, two researchers in a glassed-in area had their heads bowed over binocular microscopes. Using tools that can only be described as all too similar to dentist’s drills, they were probing—gently—into the Argentinean rock and stone that encased Makovicky’s latest birdlike dinosaur. The work seemed remarkably tedious, but the researchers were excited to be making progress. As Makovicky watched over them, he was asked how anyone could have the patience for the years it takes to search for and extricate a dinosaur, much less piece it together, write a paper on it, and figure out its meaning. Compared with the past, he said, today’s pace of paleontology is so rapid it’s hard to keep up with all the discoveries and interpretations. Although the questions about dinosaurs keep piling up as more is discovered, Makovicky is confident of the way science works: Eventually, questions like the ones in the article on the following pages will lead to astounding answers.

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