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If Dinosaurs Went Extinct, Why Are There Still Birds?
Let's settle this once and for all.
Jurassic Park works so well, both as a movie and in-universe as a theme park, because we are so fascinated with the creatures who have come and gone before us. These days, birds are the only living remnant from the age of dinosaurs, the final flying holdouts of a once great group of animals. Most of us know from grade school that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a rogue asteroid some 66 million years ago. We also know that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs and are, in fact, dinosaurs themselves. Which is weird because we thought dinosaurs were supposed to all be toast.
If you’re like us, you’ve probably held both of these seemingly competing ideas in your head at the same time and were too scared to ask for clarification, for fear of being silly. With that in mind, we’re here to ask the silly questions, to smart people, so you don’t have to. We spoke with Riley Black, author of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, to get the scoop on what’s really going on between dinosaurs and birds.
The Demise of Dinosaurs and the Rise of Birds
“We hold those two facts in our heads, both that the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct and that we have birds today. And that there’s this divide between non-avian dinosaurs and birds. I think there is a lot of confusion about it. I’ve often heard people assume that birds evolved after the impact, that whatever dinosaurs survived then evolved into birds. That isn’t quite right,” Black told SYFY WIRE.
It’s more accurate to think of birds as one subgroup within dinosaurs. There were a number of specializations within the dinosaur kingdom, pushing some groups toward long necks and plant-based diets, others toward stocky, low to the ground bodies, and armored skin. Others, still, adapted feathers and, eventually, the ability to fly.
Far from showing up after the demise of dinosaurs, the first birds showed up in the fossil record roughly 150 million years ago, during the Jurassic period and they flourished alongside their dinosaurian peers. “Archaeopteryx, the first bird recognized in the fossil record with teeth, was from the Jurassic. It was immediately recognized as the earliest bird and became the center point for the evolution of birds. It was a question for a long time what birds evolved from and what they’re ancestry was like. Now, we have it really well documented that birds were really just another branch of the dinosaur family tree.”
Even before archaeopteryx showed up, birds were setting the foundation of their eventual reign. Traits like feathers, warm-blooded metabolism, laying eggs, air sacs, and parental care are all qualities which evolved in earlier dinosaurs and were later inherited by birds. In fact, birds may have hit their peak during the age of dinosaurs and are still recovering from the cosmic sucker punch. Prior to the extinction event, birds were much more diverse, including a number of bird groups with teeth and more primitive dinosaur features.
“There were also a wide variety, perhaps even a wider variety of toothed birds, those are the ones we lost. Maybe recognizable, certainly as birds but if you can imagine a raven with teeth or a sparrow with teeth or claws where their thumb would be on their wings. They still had some of those ancient dinosaur traits and those were the ones hit the hardest,” Black said.
When the asteroid hit and world ecosystems collapsed, whether you made it through the other side depended on whether the traits you already had were well-adapted to the new world. It might have been that beaked birds simply got lucky and were ready for a world on fire.
“Let’s say you were a beaked bird at the end of the Cretaceous, your ancestors have already evolved the ability to eat seeds and vegetation, those birds made it through. Anything that was eating insects or lizards or small prey, that went extinct. It seems that the herbivorous birds with beaks were preadapted to survive in a world that was ravaged by this mass extinction,” Black said.
So, the truth is, the dinosaurs didn’t really go extinct. At least not all of them. One little group of dinos, the ones who were capable of surviving through the hard times, made it through. And now they sing us awake each morning, which is pretty neat.
In case the aviary isn’t scratching your dinosaur itch, catch Jurassic Park, streaming now on Peacock!