How can palaeobiology be scientific? Surely we can only really, guess about so much of the life of dinosaurs? The answer to any question about how dinosaurs lived would end with some statement such as, ‘Well, if only we had a time machine, we might be able to find out’.
[Right] The famous Gary Larson cartoon: “An instant later, both Professor Waxman and his time machine are obliterated, leaving the cold-blooded/ warm-blooded dinosaur debate still unresolved.”
In fact, palaeobiology has gone through a revolution in the past twenty years, and it has become a science. This is thanks to four big advances – more fossils, more trees, more technology, and engineering models. What used to be speculation is now testable, and the guesswork moves into new areas.
- New fossils. Amazing new fossils show us more about ancient life than we ever imagined. Some of these fossils preserve soft tissues, including hair and feathers, as well as traces of guts and nervous systems.
- New phylogenetic trees. The revolution in methods to reconstruct phylogeny means palaeobiologists have large-scale, detailed evolutionary trees, with ages of branching points, and these are the basis for a whole array of new kinds of analyses, including working out how fast certain traits evolved, and whether a particular burst of evolution was triggered by a novelty or an environmental change.
- New technology. New computer programs enable palaeontologists to look at how dinosaur evolved, but also to calculate their functions, and to analyse the chemistry of their soft tissues.
- New engineering models. It is common to make 3D models of ancient bones, skulls or skeletons taken directly from CT scans. The digital model is an exact model of the fossil, and it can be given the correct material properties, so the model inside the computer is a true representation of the original fossil. Then it can be subjected to engineering analysis, using the same software we use to stress-test new aircraft, bridges or buildings. It works for engineering design, so it works for dinosaurs too.