In just the past twenty years, we have learned more about dinosaurs than we did in the previous two centuries. This book describes the extraordinary advances in palaeontology that are beginning to solve many of the mysteries surrounding these marvelous prehistoric creatures, from their ways of communicating to their mating habits, the color of their skin, their migration patterns and extinction. How did dinosaurs rear their young? What did they eat? What did T. rex actually do with those tiny arms? David Hone draws on his own discoveries at the forefront of dinosaur science to illuminate these and other questions.
What sets this book apart from existing literature on dinosaurs?
DH: Most dinosaur books either present a general overview of the subject, or they focus exclusively on recent discoveries and revelations. In this one, I try to explore the things we don’t yet know—the areas of dinosaur research that are either about to yield something new or even those we might never be able to solve.
How did you go about writing a book on things we don’t know?
DH: Well, the starting point is what has been discovered. It’s important to recognise that dinosaur research has advanced in leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades. We probably now have more researchers on this subject than ever before, as well as more fossils, technologies, and methods, which makes for an opportune time to study these animals. But there are some huge gaps in our knowledge, and that’s where I really want to go with this book. Doing that only works if you can explain to your readers where those gaps are and why they are interesting and important. Regarding the behaviour and ecology of dinosaurs, on which I mostly work, there are so many areas we don’t know much about. Even fields like anatomy, a massive part of dinosaur science whose research is done mostly from just bones and teeth, has areas that we hope to resolve in the future but right now are basically unknown.
Can you give us an example of a knowledge gap in the field of dinosaur anatomy?
DH: Well, for one, sauropod skulls! The sauropods are the big-bodied, long-necked dinosaurs, like Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus. Although we have named a couple of hundred sauropod species, we have skulls for perhaps only a dozen. The skull is such an important part of an animal—it houses its brain and most of its major senses, and it is used to gather and process food. You can tell more about an animal from a skull than probably anything else, and yet we have very little idea what the heads of nearly all of these species looked like. They were big animals, and they were common, but what we don’t know leaves us unable to really answer all kinds of things about their biology.
What is the most exciting upcoming discovery that you anticipate?
DH: The obvious one is the colours and patterns of dinosaurs. Even 10 years ago, I’d have said that not only do we not know these details, but that we can never know them. However, we have now have a decent idea of the colours of a handful of feathered dinosaurs! While that is an incredible development in its own right, it also opens up plenty of other avenues to explore. Knowing the colours of one animal is great, but there are also questions like whether the specimen is a male or a female, or an adult or a juvenile? Did it change between seasons, or evolve over time? None of that we can know from just one sample, but for some dinosaurs, we have hundreds of specimens preserved well enough to work out the colours. This means that it’s more or less only a matter of time before we can determine all these other features, which would inform us much more about how these animals lived and what they were doing.
And what is something you think we can never sort out?
DH: It’s got to be volcanic islands. These are places where some of the most amazing and weird animals (and plants for that matter) can evolve. If you want to find something strange, then you’d head to Hawaii or the Galapagos or somewhere similar—isolation tends to lead to a lot of novelty. However, volcanic islands don’t tend to have lots of deposition of sediments, which would bury bodies and one day make fossils. Volcanic islands are also very unstable and tend to destroy themselves. In short, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that we’ll ever find dinosaur fossils from ancient volcanic islands. Who knows what incredibly wonderful and strange dinosaurs might have lived and evolved there? Because the fossils probably no longer exist, that’s a gap in our knowledge we just can’t ever fill.
How do you think palaeontology will evolve in the future?
DH: Of course, we’ll continue to find new fossils and work out new ways to assess them, but technology will play a big part. In many ways, looking at dinosaurs is the same as it was 200 years ago in terms of describing and comparing their anatomy. However, we are now able to scan them, create 3D models, add digital muscles, and calculate values for bite forces, acceleration and the like, which is a massive advancement, and that’s only going to get better and easier. While palaeontologists tend to be late adopters of technologies, especially since we don’t have a lot of research funding, they do filter through eventually, and we get to do a lot with it. As with every other branch of science, technology is going to become more and more important and integrated with research going forwards.
What do you hope people take away from reading this book?
DH: We know both a lot more and a lot less than most people think. I do lots of outreach and engagement, and it’s a recurring theme—people are amazed that we can work out things like colours, bite forces, evolutionary relationships, and extinction patterns, but then are equally surprised when answers about hunting in groups or what exactly the biggest species was are essentially unknown. It’s a real mix, and I think people often have a poor grasp on both sides of that. Hopefully, this book redresses the balance.
And, finally, how fast did T. rex run?
DH: Well, actually, they didn’t. Adult Tyrannosaurus, at least, were so large that they’d never get to do something that fits the biomechanical definition of running, primarily because it wouldn’t be able to get both feet of the ground at the same time. T. rex could still take long strides, so it would have been more of a huge power walker. Exactly how fast it was we don’t really know, but it would have been quick enough to beat most people in a foot race.
David Hone is a Senior Lecturer in Zoology at Queen Mary University of London in the UK.