What if you were a dinosaur
Would the dinosaurs have survived without the asteroid?
However, not enough fossils have been discovered from the Maastrichtian - the last section of the Upper Cretaceous before the asteroid impact - to be able to deduce details. Many studies have tried to compensate for this discrepancy. Whenever they do that, it turns out that biodiversity in western North America remained stable or even increased until the end. In this scenario, the dinosaurs were fine - until they suddenly disappeared.
That consensus, which had slowly emerged, suffered a setback in 2016: University of Reading biologist Manabu Sakamoto published a study claiming that in the tens of millions of years before the mass extinction, dinosaur species became extinct faster than new ones emerged. According to this picture, drawn from a global family tree of dinosaurs, some groups of dinosaurs had their prime long before the asteroid hit.
Sakamoto's study cannot be directly compared with others, as he looked at significantly longer periods of time. Nonetheless, his work re-fueled the discussion.
Big bones, bigger amounts of data
In order to answer such large questions, it helps to have appropriately large databases available. For decades, paleontologists have compiled vast public databases of fossil records. A new generation of computer-savvy scientists can therefore now sort and analyze the primeval world in an unprecedented way and thus gain new insights into the past.
“We are currently in the age of big data and data science,” says Sakamoto. “If you make such pompous claims and carry out studies, you should back them up with correspondingly extensive data. That is why the databases are essential. "
Anyone who imagines database paleontology as a mixture between “Jurassic Park” and “Matrix” is far from it. It is a tedious job in which databases with sometimes hundreds of thousands of entries have to be combed through again and again.
“We spend years doing this - day after day full of failed models, failed passes, and data cleansing. And if I see 'Maastrichtium' misspelled again, I'll go crazy, ”says paleontologist Emma Dunne, a PhD student at Birmingham University who uses climate models to research the evolutionary origins of dinosaurs. “But it's totally worth it. It is extremely exciting. "
Chiarenza's path was very similar. Originally, he just wanted to research dinosaurs, but to answer his questions he had to deal with numerous areas of knowledge, from Earth system models to cutting-edge technologies.
For his new study, he combined for the first time high-resolution models of the terrain of the primeval earth with current climate models, which scientists also use to understand the human impact on our climate today. Then he and his colleagues recorded exactly where dinosaur fossils were found. They concentrated on three groups: tyrannosaurs, ceratopsia such as the triceratops and hadrosaurs, which are also called duck-billed dinosaurs.
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