By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Someone bought a T. rex skeleton for a record-breaking $31.8 million at auction, Vice reported. The previous record was held by another T. rex, which sold for $8.4 million in 1997. We often still have misconceptions about dinosaurs.
According to Vice, a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton recently changed hands for nearly $32 million. “The near-complete T. rex skeleton, named ‘Stan,’ now belongs to an anonymous buyer who secured the milestone bid at the ’20th Century Evening Sale’ held at Christie’s in New York,” the article said. “The hefty price tag dwarfs what the Field Museum in Chicago paid for its T. rex, named ‘Sue,’ which was procured for $8.4 million in 1997. Sue held the title of ‘most expensive dinosaur’ for more than two decades—until this week.”
In natural history museums and the paleontological field in general, dinosaurs are major players. How does reality contrast with our pop culture love for these giant reptiles?
Mythbusting the Dinosaurs
“Dinosaurs were adopted by popular culture very early on in their discovery in the 19th century,” said Dr. Anthony Martin, Professor of Practice in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University. “For example, Charles Dickens mentions a dinosaur in the first paragraph of his novel Bleak House. Sculptors from the same time and other artists attempted to replicate dinosaurs visually, also for public appreciation.”
Dr. Martin said that in 1914, one of the first animated motion pictures, Gertie the Dinosaur, featured a human interacting with a dinosaur in entertaining and non-lethal ways, while Sinclair used a dinosaur in its company logo in the 1930s.
However, our popular image of dinosaurs has veered off the scientific path. For example, while we tend to think of most dinosaurs as being incredibly large creatures—and some did weigh in excess of 50 tons—many of them were “crow- to human-sized,” Dr. Martin said. “In fact, the first dinosaurs were not especially large either. With that knowledge and the fact that most dinosaurs were herbivores, they become a little less fearsome, too.”
Finally, these early dinosaurs evolved from diapsid predecessors in the late Triassic period, he said, which was about 230 million years ago. They lived for at least 165 million years, ending in the late Cretaceous about 65 million years ago. This span of time is far greater than most dino fans imagine.
What’s in a Name?
“A major revelation in our study of dinosaur evolution was that dinosaurs did not really go extinct—they’re still here as birds,” Dr. Martin said. “Birds evolved from small feathered dinosaurs during the latter half of the Mesozoic era. Of course, they’re still very much a part of life today, which means dinosaurs beat the bum rap of being extinct, too.”
This leads to a question of when and where the idea of a dinosaur really begins and ends—and it isn’t as straightforward as we’d think.
The traditional method of classifying animals is to break them down by names in the sequence of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Another method is by using “evolutionarily-related categories” called clades. The cladistic system, Dr. Martin said, emphasizes evolutionary history, also called the “phylogeny,” of clades.
“Many paleontologists now define a dinosaur as a member of the clade that contains the most recent common ancestor of modern birds and Triceratops, as well as all of their descendants,” he said. “That sounds a little unwieldy, but it accurately represents how dinosaurs are an evolutionarily linked group of animals.”
Even in the 21st century, what we understand—or think we understand—about dinosaurs is changing. By revising our scope of how to group them in the fossil record and doing a bit of mythbusting, we can refine our perspective of dinosaurs’ places in history.
Dr. Anthony Martin contributed to this article. Dr. Martin is Professor of Practice in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University, where he has taught courses in geology, paleontology, environmental science, and evolutionary biology since 1990. He earned his BS in Geobiology from St. Joseph’s College (Indiana), MS in Geology from Miami University (Ohio), and PhD in Geology from the University of Georgia.