UT Professor explains link between birds and dinosaurs

[title_box title=”UT Professor explains link between birds and dinosaurs”]

Colin D. Sumrall, assistant professor of Paleobiology in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, gave a lecture on Friday, Oct. 9, about the link between dinosaurs and modern-day birds.

Sumrall’s presentation, given to a healthy mix of both students and members of the community, expanded upon the scientific belief that modern-day birds have gradually evolved from dinosaurs over time. Throughout the presentation, Sumrall gave in-depth analyses of dinosaurs and tried to answer the question; how did dinosaurs evolve into birds?

“During the extinction, a meteor came down and wiped out the dinosaurs,” Sumrall said. “That’s what happened, right? Except..it didn’t.”

Sumrall explained that not only did the dinosaurs not all go extinct after a meteor hit the Earth roughly 65 million years ago, but that they gradually evolved into birds, and demonstrated this by showing various specimens and fossils whose characteristics increasingly started to resemble birds rather than dinosaurs.

A replica of Archaeopteryx lithographica. Photo by Daulton McCartney.

“The dinosaurs that immediately went extinct were the big ones,” explained Sumrall. “Not only did the smaller dinosaurs survive, but their physical characteristics evolved to help them adapt to their ever-changing environments; with the development of feathers, restructuring of skeletal makeup, most notably the pubis, and in some cases, elongated claws.”

To help explain the point of his lecture, Sumrall showed a picture of a featherless chicken.

“Doesn’t that look just like a dinosaur,” Sumrall asked. “It’s arms are a little different, but that’s just what chickens look like.”

But why do people still find it hard to believe that birds and dinosaurs are relatives?

“If a meteor hit the Earth and all mammals except for bats went extinct, what would future paleontologists think of our life,” Sumrall asked.

He then claimed that if life in 65 million years were to find a fossil of a whale or a sea lion, they would not think that it was a mammal, much like people in the present-day find it hard to believe that birds are related to dinosaurs.

Sumrall believes that people are just looking at it wrong. They tend to miss that birds are in the same category as dinosaurs in the same way that humans are in the same category as all mammals.

After the presentation, the audience asked Sumrall questions, ranging from 3D printing of fossils to falsified fossils found in China. However, the question that got the biggest response was about the impact that actually holding a fossil has on his research. Sumrall’s response highlighted that simply learning about evolution through texts is fine, but it becomes so much more clear when presented with an authentic fossil or specimen.

Sumrall concluded, “It’s really nice to be able to hold a specimen.”

Featured image by Daulton McCartney

Edited by Jessica Carr

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