gregory_paul's picture
Independent Researcher; Author, The Princeton Field Guide of Dinosaurs

Birds Are The Direct Descendents Of Dinosaurs

The most graceful example of an elegant scientific idea in one of my fields of expertise is the idea is that dinosaurs were tachyenergetic, that they were endotherms with the high internal energy production and high aerobic exercise capacity typical of birds and mammals that can sustain long periods of intense activity. Although it is not dependent upon it, high powered dinosaurs blends in with the hypothesis that birds are the direct descendents of dinosaurs, that birds literally are flying dinosaurs, much as bats are flying mammals.

 It cannot be overemphasized how much sense the above makes, and how it has revolutionized a big chunk of our understanding of evolution and 230 millions years of earth history relative to what was thought from the mid 1800s to the 1960s. Until then it was generally presumed that dinosaurs were a dead end collection of bradyenergetic reptiles that could achieve high levels of activity for only brief bursts; even walking at 5 mph requires high respiratory capacity beyond that of reptiles who must plod along at a mph or so if they are moving a long distance. Birds were seen as a distinct and feathery group in which energy inefficiency evolved in order to power flight.

Although the latter hypothesis was not inherently illogical, it was divergent from the evolution of bats in which high aerobic capacity was already present in their furry ancestors.

I first learned of "warm-blooded" dinosaurs in my senior year of high school via a blurb in Smithsonian Magazine about Robert Bakker's article in Nature in the summer of 1972. As soon as I read it, it just clicked. I had been illustrating dinosaurs in accord with the reptilian consensus, but it was a bad fit because dinosaurs are so obviously constructed like birds and mammals, not crocs and lizards. About the same time John Ostrom, who also had a hand in discovering dinosaur endothermy, was presenting the evidence that birds are aerial versions of avepod dinosaurs—a concept so obvious that should have become the dominant thesis back in the 1800s.

For a quarter century the hypotheses was highly controversial—the one regarding dinosaur metabolics especially so—and some of the first justifications were flawed. But the evidence has piled up. Growth rings in dinosaur bones show they grew at the fast pace not achievable by reptiles, their trackways show they walked at steady speeds too high for bradyaerobes, many small dinosaurs were feathery, and polar dinosaurs, birds and mammals were living through blizzardy Mesozoic winters that excluded ectotherms.

 Because of the dinorevolution our understanding of the evolution of the animals that dominated the continents is far closer to the truth than it was. Energy efficient amphibians and reptiles dominated the continents for only 70 million years in the later portion of the Paleozoic, the era that had begun with trilobites and nothing on land. For the last 270 million years higher power albeit less energy efficient tachyenergy has reigned supreme on land, starting with protomammalian therapsids near the end of the Paleozoic. When therapsids went belly up early in the Mesozoic (the survivors of the group being the then all small mammals) they were not replaced by lower power dinosaurs for the next 150 million years, but by dinosaurs that quickly took aerobic exercise capacity to even greater levels.

The unusual avian respiratory complex is so effective that some birds fly as high as airliners, but the system did not evolve for flight. That's because the skeletal apparatus for operating air sac ventilated lungs first developed in flightless avepod dinosaurs for terrestrial purposes (some but by no means all offer low global oxygen levels as the selective factor). So the basics of avian energetics appeared in predacious dinosaurs, and only later were used to achieve powered flight. Rather like how internal combustion engines happened to make powered human flight practical, rather than being developed to do so.