Inside N.C. Science

Studying dinosaurs helps scientists understand ecological trends

CorrespondentJune 1, 2014 

Mary Higby Schweitzer is curator of vertebrate paleontology for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and a professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at N.C. State.

N.C. MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCES

So, what good are dinosaurs, anyway? Aren’t they irrelevant? Why should research funding go to study an animal no human will ever see?

Have you ever had any of those thoughts? I often hear comments like these.

The geological record is a picture of history with large pieces missing, but it is all we have. How ancient life responded to long-term global change can be extrapolated to today’s ecological trends. After all, the only way to accurately measure human influence on processes occurring since life began is to compare today’s trends with patterns recorded in rocks before there were humans.

More than 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct, and the majority of these are represented only in the fossil record. This record shows five major extinction events. Some contend that we are currently undergoing a sixth great extinction, different from the others because humans are causing it. The fossil record is the only means we have to investigate questions like this. The better we understand the history of our planet, the better we can design policies that will carry us into our future.

There are more species of dinosaurs, extinct and living (think birds!), than any other group of terrestrial vertebrates. They live on every continent and occupy virtually every niche. The diversity of dinosaur species allows us to study biological responses to environmental change over long time periods in ways other animal groups don’t allow.

And new research techniques allow us to do things never before possible; for example, in some cases, we can recover molecules from long-extinct fossils that might shed light on how organisms adapted to long-term global climate change, varying carbon dioxide levels and other conditions that affect us today.

Dinosaur fossils aren’t easily found in North Carolina, but there is another reason to study them that is very pertinent to our state. Fewer students are choosing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers at a time when we have never relied more on these disciplines.

But public fascination for dinosaurs can be leveraged toward improving science literacy.

Only by understanding past diversity, adaptation, climate variability and organismal response can we adequately prepare to face the challenges of an ever-changing planet. We need the best and brightest to focus on the sciences, and for many, their love of science may begin with a fascination for these big beasts we study at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Mary Higby Schweitzer is curator of vertebrate paleontology for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and a professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at N.C. State.

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