Book: Flying dinosaurs

Flying Dinosaurs
John Pickrell, Newsouth (2014), RRP $41.99

If you were born before 1996, you would have grown up with an image of dinosaurs as lumbering, scaly beasts, coloured in monochromes of brown or green. But that year, a discovery in China turned all we thought we knew on its head. It was then that farmer and part-time fossil hunter Li Yumin found, buried in the shales of Liaoning province in northeastern China, the first indisputable evidence of a feathered dinosaur. It was one of the most exciting scientific discoveries in decades, providing vital evidence that birds are descended from dinosaurs, something that had been suggested but never proven.

Named Sinosauropteryx, the dinosaur lived in the Early Cretaceous around 130 million years ago. It was covered in downy feathers that scientists now believe were ginger-coloured. Not that Sinosauropteryx, a theropod, could fly. It was a small, swift, ground-based hunter, its feathers thought to have provided a showy display and insulation.

Since Sinosauropteryx, flocks of feathered dinosaurs have been found nearby – the conditions in Liaoning perfect for preserving their remains in remarkable detail. We now know that the theropods shared many characteristics with modern birds – light bones, beaks, nest-building behaviour, metabolism, development and even the diseases that afflicted them.

John Pickrell, whose day job is editing Australian Geographic, has produced a remarkable book, with a wealth of interviews with palaeontologists and a comprehensive catalogue of virtually all the findings of feathered dinosaurs since 1996. It’s a useful catch-up if you have lost track of this rapidly developing area of palaeontology, and full of fascinating, unusual facts – did you know that birds are the closest living relatives to the crocodile?

The book also addresses the darker side of fossil hunting. There are some fascinating tales of infamous hoaxes but also more disturbing stories of the black market. The challenge is to stop impoverished farmers from selling fossils they find on their land before scientists can delve into their secrets.

Intriguingly, Pickrell suggests the possibility that maybe one day we will be able to bring the dinosaur back to life – but not by using DNA from fossils as in the movie Jurassic Park. Even in optimum conditions, DNA degrades over 100,000 years or so. But, he says, there may be somewhere else to find the data: “Birds are dinosaurs and they carry the majority of the DNA of their dinosaur forbears.”

Could they be the key to bringing their more fearsome relatives back?

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