Some new answers to old questions about dinosaurs
Edwin Colbert is likely to bristle when someone says today's big gas-guzzling cars are going the way of the dinosaurs. Dr. Colbert has no soft spot for Continentals or Dodge trucks - but he does care about the reputation of the dinosaurs.Skip to next paragraph
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Using them as a symbol for something big and short-lived, contends the noted paleontologist and veteran fossil hunter, is simply inaccurate. For one thing, not all dinosaurs were big: Some were as small as bantam roosters. For another, they roamed the earth for more than 100 million years - an enduring stay by anyone's standards.
Yet the paleontologist's pet peeve also raises a point: There are many gaps in the knowledge of both scientists and the public about one of the more intriguing life forms on earth.
''Hard evidence [about dinosaurs] eludes us,'' said Dr. Colbert in an interview during a stopover here. ''It is like trying to determine if there is life in other parts of the universe. There is a lot of speculation. But it remains just that, speculation.''
Dr. Colbert should know. He has been chiseling bones out of locations ranging from icy Antarctica to steamy South America for more than 50 years. The curator emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History's department of vertebrate paleontology, he is now with the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. But he still finds time to pull on worn trousers, clip on a canteen, and, toting pick and perseverance, head out to do fossil fieldwork.
Much of his time, however, is taken up behind podiums, lecturing and assessing the state of 130-odd years of dinosaur research (capsulized in his book, ''Dinosaurs: An Illustrated History'').
What he sees is a field in transition. The study of dinosaurs used to be a simple affair: paleontologists piecing together the past from femurs and footprints. But today the study encompasses many disciplines, with ecologists, biologists, geologists, and even astronomers contributing theories.
The thrust is also less on finding bones and more on piecing together a picture of the world in which the dinosaur lived - climate and food supply, for instance. All of this is producing new knowledge but also breeding more disputes among scientists - the most heated of which is the museumful of theories surrounding dinosaur extinction.
At one time, paleontologists considered the study of dinosaurs intriguing but somewhat irrelevant, since they seemingly had no evolutionary links to the modern day.
Now, says Dr. Colbert, it is recognized that special lessons can be gleaned from these ancient behemoths, over and above the normal insights an animal species can provide. Evidence of the distribution of dinosaurs around the world, for instance, is unraveling mysteries about the early arrangement of continents. New thoughts are also emerging about the ways animals adapt to varied environments.
''They were (once) considered gee-whiz reptiles,'' he says. ''Now they're considered important in their own right.''
That new ideas are surfacing is fine with almost everybody. Dinosaurs, after all, have long fascinated people. Dr. Colbert sees three reasons for this: (1) throughout history, giants have been a popular subject in literature and legend; (2) nothing in the animal kingdom resembles them today; and (3) dinosaurs are one of the Agatha Christie stories of the reptile world: Their existence remains shrouded in mystery, and most people like a good mystery.
But slowly the dinosaur plot is evolving. Among areas of study: