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A New 'Golden Age' of Dinosaur Study

Boning Up On History

During the early heyday of dinosaur research in the 1920s, a renowned paleontologist from the Smithsonian Institution picked his way through the badlands of Montana with ambitions of making a monumental discovery - the bigger, the better.

Looking for a skeleton to fill an exhibition hall, he instead stumbled upon a rocky protrusion and pried a diminutive specimen from its Cretaceous resting place. The scientist took one look and without batting an eye wrote in his field journal: "Too small to be important."

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Seven decades later, the idea of discarding a fossil because of its size is laughable. In fact, the "find of the century," discovered in China earlier this year, was barely larger than a household pet.

Today, finds both large and small are now helping evolutionary scientists paint a more accurate picture of what dinosaurs looked like, how they behaved, and what happened to them. In less than a decade, these finds have led to a radical change in the way scientists understand the history of the planet and, many say, to a new "golden age" of paleontology.


* The unearthing in China of the Sinosauropteryx prima, a feathered, flesh-eating dinosaur, is a quantum leap. It confirms what John Ostrom of Yale University has been saying for 30 years - dinosaurs are the ancestors of birds, not lizards.

"We can now say that birds came from dinosaurs as surely as we can say humans are mammals," says paleontologist Kevin Padian at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's no longer one of the big questions. We've moved on to other things no less exciting."

* The discovery in October of 6,000 dinosaur fossils representing 80 different types of animals in Utah helps explain a missing 140-million-year gap in the fossil record between early dinosaurs and the time they became extinct 65 million years ago.

* Dinosaur fossils pulled from the permafrost of Greenland and the hills of Scotland help explain the evolution of vertebrate life.

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* The unprecedented discovery of at least nine Albertosauruses - cousins of the Tyrannosaurus rex - at one site in Canada and also of the most complete T-rex skeleton ever found have vastly expanded scientists' understanding of the most feared predator ever to walk the earth.

Why now?

A combination of factors is fueling the scientific community's effusive euphoria, says Philip Currie, head of the research program at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta.

With more people than ever sifting through the geologic record of the Mesozoic, Mr. Currie says, a new dinosaur species is being cataloged once every three months.

Add to that a series of stunning theoretical breakthroughs that have come with the finds, a flood of published research, and a growing global database, and the pieces of the evolutionary puzzle are falling into place so fast that it's hard to keep up.

This momentum has been helped along by the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for all things prehistoric.

The phenomenal success of "Jurassic Park" spawned a sequel, and the Field Museum in Chicago recently spent $8.4 million at an auction sale for Sue, a T-rex skeleton that is 80 percent complete. Next spring, there are also plans for the third annual dinosaur world's fair, called Dinofest.

Challenges ahead

Still, even at this great time for dinosaur research, challenges lie ahead. Traditionally, paleontology has been a cheap science where all a practitioner needed was a pick, a shovel, and a truck.

"Nowadays, you can still use that equipment but it will only give you a dinosaur for the showroom, not anything you're going to learn much about," says Jack Horner, who uses a CAT scanner to study dinosaurs with his colleagues at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont. "Knowledge is available through new technology, but that costs money."

Although paleontology is part of the cultural Zeitgeist, funding for research, ironically, is starting to dry up. Congressional austerity measures have reduced the size of grants offered through the National Science Foundation. "We all want to know the answers, but we can't get to the answers without the funds to ask the questions," Mr. Horner adds.

A few months ago, Horner found a sympathetic ear when House Speaker Newt Gingrich joined him at a dinosaur dig. Mr. Gingrich, a dinosaur junkie and fan of meat eaters, has a T-rex skull-casting in his office. It came from a monster housed at the Museum of the Rockies.

But some scientists worry that this trend of decreasing dollars could lead to a consolidation of valuable dinosaur fossils in private hands. Most agree that Sue would probably have gone to a private collector in Japan had McDonald's and the Walt Disney Co. not stepped in and helped Chicago's Field Museum buy it. The move was significant because only 30 partial T-rex skeletons are known to exist in the world.

And while the sale price confirms the value of rare fossils - putting them in a comparable league with masterpiece paintings - it also sets a potentially harmful precedent, says Mr. Padian.

Inflated price tags mean that in the future most public museums will be unable to acquire important remains because they do not have deep-pocketed corporate benefactors waiting in the wings.

Disturbing eons of history

More troubling is that the frenzy surrounding Sue created an incentive for treasure-seeking profiteers to locate and remove dinosaur bones without paying any regard to scientific knowledge. Often when sites are disturbed and bones taken haphazardly, opportunities are lost.

"We are supposed to be an enlightened society, and enlightened societies protect their posterity," Padian says. "I'm happy the Field Museum was able to acquire Sue, but I'm concerned about what it means for other valuable specimens. It's in the public's interest that these remain in the public's hands because when they go to private collectors, they can disappear forever."

The public was given an opportunity to recover them after 65 million years, he says. A second chance may be pushing it.

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