Photo Credit: Unsplash/Solstice Hannan
Dinosaurs have been the subject of our fascination since before we even knew what they were. When the first dinosaur fossil was discovered in 1677, it was so alien and so foreign to us that the chemistry professor who came upon it — Robert Plot — could only conclude that it came from a giant-sized human.
While the fossil was later correctly identified — a hundred years after the original discovery — it only fueled our obsession with these humungous lizards. What were these species? What did they look like? What did they eat? Were they really that large? How come they all just died like that? What caused it?
Many of these questions have been answered by scientists, but it’s the last one that can still heat up a debate room.
And for good reason.
Dinosaurs were too large, too diverse, and too dominant on Earth to just simply one day drop dead like that. What happened?
Was it really just a meteor, or something much closer to home? Like devastating climate change?
For years the leading theory proposing how the dinosaurs died out in a jiffy has been the Alvarez hypothesis.
Postulated by the father-and-son duo Luis and Walter Alvarez (former a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and nuclear research pioneer, and latter a noted geologist), it presents a convincing picture of an asteroid hitting the Earth with such incredible force that almost 75 percent of all life on earth just simply ceased to exist.
According to this theory, the force of this impact would have been as devastating as 10 Hiroshima bombs going off simultaneously.
It would have started a chain reaction of catastrophic events so absolute that there would have been no place for dinosaurs and other life to hide or seek shelter.
The impact would have created tsunamis, earthquakes, and wildfires. The forests would have been burned to char and the floods would have eradicated all life for more than halfway across the world.
It would have also sent up a cloud of debris, metal, and gasses so thick and poisonous that it would have blocked out the sun for months and, perhaps, years. The resulting darkness would have been so complete that it would have plunged the earth into a perpetual freezing winter.
The remaining plants would have died out, eliminating the food resources for herbivorous dinosaurs. With herbivores dead, carnivores would have starved. All animals larger than 25kg (55 lbs) would not have survived.
The facts do favor this hypothesis:
So that’s it, then? One day dinosaurs were there and the next they all just spiraled into nonexistence?
While it does seem like it, the question arises: were dinosaurs so evolutionarily incompetent that none of their species survived? If so, how the heck were they then able to roam the Earth as its dominant beings for close to 200 million years before this event?
Scientists who believe in the climate change theory do not see any scenario in which dinosaurs emerge as victors.
According to these scientists, dinos were to die one way or the other. If the asteroid hadn’t killed them, the cooling planet would certainly have had. In fact, as per them, the asteroid just made a quicker job of it.
Proponents of this theory argue dinosaur species had been slowly dying out for nearly 40 million years before the meteorite hit the Earth.
According to a recent study on the subject, scientists have uncovered proof that the changes to the Earth’s climate had caused a steep decline in the number of species of dinosaurs. The earth was gradually cooling and it was bad news for dinosaurs. They were mesothermal creatures, meaning they needed a warm climate to survive and reproduce. As the Earth began to cool, entire dinosaur families began to go extinct.
They could not. Their biology went against them.
The rate with which they needed to reproduce to accomplish evolutionary changes that could sustain their species through climate change, did not happen. They had fewer offspring, and the massive diversification they needed to their biology to adapt to changes, could not be carried out with so few of them.
While some species of dinosaurs were dying out, others were getting weakened.
The poisonous gasses, ash, and lava flows erupting from the Deccan Traps (a region in present India) must have severely impacted dinosaur systems. So, even if some dinosaur species in other parts of the world would have survived the meteorite collision, they were in no fit state to go on living, surviving harsh tests of evolution, when there was lava erupting all around them.
And that brings us to what we had set out to learn today:
Not directly, but it played a decisive role.
The science is pretty clear that it was a meteorite that signed off on the extinction of dinosaurs.
When that mountain-sized meteorite slammed into Earth, the impact — immediate as well as secondary — was fatal. Some life forms it killed instantly, while others, slowly. In addition to dinosaurs, other species, such as marine reptiles, plants, and animals that were purely herbivores and carnivores, all died out.
Climate change, alone, cannot take credit for this mass extinction.
While it’s true that gradual climate change had also started to affect weak systems and those too slow to change, it was the meteorite that landed the death blow.
Could it have been avoided if the meteorite had hit the Earth a few minutes early or late, or not at all? It’s an interesting thought experiment, and people have tried to present their theories about it but here’s the stark truth:
Even if the meteorite hadn’t hit, most dinosaur species would not have survived climate change.
They were slow to change and could not adapt in time.
The handful that could have survived would have been too heterogeneous — low diversity — and dependent on protected wildernesses and national parks to continue their species.
They would have always remained on the verge of going extinct, and that’s not what you call a strong species.
The extinction of dinosaurs is used as a cautionary tale to ward people off against the evils of not changing with time.
If you won’t keep pace, you won’t have a place in the new world that’ll emerge.
With our planet going through massive climate changes once again — made faster by a complex broth of multiple connected issues — governments and nations must take drastic actions to slow down this change.
Ban single-use plastics, curb the reliance on fossil fuels, adopt conscience consumerism, and think of creative ways to solve the electronic waste crisis.
And not on the individual level. The work must be done at scale, spearheaded by governments, nations, and large corporations that have created this menace.
That’s not to say that public action should slow down. The opposite, in fact. Keep the pressure on, on these decision-makers, join climate protest rallies, ask questions, and disrupt the status quo.
Let’s vow not to go extinct.