sexta-feira, 7 de setembro de 2012

Why dinosaurs are important

by Dr. Dave Hone for The Guardian Science (and to be continued):

It is far from my intention to talk endlessly about dinosaurs on the Lost Worlds, but as a key part of my research and given the near endless public interest in them, they are going to keep coming up. I can assure readers that a more diverse set of posts will eventually turn up, but there are some good reasons to focus on the dinosaurs both in terms of thisscience in general and science communication in general, and that is worth dwelling on a little before I bore my readers with still more references to them.
I'll start with the issues of communication, outreach and education. With the odd exception of the children of palaeontologists, I've yet to meet a child who is not interested in dinosaurs, or at least used to be interested in dinosaurs. When I have the time and an invitation, I do give talks in schools and similar venues on dinosaurs and palaeontology, and am generally treated to a wonderful display of interest and an unending stream of questions afterwards.
There's a good deal of anecdotal evidence for this popularity, from the cheap plastic dinosaur toys that never seem to go out of fashion, the endless range of dinosaur books aimed at youngsters that appear year on year, and any new dinosaur exhibition can guarantee a queue around the block of children eager to see the new discoveries. I won't pretend to know why, but kids really do love dinosaurs and the important thing is that they do. (And let's not forget that there's no little interest from a great many adults too).
That provides a fantastic hook and instant introduction for palaeontologists and educators to get kids involved and interested in science. They might come for the giant bones, but there are a lot of good reasons for them to stay. Short of university, few people are likely to get even a cursory formal introduction to palaeontology, geology and the like during their education and moreover some things are not likely to generate much interest.
Few kids will (I suspect) willingly pick up a book on geology, perhaps not even one on general palaeontology, but most will probably own a dinosaur book or two at some point that will have been avidly devoured. Most of the better ones (even those aimed at younger readers) cover at least a little of how fossils are formed, different rock formations, the age of the Earth and the like, and thus they will be presented with at least a little geological information and there will likely also be parts on relationships between groups and changes over time thus introducing ideas about evolution, taxonomy and extinction.
In short, dinosaurs provide a wonderful way of talking to a young audience about all manner of scientific ideas and showing how things like geochemistry and biology can come together. They can also provide a great frame of reference for discussing issues in palaeontology. There might be better examples in the fossil record when discussing one issue in palaeontology or another, but one can all but guarantee that a good example on dinosaurs will be recognised and understood by the audience.
This then makes dinosaurs a superb educational tool and thus one that I'd be using here even if I didn't work on them myself, but dinosaurs are also inherently worthy of research. Well OK, any branch of science is inherently worthy of investigation as indeed is any group of organisms. It's perhaps better to say that dinosaurs do offer us some opportunities in palaeontological research that other groups don't necessarily offer. Thus while I wouldn't call them more worthy than other fossil groups, they're also going to be of interest to researchers who don't specialise in dinosaurs.
The modern terrestrial world is considered to be dominated by the mammals and this has more or less been the case since the demise of the dinosaurs (birds aside) some 65 million years ago. On an apparently unrelated note, the further back in time you go, the worse the fossil record (generally) gets. But together this means that if you want to look at a terrestrial fossil fauna that is not dominated by mammals, or the evolution of a non-mammalian group over time, or to examine a major extinction event and restructuring of a terrestrial ecosystem, or how terrestrial animals responded to the break up of the continents etc, the obvious place to turn to is the era of the dinosaurs. More recently it's pretty much all mammals. Further back the data is more patchy.
Similarly, dinosaurs were around for a very long time, and so for any kind of study of evolutionary change or diversity over a long period of time, dinosaurs are going to be a good candidate. Coupled to the fact that birds are dinosaurs and we have the opportunity to study a truly incredible and important piece of evolutionary history – the origin of powered flight – and of course gain insights into the origins and changes of the birds (themselves an important and diverse group).
Dinosaurs also include the largest terrestrial animals of all time in their ranks and so provide interest for biomechanics, the evolution of large size, the structures of ecosystems and more.
Finally, dinosaurs have already attracted a lot of research interest over the years, which means we know more about them than many other groups. While this does then become a bit of a self fulfilling prophesy, it does make them a better group for still further research or more integrated projects than some other groups as we're starting from a more solid base of knowledge.
Thus dinosaurs provide some unique research opportunities as well as more "normal" palaeontological research. Either way, though, their enduring popularity makes them a key part of the arsenal of the science educator. Kids love them and as such they are an ideal way of introducing children to other areas of science, especially those perceived to be "unsexy" or that might otherwise be overlooked.
I make no apology for my own love of dinosaurs, but I'd also be silly not to exploit their charisma and the instant recognition they bring. Non-dinosaur articles are coming, but expect more than a few that do involve them as the necessary educational relish to the beef of the Lost Worlds blog posts.

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