Luck Gave Dinosaurs an Edge

Comparison to competitors shows early dinosaurs survived two mass extinctions without special traits

A plot of data on mass extinctions in Earth’s history. The Permian-Triassic extinction, sometimes referred to as the “Great Dying”, occurred around 250 million years ago.
Credit: University of Chicago

T. rex and Triceratops: In the popular imagination, dinosaurs are extraordinary reptiles that ruled the world for over 160 million years. But Steve Brusatte, a doctoral student at Columbia University who is an affiliate of the American Museum of Natural History, and colleagues are challenging this idea with new fossil data and math. By comparing early dinosaurs to their competitors, the crurotarsan ancestors to crocodiles, they have found that dinosaurs were not "superior," as has long been thought. Rather, crurotarsans were the more successful group during the 30 million years they overlapped until the devastating mass extinction 200 million years ago, an event that dinosaurs weathered successfully.

"For a long time it was thought that there was something special about dinosaurs that helped them become more successful during the Triassic, the first 30 million years of their history, but this isn’t true," says Brusatte. "If any of us were standing by during the Triassic and asked which group would rule the world for the next 130 million years, we would have identified the crurotarsans, not dinosaurs."

If not for global warming, the crurotarsans may have been more dominant on Earth than the dinosaurs. Today, alligators and crocodiles are the only living relatives of this once-powerful group of reptiles.
Credit: Stephen Brusatte, Columbia University

Both dinosaurs and crurotarsans evolved and filled some of the same niches after a massive extinction event that occurred at the end of the Permian (250 million years ago). Of the crurotarsan group, crocodilians are the only living members. But in the Triassic, crurotarsans were amazingly diverse—from giant carnivorous rauisuchians to long–snouted, flesh eating phytosaurs to herbivorous armored aetosaurs—and they have often been mistaken for dinosaurs in the fossil record, the animals that they probably competed with for the same resources. Both groups survived an extinction event 228 million years ago, but only a few crurotarsans—the crocodiles—squeaked through a period of rapid global warming at the end of the Triassic 200 million years ago. Dinosaurs faired better during the latter extinction: most types of dinosaurs survived until an asteroid ended their dominance 65 million years ago. It is because of this stroke of luck that dinosaurs were assumed to be the better competitors.

Brusatte and colleagues tested this assumption by measuring the evolution in both competing groups. Based on a database of 437 features of the skeletons of 64 species of dinosaurs and crurotarsans, as well as a new phylogenetic tree of these groups, they performed two calculations to look at the evolutionary pattern. The first measurement is of the disparity, or the known range of different body plans, of the two groups. Disparity is a reliable indicator of the different lifestyles, diets, and habitats of a group of animals. Remarkably, Brusatte and colleagues found that crurotarsans had twice the disparity of dinosaurs: They were exploring twice the range of body plans as early dinosaurs. "With this information, it’s difficult to argue that dinosaurs were ‘superior’ during the Triassic. They just lucked out when the crurotarsans were hit hard at the end Triassic extinction," says Brusatte.

Many scientists believe that the demise of the dinosaurs can be linked to a massive impact that caused sudden changes in the Earth’s climate. This painting, "K/T Hit" by artist Donald E. Davis, depicts such an impact that occurred 65 million years ago, coinciding with the dinosaur extinctions.
Credit: Don Davis

The team also measured the rate of evolution in both dinosaurs and crurotarsans to see if dinosaurs were diversifying into new species at higher rates, as may be expected if they had special abilities or were outcompeting their rivals. But the comparison showed that the two groups were evolving at the same rate over the 30 million years that they overlapped.

"Many people like to think that evolution is progressive: mammals are better than dinosaurs because they came later. This is like progressive improvements in car technology—a Ford Taurus is demonstrably better than a Model T," says coauthor Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. "So it may be hard for us to accept that dinosaurs achieved their dominant position on earth largely by chance, just as mammals did when the dinosaurs were later wiped out by a meteorite strike."

The study highlights the important links between the Earth’s environment and the evolution of life on our planet. If not for the environmental pressures of climate change 200 million years ago, the dinosaurs may have never become dominant on Earth. It’s also a warning that demonstrates how future changes in the Earth’s climate could have profound affects on today’s most dominant groups of animals – such as humans.

This study, the first of its kind, appears in the journal Science. Additional co-authors include Marcello Ruta and Graeme Lloyd, also of the University of Bristol. Funding was provided by the Marshall Scholarship, which supported Brusatte’s study in the U.K., and the Paleontological Society.

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