email a friend iconprinter friendly iconBig Bad Bizarre Dinosaurs
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The dinosaurs in their long reign filled every niche several times over, and the smallest of them—the little light-boned theropods scuttling for their lives underfoot—grew feathers and became birds, still singing and dipping all around us. It is an amazing end to an amazing evolutionary story—Deinonychus into dove. Other surprises certainly lurk within the still unfolding saga of the dinosaurs. In Inner Mongolia, so recently that the bones were revealed to the world just this past spring, a giant birdlike dinosaur, Gigantoraptor, has been discovered. It clearly belongs among the oviraptorosaurs of the late Cretaceous—90-pound (41 kilograms) weaklings with toothless beaks—but weighed in at one-and-a-half tons (1.4 metric tons) and could have peered into a second-story window. While many of its fellow theropods—for example, six-foot (two meters), large-eyed, big-brained Troodon—were evolving toward nimbleness and intelligence, Gigantoraptor opted for brute size. But what did it eat, with its enormous toothless beak? Did its claw-tipped arms bear feathers, as did those of smaller oviraptorosaurs?

The new specimens that emerge as tangles of bones embedded in sedimentary rock are island peaks of a submerged continent where evolutionary currents surged back and forth. Our telescoped perspective gives an impression of a violent struggle as anatomical ploys, some of them seemingly grotesque, were desperately tried and eventually discarded. The dinosaurs as a group saw myriad extinctions, and the final extinction, at the end of the Mesozoic, looks to have been the work of an asteroid. They continue to live in the awareness of their human successors on the throne of earthly dominance. They fascinate children as well as paleontologists. My second son, I well remember, collected the plastic dinosaur miniatures that came in cereal boxes, and communed with them in his room. He loved them—their amiable grotesquerie, their guileless enormity, their unassuming small brains. They were eventual losers, in a game of survival our own species is still playing, but new varieties keep emerging from the rocks underfoot to amuse and amaze us.

John Updike is the author of 22 novels and numerous collections of stories, poems, and essays. His latest novel is Terrorist. Ira Block has photographed 32 features for National Geographic. Pixeldust Studios and Renegade 9 provide animation and visual effects for film and TV. This collaboration is their first contribution to the magazine.
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