What we’re learning we didn’t know

It fell from the sky, but some say there were many. The tolls of destruction rained down upon the earth nearly put an end to all life and stopped 300 million years of evolution dead in its tracks.

The meteor struck with such violence that even today the earth has yet to heal the obvious scars. For a long time, scientists doubted the crater’s mountain range sized rim(s), believing it too extraordinary to be true. It was a colossal end to a colossal time.

We estimate that during this period, about 65.5 million years ago, 66 percent of all life on earth perished, particularly all large animal life. No one knows if the cataclysm sheered life from the globe in a single fiery shock wave or if debris from the explosion clouded the atmosphere for decades, slowly collapsing all of earth’s prehistoric ecosystems.

We know the direct result of that event was the evolutionary slate being wiped clean of the most advanced forms of competing life, among them the Dinosaurs. Their death paved the way for large mammals to slowly rise from the ashes.

Before our phoenix of mammalian life began, it was the time of the reptilian and bird-like leviathans. When I was in grade school (early 90’s), the paleontology world had about 300 or so species of dinosaur discovered,; today there are around 800. About every two weeks, lucky scientists in some geological remote of the world uncover another.

Of those rare finds we’ve seen things so incredible it’s hard to imagine them to be real at all. In the early world of dinosaurs, the tectonic plates had not yet drifted apart into the modern geography of earth and were united in a single land mass. This largest continent in history was called Pangea and surrounding it was the largest ocean.

On this super continent strapped across the equator grew a mysterious prehistoric tropical jungle. We assume that today’s ecosystems share at least some similarities in respect to the level and diversity of possible life found in a modern rainforest. By those assumptions, it’s safe to say that in the vast prehistoric tropic there was an uncountable number of life forms. More species of life are concentrated in our rainforest than any other place on land and even the largest of today’s wildernesses wouldn’t even be one tenth of what existed 200 million years ago.

So out of this enormous pool of life, mankind has unearthed only 800 creatures spanning about 200 million years of time from 250 million years ago to 65 million years ago. Scientist spilt this 200 million year gap of time into the periods – the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous.

In today’s world, 800 species would only be a fraction of a percent of all life on earth and judging from the environment of ancient times, it is an even slimmer margin. In a nut shell, we know nothing about what really walked the earth during this time; we have a only a dim glimpse. Can you imagine taking 800 random species from our time and trying to define our entire ecosystem?

Yet despite our limited sight, we’ve seen such wondrous and frightening things. Predators measuring fifty feet long stalked the earth and far larger ones swam beneath the seas. Plant eaters larger than a Greyhound bus existed far and wide. Herds of roving herbivores moved over the continent in droves of thousands, like buffalo surging across the Serengeti plain, but easily 20 times larger than the biggest bull.

Currently the largest dinosaur believed to have existed is Argentinosaurus, which is estimated to have weighed more than 70 tons and measured over 150 feet long. These estimates are based on only a few bones; one of them includes the largest vertebrae ever discovered. This super-sized dinosaur was a member of a whole group of giant plant eaters that routinely measured over 80 feet long. At these adult lengths it’s believed that very few or no carnivores (meat eaters) could hunt these creatures. Their size and mass made them invulnerable to even the largest known predators (that we know of.) Like a fully grown African Elephant who ignores even a pride of lions.

There is no clear winner in the size and strength category when it comes to jaws and claws. Currently there are three serious contenders fighting for the crown of world’s largest land predator, the most famous among them, Tyrannosaurus Rex. At 44 feet and 6 tons, T-Rex was the most massive land predator known, but not the longest. Giganotosaurus, which looks like slightly sleeker and longer T-Rex, measures at about 47 ft. The third contender again falls in the gray area separating the two others. What seems to be a trend is that there were many two-legged carnivores that commonly measured more than 20 feet in length hunting the prehistoric forest.

Another predator worth a mention is Allosaurus, the dominant predator in the Jurassic period before T-Rex and the others evolved onto the dino scene late in the Cretaceous. Allosaurus was about 35 feet long, looked like a T-Rex with longer, usable arms and may have occasionally hunted in packs – something unusually for a large super predator.

So now my childhood-inspired imagination is graphing the impressions I received from watching a 15 ft. Nile crocodile pull down a two-ton wildebeest on the Discovery Channel to the idea of a pack of Allosaurus piling on top of a 80-foot-long plant eater while thousands of stampeding dinosaurs literally shake the earth in their flight from the carnage.

Scenes like that one happened every day on Earth long before man ever set foot on it. I don’t think any of us would last five seconds if we were to travel back in time to our planet’s most hostile jungle.

I don’t have time to go down this road, but did you know they now believe many dinosaurs had feathers, including even the large two legged predators? They’ve found them cast in fossilized stone, they’ve even found weak imprints of internal organs and what appear to be stripes on the scales of other animals. How does the possibility of a feathered-covered T-Rex change your outlook? Probably about as much as it did a 50 years ago when they realized dinosaurs didn’t drag their tails. How about the insects with three-foot wingspans they’ve discovered?

That’s just it, the reason I’m ranting on about this. The incredible truth of life and history, or rather what little we know of it. Sometimes it’s easy to feel the mystery of the world has been completely seeped out in our times of high technology, but there is so little we know.

Did you know that they (NASA) now believe there may be a vast sub-arctic ocean of liquid water on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter? Aside from our home planet, it’s seen as the most likely place for life to exist (alien life) and it all just happened in the last few years. Read more about it.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesuntyler.

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