For years, kids have been taught that the dinosaurs were likely wiped out by an asteroid strike that hit present-day Mexico around 66 million years ago. The image presented is one of a thriving dinosaur society entirely wiped out almost overnight, as the asteroid barreled through the atmosphere at the deadliest possible angle. New research reveals, however, that dinosaurs were struggling to survive long before the extinction event.
The History of the Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs went extinct around 65 to 66 million years ago during the Cretaceous-Tertiary, or K-T, extinction event, but they had roamed the Earth for a whopping 160 million years prior to that. Though that cool 65 million years may seem like a long time period, there is proof that dinosaurs ruled the earth for at least 230 million years before their extinction! All at once, three-quarters of the plant and animal species found on earth were completely exterminated.
The surviving species included some avian (bird-like) and small reptilian creatures, as well as mammals and hardier microorganisms. The number of mammals present in the time of the dinosaurs was minimal, but the extinction opened the doorway necessary for mammals to thrive and eventually dominate the once-reptilian-governed earth.
What We Know Now
So, dinosaurs were not thriving so well as previously thought prior to the asteroid strike that ultimately wiped them out. A 2016 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America suggested that dinosaurs had been on a slow but steady decline for many years before the K-T extinction event.
The research suggests that this decline was so far along that, had the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs hit just a few million years earlier, many of the species affected would have actually survived the massive shockwaves caused by the blast. This has led to an increased interest of the scientific community in the environmental factors dinosaurs faced leading up to the K-T event.
The decline in dinosaurs’, and other species’, populations really began around 10 million years before the K-T extinction event. The decline occurred worldwide across a variety of groups, both carnivorous and herbivorous. There are disparities, however, in the rate of decline across species; while some species – like ceratopsians – experienced a sharp decline, others – like troodontids – experienced just a slight population decline.
This was likely caused by a period of drastic global cooling. As plant species began to wither and die, the number of herbivores began to drop. This, in turn, caused the number of carnivores to drop. This new research will affect the way scientists view dinosaurs and their environments, moving forward.
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