March 24 – Cold Blooded Heresy

Today’s Factismal: Robert Bakker, champion of the hypothesis that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, is 68 years old today.

Back in 1970, most paleontologists thought that dinosaurs were like overgrown lizards; cold-blooded, slow moving, and basically reptilian. This was the view held by Gideon Mantell when he found the Iguanodon, it was the view of  Cope and Marsh when they had their famous “bone wars”, and it was the view of Case when he posed Dimetrodon.

That view influenced how people thought about dinosaurs. It told us how to pose dinosaurs (splay-footed, like a crocodile). It told us where to look for dinosaurs (in warm regions only). It told us what dinosaurs looked like (green-grey, like most lizards). And it told us how dinosaurs cared for their young (not at all). But was that view right?

There was a small group of self-proclaimed “heretics” that thought that dinosaurs might not be big lizards. Instead, they though that dinosaurs were more like big birds: colorful, warm-blooded, fast-moving, nurturing, and capable of living in a wide variety of environments. And perhaps the most influential of these was (and continues to be) Robert Bakker.

Bakker had studied under John Ostrom, who strongly influenced his views. Unlike Ostrom, Bakker pushed his ideas in both the scientific and popular presses with a series of influential papers and books, most notably The Dinosaur Heresies. Bakker and Ostrom pointed out that dinosaurs grew too quickly and roamed to far to be just cold-blooded lizards; they had to be more similar to birds. Though this idea was met with considerable scorn when it was first proposed, today the evidence is overwhelming that the birds we see today are descendents of the dinosaurs.

Thanks to the work of Bakker and his fellow heretics, we have discovered feathered dinosaurs, dinosaurs that lived in the Arctic, and even dinosaurs that nurtured their young like birds. To say that this has been a revolution in the way that we see dinosaurs would be to understate the case. Bakker continues the revolution at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Today, the paleontological revolution goes on. If you’d like to be part of it, then why not work with the Open Dinosaur Project as they measure limb lengths in dinosaurs? This research will help classify dinosaurs and clarify their evolution. For more information, head on over to their website:

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