Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Dinosaurs Should Rock Older Students Too

By John Long

Primary schools use dinosaurs to teach how scientific disciplines overlap. Universities should too.

Young children are often read fairy tales that expose them to a fantasy world inhabited by dragons, witches, elves, trolls, ogres and other supernatural monsters, as well as acts of magic. Exciting as this world can be, the first time a child is shown a dinosaur skeleton, and explained that it’s the remains of a real creature, the world of science is introduced. In August 2012 British palaeontologist Dr David Hone, writing in The Guardian about why dinosaurs are important (https://goo.gl/txFpeY), said:

… dinosaurs provide a wonderful way of talking to a young audience about all manner of scientific ideas and showing how things like geochemistry and biology can come together. They can also provide a great frame of reference for discussing issues in palaeontology.

The wonder of dinosaurs can be seen in people of all ages, including new university students. Several US and Canadian universities (e.g. Cornell, Maryland, Alberta) use dinosaurs as a hook to get students interested in science through courses that introduce a wide range of disciplines including biology, geology, chemistry, physics and astronomy. Strangely, not one university in Australia I’m aware of has yet used this concept to develop an exciting interdisciplinary science course for first-year students.

Just think of the possibilities. Dinosaurs inhabited the Earth for some 160 million years over which much geological and climatic change occurred. Sea levels and ocean temperatures rose and fell, atmospheric greenhouse gases peaked, and these animals developed the largest known body sizes for any terrestrial creature. The distribution of dinosaurs on every continent today would create a huge problem to explain if not for plate tectonic configurations during the Triassic, when all the continents were merged into the supercontinent of Pangaea. This explains elegantly how at the stage when dinosaurs were beginning to diversify, the main groups simply walked to the furthest reaches of this land mass, which later broke up into the continents we recognise today.

The age of dinosaur fossils can be discussed by explaining the complex processes of radiometric dating, which involves understanding the chemistry of radioactive elements and how we can calculate their decay rates. How these certain radio­active elements occur in rocks is a geological study. Finding dinosaur fossils in the field requires more geology, especially sedimentology and stratigraphy to determine which layers of rock host the fossils. Diagenetic alterations due to tectonic processes explain why dinosaur bones are often dark in colour and heavily mineralised.

One group of dinosaurs, the theropods, include a lineage that evolved into birds, showing how evolutionary transitions are studied and the fossil evidence for them. How one defines a bird from a winged, feathered dinosaur involves understanding of species concepts and biological classification. How giant animals like 30 tonne sauropods might have moved and fed themselves brings in the study of comparative animal anatomy, and biomechanics that involves principles of physics and engineering.

Finally the great mystery of how dinosaurs died out (except for birds) brings in the asteroid theory and principals of astronomy. Could another such killer asteroid strike again? If so, what is the frequency of such a massive impact? An historical overview of scientific thinking in palaeontology is also a worthwhile study, for example why the concept of birds as living dinosaurs took decades to be accepted.

Dinosaurs are taught inmost Australian primary schools in exactly this way to introduce a wide range of curriculum concepts. I think it’s time our universities followed and considered the value of such courses to get more students interested in science in general.


John Long is Strategic Professor in Palaeontology at Flinders University, and is current President of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.