Painful Truth: Chairs shuffled at the dinosaur family reunion

Everything you know about dinosaurs is wrong.

Okay, not everything. If you knew that dinosaurs first evolved in the Triassic period, diversifying into numerous species both large and small, you’re still good. You knew that many had feathers? That birds are their living descendants? That they were cool and it’s a darn shame that a big old comet put an end to them?

Then we’re on the same page.

But on March 22, a paper in the journal Nature basically suggested that the entire family tree of dinosaurs is wrong – and has been wrong for almost 130 years.

Back in 1888, H.G. Seeley was looking at some dinosaur bones and decided that, based on the shapes of the pelvises, there were two major groups: the saurischians (lizard hipped dinos) and the ornithiscians (bird hipped). The saurischians included pretty much every major carnivorous dinosaur you can name, from Tyrannosaurus rex to Velociraptor mongoliensis, plus their relatives, the birds. It also included the big long-necked, long-tailed sauropods like apatosaurus and brachiosaurus.The ornithiscians were mostly plant eaters, with triceratops and anykylosaurs and stegosaurus in that branch.

But the Nature paper, by Cambridge’s Matthew Baron and his team, suggests that’s all wrong. They did a massive computer-assisted analysis of 74 early dinosaur species, mapping and comparing 457 distinct characteristics of their skeletons.

The computer spat out a novel result. The sauropods, those long-necked browsers? They were off in their own family, along with a small group of early meat-eating dinos related to Herrerasaurus.

The other carnivores, and the stegosaurs and duckbilled dinosaurs and all those medium-sized plant eaters? Now closer cousins than before.

So, why is this important?

Aside from the fact that, if the paper holds up under scrutiny, it will re-write all the textbooks, it’s a great example of how science works.

Most of the time, the big stuff is settled – the speed of light, germ theory, the earth is round, etc. But sometimes you do get a big, sudden titanic shift as someone discovers something new.

A few weeks ago, we learned about a nearby solar system with a string of planets that might be habitable. When I was a kid, no one could even say with certainty that other planets existed! No one had ever directly observed them. Now we have, hundreds of them.

It’s the same with dinosaurs. We’re always finding new species. South America and China have become gold mines for new species, which are expanding our knowledge of the history of life on our planet.

This is the great thing about science. On Wednesday, a lot of researchers threw up their hands, and joked, and shared photos of their old textbooks sitting in trash bins.

And some of them will be poking holes in the Nature paper. Some will look at it and agree. But if it holds up, after all that poking and prodding, it will become the best accepted theory. Just like the old family tree was the best accepted theory until someone came along with better information.

That’s what science is all about. It’s about proving things to the best of your ability in a messy, imperfect world. And it’s about being willing to accept that you might be proved wrong yourself, later.

So the next time you find yourself at a dinosaur family reunion, remember that the predators and the herbivores may be closer than you thought. Until the next paper comes out.

Just Posted

VIDEO: Rubbing shoulders with country stars a dream for aspiring young Langley singer

One day soon, maybe, 10-year-old Mackenzie Hurtubise will sing at the Basics for Babies fundraiser.

Giants back in Langley hoping to continue winning streak

The G-Men defeated Royals in Victoria Saturday, the second triumph of the week over the same team.

PHOTOS: Langley City parents given relief from holiday chaos

A Timms Community Centre event Saturday offered a variety of activities for young children.

Langley’s assistant lacrosse captain tallies up five goals in Calgary loss

Stealth fell to Roughnecks, but hoping for comeback on Dec. 29 in New England.

LETTER: Not too late to protect the character of Brookswood

With election year coming, a letter writer suggests council be held accountable for re-development.

VIDEO: Recovering addict shares art and story to motivate others

A Langley City man spends time each day painting in McBurney Plaza.

Update: RCMP arrest domestic assault suspect west of Kamloops.

The RCMP Emergency Response Team made the arrest at around 4:30 p.m.

Owl found dead after eating rat poison leaves B.C. woman concerned

After finding the owl on her Surrey property, Christine Trozzo says the poison is a concern for kids

Change to CPP death benefit panned as insufficient to cover funeral costs

Funeral Services Association of Canada lobbied governments to raise the value to $3,580

B.C. woman brain injured in crash as a baby gets $1.1 million in damages

Trial heard the woman was 16 months old, being carried by her mother when they were both hit

Family Christmas fun at Aldergrove’s Loft Country farm

The Loft Country children’s horse camp in Aldergrove is celebrating Christmas in a new way this year

Court denies WestJet’s bid to toss out discrimination lawsuit of former worker

Mandalena Lewis is suing WestJet over allegations of gender-based discrimination

VIDEO: 3 months later, rescued sea lion released back into ocean

The young animal was found in Campbell River three months ago

Sagmoen neighbours recall alleged hammer attack

Woman was screaming outside Maple Ridge townhouse in 2013

Most Read