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Might Dinosaurs Have Achieved Space Travel?

by Bruce Cornet, Ph.D.
email bcornet @

There has been much speculation within the SETI community as to whether dinosaurs might have evolved into a spacefaring civilization, had they not been (in the words of SETI League member Al Aburto) "flattened by a stray mountain that Jupiter failed to grab in time."

As an evolutionary biologist who has studied both plant evolution (paleobotany) and animal evolution (vertebrate paleontology) for most of his professional career (25 years), I have followed closely those paleontologists who are interested in dinosaurian evolution. I have watched various scientists debate whether the dinosaurs walked upright or walked like crocodiles; whether they were cold blooded or warm blooded, or something in between; and whether or not birds evolved from dinosaurs. Until recent discoveries in Spain and China, there was insufficient evidence to support the nay sayers or the yea sayers regarding the avian/dinosaurian connection. The new discoveries are discussed in a well-illustrated article in National Geographic (July, 1998), called "Dinosaurs take wing, the origin of birds." The new discoveries do a lot for the skeptics, who must now eat humble pie. They also teach us the perils of speculation and skepticism based on too little data.

On the subject of whether or not the dinosaurs would have been 20 million years ahead of us in space exploration, had they evolved into sentient intelligent technological beings such as ourselves, it is noteworthy that the dinosaurs are not extinct, they are not as advanced as us, and they are feathered! That does not mean that our favorite giants such as Tyrannosaurus survived in feathered disguise (although some paleontologists think that close relatives may have), but rather that some members of the Dinosauria did things differently.

The fossil record is very fickle in yielding up its secrets. After their big brothers became extinct, the winged survivors successfully competed with mammals over the past 65 million years. What may have led us to learn how to fly using technology was them, because they were ahead of us in that skill. What prevented them from evolving into highly intelligent animals may have been limitations imposed on evolution due to specializations for flight. Flight gave them a convenient escape from predators, but flight also limited brain development through weight constraints, as well as tool use by the specialization of their front two appendages (however, there are some birds quite adept at using their feet to hold objects, and some of them have learned how to use sticks as tools). Land-dwelling mammals, on the other hand, had to outsmart their adversaries to survive, which placed evolutionary pressure on brain development.

Evolution is a funny thing. You can never predict its outcome, only its possible options given a set of environmental conditions and challenges. Had there survived bipedal dinosaurs which had not evolved feathers and flight capability, perhaps things would have been different. But in order for similar creatures to evolve on other planets, conditions probably would have to be very Earth-like.

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