Living dinosaurs among us: How birds can teach us about their ancient ancestors – WUWM

Dinosaurs are thought to have dominated the earth for more than 150 million years. We’re still learning so much about how they lived and what caused them to start dying off, but what has become clear is they never truly left.
“We’ve been taught over and over and over again, dinosaurs are extinct dinosaurs are extinct, but they’re not,” says Dr. Jingmai O’Connor.
O’Connor, who received her PhD from University of Southern California where she studied Mesozoic birds, is the associate curator for fossil reptiles at the Field Museum in Chicago. She’ll be in Milwaukee this Thursday at the Milwaukee Public Museum for a presentation on “The Evolution of Dinosaurian Flight.
“In fact, there’s more species of birds now than there are species of mammals. So dinosaurs are alive and well, and I think that’s just a really difficult concept for people to grasp sometimes,” she says.
O’Connor explains, one of the most exciting things that she discovered in paleontology is that birds were not the only flying dinosaurs. Flight evolved at least four times in all dinosaurs roughly at the same time between 165 million and 120 million years ago, she says.
“It’s just really crazy to think about all these different dinosaurs with different types of wings, flying in different ways, kind of like the diversity of flying mammals that we see today,” says O’Connor.
Understanding that birds are a kind of dinosaur means that scientists can use them as living analogs to understanding the biology of extinct dinosaurs better.
O’Connor notes that this science is not only important but revolutionary. “All these, you know, biological aspects of these extinct animals that we can extract from looking at living dinosaurs. That helps us bring these extinct dinosaurs to life. Actually, make some even more terrifying if you ask me. And yeah, so I definitely have a more than a decent dose of fear when it comes to birds,” says O’Connor.