UPDATE 8/12/19 We removed some lines suggesting that the reason that Joel and other people growing up in the 80s don't know about some dinosaurs, such as Spinosaurus and Edmontosaurus is because of the "Dino Explosion" in the 1990s. In fact, Spinosaurus was introduced in the scientific literature in 1915 and Edmontosaurus in 1917. Guess Joel just wasn't that much of  a dino-nerd. Sorry.

ORIGINAL EPISODE HERE: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sum-of-all-parts/11.0-dino-explosion!/11222312

WZ Hi, I’m Wendy Zukerman you’re listening to Science Vs from Gimlet. We are hard at work cooking up a brand new season of Science Vs - very excited about it… we’ll be in we'll back in September to answer all your burning questions about 5G, sleep and magic mushrooms! It’s going to be a wild ride. But in the meantime, we heard this wonderful episode from another podcast that we really wanted to share with you. The podcast is called Sum Of All Parts and this episode was inspired by the host, Joel Werner's son who is obsessed with dinosaurs. Joel takes it from here...

JW: Like a lot of 3 year olds, my boy Finn is kinda into dinosaurs.

FWV: I love dinosaurs. 

JW: Ok. He’s like -- REALLY into dinosaurs.

FWV: I love dinosaurs!  

JW: If you look around our place -- excuse the mess, it’s been a busy week -- there’s dinosaurs everywhere. From pyjamas, to t-shirts, to hoodies -- I’m super jealous of the T-Rex hoodie just quietly -- There’s A LOT of dinosaurs. 

Who is this? T Rex… ROAAAAR…

JW: Aaaaaaaand books. So. Many. Dinosaur. Books. Like this one, that we’re reading now -- Dino Block.

FWV: I wanna see that page where those are..

JW: Dino Block is a cartoon dinosaur catalogue. But don’t let that fool you -- it’s super comprehensive.

[READING DINO BLOCK]

JW: There’s all these different species of dinosaur, each with its own anatomically accurate diagram, set in an appropriate habitat. There’s even a pronunciation guide.

Myosaurus, Cryolophosaurus, Eoraptor [READING DINO BLOCK]

JW: And at 3, Finn and his friends can name pretty much all of these dinosaurs. But the thing is - I can’t.

What’s this one? Cryolophosaurus?[1] I don’t think I’ve seen that one before

[MISPRONUNCIATION]

JW: There’s heaps of these dinosaurs I just don’t recognise -- that I’ve never seen before -- Eoraptor? Really?

FWV: Wow, there’s lots of different dinosaurs!

JW: “Back in myyyyyyy day” we had old favourites like T. Rex, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and Brontosaurus. And, like Finn, I was dino obsessed as a kid. So what’s going on? Why does my 3 year old know so much more about dinosaurs than I ever did? Well, look -- for all us parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, friends of people with kids -- for anyone feeling maybe just a little intimidated by a small human’s encyclopedic dinosaur knowledge -- I’m here to get to the bottom of this.

--

JW: What’s the one question you’re guaranteed to hear when you put a Paleontologist in a room full of school kids?

SB03a: You know there's always at least one kid who asks me what my favorite dinosaur is..

JW: Steve Brusatte and I grew up around the same time, and like him, I agree--

SB03b: It's gotta be T. Rex!  You know I'm a product of that generation that's just fascinated with T. Rex. And a lot of times these kids look at me and sometimes they even say it and they say really? T. Rex? I mean come on you know isn't that a little bit cliched. So kids now yeah, they have all these amazing feathered Raptors from China, they have these earth shaking dinosaurs bigger than we ever thought -- things like Dreadnoughtus[2] and Patagotitan[3] -- these were just dinosaurs I didn't have as a kid, you didn't have as a kid..

JW: You see, Steve and I -- we’re of a particular era. And when it comes to dinosaurs.. It kinda shows. It’s not so much that kids these days know more than we did …. It’s just that there’s so much more to know. Over the past couple of decades, there’s been an explosion in the discovery of new dinosaur species..

JT01: Yeah hi my name's Dr. Jonathan Tennant. But you can just call me Jon. and I'm a independent paleontologist or rogue scientist.

JW: Jon’s PhD put numbers to this explosion in dinosaur knowledge.. And it wasn’t even the main focus of his work.

JT05a: We assembled this huge data set in a place called the Paleobiology database which is a documentation of every single published fossil record that we've ever discovered. Every sort of dinosaur species that we know is recorded in this database.

JW:So he wanted to know - how many dinosaurs had been discovered recently - and when did this dino explosion really begin?

JT07a: Every dinosaur species and every occurrence so every individual fossil that we've ever sort of discovered that has been published has a certain date associated with it. And what you can do is just simply chart that through time.

JW: Ok, so I wouldn’t usually describe a graph on this show, but the graphs that Jon produced -- based on this analysis -- are super elegant. So here we go. Imagine two axes; a side-to-side or horizontal line that crosses an up/down, or vertical line. Now along the horizontal line are years, starting way back before 1850 over on the left, running right up to the present, to the two thousands on the right. On the vertical axis is the cumulative number of new fossil discoveries. So, what that means is that as new discoveries are made, they’re allocated a date, they’re assigned a year on the horizontal axis, and over time -- as you move from one year to the next -- new discoveries are added to old discoveries, so that the line that’s produced represents the increase in fossil discoveries over time.

JW: Starting way over on the left, back before 1850 -- the line just kinda bubbles along -- increasing from the 1850s through to the 1900s -- new discoveries here and there -- to the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s -- a slight, shallow, gradual increase. A line that’s slowly, almost imperceptibly building..

JT07c: But then around the 1990s something strange happened and we see this this huge explosive growth in the number of discoveries being made and being published.

JW: Just before the marker for the year 2000, the trend shifts. The graph line suddenly gets steeper -- like, way steeper. It stops bubbling and just shoots skywards…. Like the neck of a brachiosaurus.  If you’re familiar with the idea of an exponential curve, where things grow more and more quickly over time -- that’s what this looks like[4]. From the late 1990s there’s been a massive, unprecedented increase in the number of new dinosaur discoveries.[5] 

--

JW: So. What happened in the late 90s to cause such a rapid and massive jump in the number of new dinosaur species being discovered?

[“WELCOME TO JURASSIC PARK” SFX]

JW: No, seriously. The paleontologists that I spoke to… told me…  

[“What have they got in there? King Kong?”]

JW: Jurassic Park was a big deal.

JT07e: In the mid 1990s there was a certain film published called Jurassic Park.

SB04b-1: That was a big thing for the field.

JW: That’s paleontologist Steve Brussatte again

SB04b-1: It was a little over 25 years ago that that film came out and that changed everything. It really did. It really did it brought dinosaurs into pop culture in a way they had never been before.

JT07f-1: And because of this huge sort of public interest there was a resurgence in paleontology again. So you know people actually used Jurassic Park as leverage to get funding to conduct more dinosaur research in North America because it had such a huge public sway.

SB04b-2: You can meet people all over the world I have colleagues all over the world people that are you know roughly my age the generation of paleontologists in their their 30s that say Jurassic Park is what got them into dinosaurs. And it's not just kids like me growing up in the U.S. It's people all over the world. You know I have colleagues from China, from South America that say Jurassic Park got me into dinosaurs. That is wonderful. I just think that's a magical thing that a film - a piece of entertainment - had that much impact on science.

JW: But according to Steve it’s not just Jeff Goldblum we have to thank for all the cool new dinosaurs that we’re finding… another big reason for the dino explosion… is because new countries… bursting with fossils…  have started investing in dino hunting[6]...  [7] 

SB: It used to be really a game that was just played by a few posh old professors in a few universities in a few places in Europe and North America mostly.

JT06-1: So you know if you think about the most well-known or most loved dinosaurs it's things like Tyrannosaurus Rex or Triceratops and these are animals that come from North America.  

SB04a-2: But that's not the case anymore. The field is growing, it's diversifying. There are paleontologists -- particularly young paleontologists all over the world. People in China, in Brazil, in Argentina, in these enormous developing countries that are full of wide open spaces, full of rocks bursting with dinosaur bones. 

JW: China, in particular, has become a treasure trove for new and cool dinosaurs[8][9][10][11][12]. They pop up like prehistoric poptarts over there!  And what’s been so amazing about all these discoveries is that it’s changing a lot of our ideas about dinosaurs.[13] 

JT07d: And this opened up the sort of bonanza effect in China and around Asia in particular, where once something's been discovered, people go there and they want to discover more and more and more. And all of a sudden now they had these huge dig sites being revealed and particularly farmers were discovering you know hundreds of fossils all the time on their land and there were these crazy new discoveries that completely shook up you know our understanding of dinosaurs. And it's exceptionally exciting to watch.

WZ: After the break we’re getting up close and personal with a new dinosaur discovery… and let me tell you, it’s going to give T-rex a run for its money…

BREAK

WZ: Welcome back. We’ve just heard that we’re in a massive dinosaur goldrush! With new dino discoveries happening way more often than they used to. That’s a little thanks to the movie Jurassic Park, but also because countries like China have started investing more and more into paleontology. We’re now going to dive right into this goldrush… to see what it’s like to discover a new dinosaur. This story comes to us from the podcast Sum of All Parts, by Joel Werner. Here’s Joel.

JW Steve Brusatte has spent his career on the frontlines of the global paleo-resurgence. He’s been involved in the discovery of a bunch of new dinosaur species -- but just how many he’s kinda too humble to say..

SB06a: You know I don't I don't actually keep a list. I keep a list of publications, of the journal articles and books and things but it's somewhere around 15 I think. And it's not that I'm going out and finding 15 dinosaurs myself. That's not how it works.

JW: How it works is that Steve’s a part of a team that discovers a new fossil, or he’s called into a museum to help identify a fossil that someone else has discovered; often a construction worker -- or a farmer. Which was the case with one such new discovery he helped make during his time working in China.

SB07b-3a: I'm there to work with some colleagues I'm working with my good friend Junchang Lü, one of China's leading dinosaur hunters. Sadly Junchang passed away a few months ago -- real giant in the field, somebody we’re already missing tremendously. But Junchang and I we've had a collaboration for a while. And you know I had come to China to work with him and he said, “We got something up in Liaoning. We got to go see it.”

JW: Liaoning Province[14] shares a border with North Korea, in China’s north-east. And it’s a perfect example of how a place not traditionally associated with paleontology can quickly become a hotbed of discoveries -- discoveries that start to challenge everything we think we know about dinosaurs.. Now Liaoning’s probably not a part of China you’ve heard about -- unless you’re a paleontologist..

SB07b-1: It's not the sort of place that a lot of tourists get to but this is nirvana for dinosaur hunters because in the mid 90s you had some locals there -- mostly farmers -- starting to discover these amazingly preserved fossils of dinosaurs, covered in feathers. And it turned out there wasn't just one or two feathered dinosaurs but there were tons of these things and there were lots of other fossils too -- there were fishes, there were mammals -- mammals covered in hair. There were reptiles and amphibians and there were pterodactyls. All found together because you had these ancient ecosystems that were buried by volcanoes. So these things were locked in place almost Pompei style. And so that means that people are still finding a lot of these fossils and these fossils are really important because with each new feathered dinosaur that's another clue to help us understand how evolution took one of these meat-eating, land-living T. Rex type dinosaurs and turned it into a bird.

JW: So when the call came through that a farmer in Liaoning had found a fossil in his field, Steve moved quickly. He arranged to meet Junchang [JOON-CHONG] at Beijing’s central train station the very next morning.

SB07b-3b: That train crawled through the rural landscapes of China. It was early in the morning I was trying to sleep but I couldn't I was far too excited about what might be there.

JW: When they arrived in Liaoning, Steve and Junchang [JOON-CHONG] were greeted by some local dignitaries who escorted them to a black SUV.

SB07b-3c: They sped us through town they took us to this building in the outskirts of town -- a really nondescript building it looked just like most of the other buildings in the area.

JW: But this humble looking building was the museum housing the fossil they were there to examine..

SB07b-3d: You know it didn't look like the American Museum in New York or the Australian Museum or any of these grand museums -- it almost seemed like a hospital or an office building or something in there, very sterile. But they led us through a hallway there were these flickering lights and they let us into this room, into this small room and inside this room there was this big slab of rock that was perched on a quite small table. And it really looked to me like the legs of that table were buckling. I was a little bit worried that this thing was going to fall onto the floor. And so Junchang and I were called up and we walked up and we looked at this thing and that is you know one of the most awesome moments of my life where I was face to face with this incredible fossil -- clearly a dinosaur. All the bones were there. Beautiful chocolate brown bones sticking out from this tan colored limestone -- clearly a raptor. Sharp teeth, sharp claws, looks so much like velociraptor. About the size of a large dog, something like a Saint Bernard. But covered in feathers. Feathers everywhere. Feathers on the tail, feathers on the body, feathers on the head, feathers on the arms -- and not just any feathers on the arms but actual quill feathers forming wings. So this was a Raptor dinosaur with wings and the preservation was so gorgeous that you could see all the fine details of these feathers -- you can see the individual feathers you could see how they were anchored to the bones how they were overlapping each other to form the wing. And this looked basically like the same sort of structure that we see in modern birds. And you know it's hard to really convey in words just how magical that was to be led into this room. You know after this long journey to see this object, this thing that's over 100 million years old that's you know like a piece of fine art. You know that object just conveys this powerful message that birds evolved from dinosaurs. 

JW:This dinosaur turned out to be a new species -- a cousin of Velociraptor, it was called Zhenyuanlong [SHEN-JUAN-LONG] ….

JW: But with so many people realising that they may have found some invaluable part of dino history… new dinosaurs aren’t necessarily ending up in museums.

 

SB09c: There are folks out there you know wealthy folks that want to have a T. Rex in their living room and who doesn't want to have a T. Rex in their living room right?! I mean I don't blame people for wanting a dinosaur. But it means that there is a bit of a market and it's similar in some ways to the art market. Some of these amazing fossils are these unique one of a kind pieces that high end collectors really want. And that breeds a black market.

JW: And Steve says…Whenever a tycoon with a penchant for dinosaurs snatches up a special fossil… science gets a bum deal.

SB10: As a scientist I can see how every fossil is important but some fossils are really important. They're unique. They're a new species that's a complete skeleton that shows details that no other fossils show. Those kind of fossils really do need to be in museums. So they can be studied, so they can be conserved, so they can be made available to future generations, so they can be put on display, so they can be accessible to the public so people can see them and be inspired by them.

--

JW: Ok, so - there’s one final question I’ve got to ask: Will this dino explosion ever end -- or could this brontosaurus bonanza keep going… forever?

SB12a: I think we're just getting started. And I tell this to all the young kids when I do talks I say, “People are finding more dinosaurs than ever before but don't worry we're not running out of dinosaurs” because as people explore more of the earth, as more people go out and look for fossils the more they find. We are still finding new dinosaurs all over the place. And even if we stopped finding dinosaur fossils today -- the rest of science is going to keep moving on and there's gonna be new techniques, new technologies, new types of experiments and instruments and ways of thinking that will help us study the dinosaurs we already have in ways that we never would have thought possible.

So who knows what's going to be found next.

JW: Or who’s going to find it..

[FINN MONTAGE]

WZ: This story came from the podcast Sum of All Parts which is produced and hosted by Joel Werner. Jonathan Webb is their science editor, sound design by Joel Werner and Mark Don. Additional fact checking by Lexi Krupp and additional music and engineering by Peter Leonard.

Sum of All Parts is one of our favorite podcasts - you should really check it out. Sum of All Parts. There’s a link in the show notes.

I’m Wendy Zukerman — Science Vs will be back in September. Fact you then!


[1] Cryolophosaurus: 1994 (first reported in literature, discovered in 1991)

http://sci-hub.tw/10.1126/science.264.5160.828

[2] Dreadnoughtus: scientific literature, discovery in 2005)

https://www.nature.com/articles/srep06196

[3] Patagotitan: 2017 (first reported in literature, discovery in 2012)

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2017.1219

[4]  A very similar pattern is observed for genera, with the publication of newly named genera increasing exponentially since around 1990, and at an equal rate for all three groups

[5]  Another paper showing many more dinos are being discovered today than they used to be-- https://cpb-eu-w2.wpmucdn.com/blogs.bristol.ac.uk/dist/5/537/files/2019/07/2008Namingdinos.pdf

[6] And lots of countries have significantly increased their funding for paleontology programs, in Mongolia again and also Argentina (Palaeontologia Electronica-- https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269632967_Paleontology_in_Argentina_History_heritage_funding_and_education_from_a_southern_perspective), China, Brazil etc.

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/1990/07/31/science/after-60-years-scientists-return-to-fossil-paradise-of-the-gobi.html

[8] Since the 1980s, fossil assemblages of a similar composition and preservation state to the Burgess Shale fauna have been found in Cambrian shales in other parts of Laurentia, for example the Sirius Passet fauna in North Greenland, and in other Cambrian continents, for example the Chengjiang fauna in South China.

[9] In contrast, 20 years of collecting the Chengjiang fauna at many sites across eastern Yunnan has yielded more than 200 species and hundreds of thousands of specimens. It is therefore worthwhile to increase the intensity of fossil collection at different localities and sites. https://academic.oup.com/nsr/article/1/4/488/2081148 

[10] the most prolific living paleontologist alive today is from China -- as of 2012 he named over 60 new species: https://www.nature.com/news/china-s-dinosaur-hunter-the-ground-breaker-1.11352

[11] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1755-6724.2003.tb00557.x

[12]https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Xabier_Pereda_Suberbiola/publication/279705372_A_new_species_of_the_ankylosaurid_dinosaur_Pinacosaurus_from_the_Late_Cretaceous_of_Inner_Mongolia_PR_China/links/5645c2de08ae9f9c13e6ffb8.pdf

[13] China is also where a farmer discovered the first feathered dinosaur fossil and has yielded most of the world’s feathered fossils https://academic.oup.com/nsr/article/1/4/487/2081145 

[14] China is home to a few incredibly prolific sites. At one in the province of Liaoning scientists have found fossils from thousands of species of insects, fish, dinosaurs, birds, amphibians and mammals since the early 1990s. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/gj.1044