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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 March 2007, 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK
Golden age of dino finds forecast
Europe's "biggest dinosaur"

A new "golden era" of dinosaur fossil discovery has been predicted by scientists - one which may ultimately lead to nearly 2,000 different types of the ancient reptiles being known.

With previously unexplored areas of the world now opening up for palaeontologists, new dinosaur finds are coming every week, perhaps offering further clues as to how they lived, and also how they died out.

Despite nearly 200 years of excavating dino remains, palaeontologists now believe they have literally only scratched the surface.

"When you look back at the history of palaeontology, you see eras - golden eras, we call them - and we're entering one of those now," said Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago, US.

There has been an extraordinary acceleration in the rate of discoveries around the world
Dr Paul Barrett, Natural History Museum
"We're now doing more work, on more continents, in more museums, in more laboratories, in more field areas than there has ever been in the history of the discipline - and that has created the golden era," he told BBC World Service's Discovery programme.

Surge in discoveries

The emergence of this new golden era was heralded in a recently published academic paper by Peter Dodson from the University of Pennsylvania.

Together with statistician Steve Wang, Professor Dodson created a computer model that came up with an astonishing prediction.

It estimated that the museums and research institutes in the world only hold fossils from around 30% of possible dinosaur types. The other 70% await discovery.

William Buckland
William Buckland identified and named Megalosaurus in the 1820s
"When we submitted our study, we knew of 527 kinds of dinosaur," he said.

"Based on what has gone before, we projected into the future and found that at some point - we can't say when, but sometime in the next century or two, when we've found all the dinosaurs out there to find - the total number will be about 1,850 genres, or kinds, of dinosaur."

To work this out, the pair examined how knowledge of dinosaurs has accumulated since the first fossil find - some bones of Megalosaurus - were properly identified and described by William Buckland in 1824.

Up until 1969, the rate of discovery of new dinosaurs was around one new genus per year. From 1970, the rate of description of new kinds of dinosaurs was around six per year. And since 1990, it has risen to 15 per year.

Major announcements in 2006, for example, included Turiasaurus - Europe's largest dinosaur - and a fossil from a species of Plateosaurus that was the deepest ever found (in a drill core 2,256m below the floor of the North Sea).

Accelerating rate

Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum in London explained that there were a number of reasons for this explosion in new discoveries.

Importantly, there are more people exploring remote and inaccessible parts of the world - and in addition there are simply more palaeontologists to do the work.

"There has been an extraordinary acceleration in the rate of discoveries around the world," he said.

"Whether that will simply continue in a nice mathematical way, as the people who wrote this study suggested, is anyone's guess.

Soft tissue from a T. rex femur (Science)
New specimens have even revealed soft tissues for study
"They're certainly right that we haven't discovered all that we're going to discover, and that within the last five years, every year we see at least 20 new types of dinosaur appearing in the scientific literature.

"So the fact that more are going to come out seems to be pretty uncontroversial. But whether it's going to be a nice, steady progression - who knows?"

Although it is likely some fossils have simply been destroyed over time, others, buried too deep to be found by palaeontologists today, may become available to future generations when disturbed by events such as earthquakes.

And large parts of Africa, South America and Central Asia in particular remain relatively unexplored.

"As we open those up, find rocks of the right age and actually start to have a proper look, we might get a new explosion of dinosaur discoveries," Dr Barrett added

And it is hoped that there will be numerous things to find from these discoveries, including further clues as to what caused the untimely extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago - the most prominent theory being that it was the result of an asteroid hitting the Earth on what is now the coast of Mexico.

"The amazing thing about the geologic record and the fossil record is that sooner or later some piece of research, some amazing find, sheds light on things that you think are absolutely unanswerable, and really changes the whole picture," said Professor Sereno.

"When the first hypothesis of the impact came about, people discarded it. Then the evidence began to pile up, and the story is not over on that yet. Slowly but surely, there are going to be more lines of evidence."

Useful discoveries

However, Luis Chiappe, curator and director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, said that exciting as new discoveries were, what was really key was getting more fossils of well-known dinosaurs.

He would like to see new skeletons of even a well-known creature like T. rex. New specimens would give much better understanding of how it grew, how fast, the differences between females and males, and the differences between young individuals and adults.

"What a good sample of specimens will give you is more information about physiology, the general biology of a particular species," he explained.

"It is wonderful to find new dinosaurs, and every time there is a new dinosaur discovered - especially if it's a spectacular one, a big one, or a rare one - the media gets crazy, and we see it all over the place. That's great - we learn about the diversity of these animals, and that's very useful.

"But I think that it is very important that we find more and more specimens of Triceratops, T. rex, Diplodocus - animals that are very well known - because those are going to be giving us clues about how those animals worked, and how they lived."

Europe's 'biggest dinosaur' found
21 Dec 06 |  Science/Nature
North Sea fossil is deepest dino
27 Apr 06 |  Science/Nature
'Dinosaur heaven' reveals wonders
31 May 01 |  Science/Nature
Dinosaur's reputation challenged
20 Sep 06 |  Science/Nature


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