What really killed the dinosaurs?

485176_441599455926469_1655029236_nWhile I do literally mean the actual dinosaurs, there is also a lesson in the answer for the metaphoric dinosaurs that big companies can become.

“A giant meteorite wiped out the dinosaurs” is the catch phrase.  But have you ever wondered “why the dinosaurs, when so many other animals survived?”.  The alligators survived, fish survived, mammals survived, even other reptiles survived, and even frog species that seem so sensitive to any change in environment survived that meteorite.

So why the dinosaurs?  And what is the lesson? These answers after first some background and myth-busting.

Moving past the Myths

The image at the top of this post has dinosaurs watching as the meteorite hurtles towards collision and their imminent demise, and this commonly repeated image is central to many myths.  The reality is you may know this is not reality, but bear with me for the myths.

Myths vs Reality:

  • the meteorite was tiny compared to the huge earth and most of the planet (and most of the dinosaurs) would notice nothing at impact, and certainly could not observe anything.
  • not all dinosaurs actually died out, as some lived to evolve and prosper as what we now call ‘birds’ and many already had feathers and other bird features.  Amazing what over 60 million years of evolution can achieve
  • the peak time for the dinosaurs, the Jurasic, as referenced in ‘Jurasic Park’, ended 145 millions years ago, over twice as long ago as the meteorite impact
  • there earth had been changing for over a hundred million years before the meteorite impact, and dinosaurs had becoming extinct the entire time. The meteorite appears to have accelerated climate change been the ‘final straw’ for all ‘non-avian’ dinosaurs, but it still took millions of years for these extinctions
  • the proportion of dinosaurs close enough to observe the meteorite would have been similar to the proportion of humans who could observe the recent meteorite explode over Russia

Land of the Giants

The dinosaurs are not the only ‘giants’ to have lived on earth.  The blue whale, which still lives in the oceans, is larger than any dinosaurs ever were.  These whales are the unusual ones, as for almost every animal, the largest ones ever to have lived are now extinct.

We humans are fascinated by ‘big’.

It was easy to find web pages dedicated to the biggest animals ever.  Trying to find a list of the most ‘yellow’ animals… not so easy, because to us being the biggest is not only significant, in some ways it is the ‘best’. The biggest mountain, the biggest river, all attract our attention.  The biggest mountain is the ultimate mountain to climb, the biggest river is the ultimate river, the largest carnivorous dinosaur the ultimate predator.

Evolution: Survival of the fittest.

If two animals fight, all else being equal, we would normally expect the larger animal to win.  This should make the largest, equal to the fittest, and best equipped to survive. If the biggest was the fittest, evolution would lead to all animals continually increasing in size. Clearly there are limits, so the evolving to be the largest within the limits should be the secret for success.

But the largest ever bird (the giant moa) became extinct over 300 years ago.  The largest every flying bird (Argentavis or even more ancient Pelagornis sandersi) became extinct over 5,000,000 million years ago.  With almost any animal, the largest to ever live, is now extinct, despite thriving at some time.  Clearly, being the biggest can turn from an asset to a liability. Looking at the history of animal life, over an over we find that a species thrived as that species grew larger and larger, but eventually died out with no new species at that time emerging of a similar size.

So what happened to the dinosaurs?

Remember, only ‘non-avian’ dinosaurs actually died out.  Also remember that the very biggest dinosaurs ever died around 30 million years before the meteorite arrived as did most of the largest dinosaurs.  When things changed, all that survived were smaller animals.  The lesson seems to be, that at any given time there is a maximum size for survival.  The large dinosaurs all died out, and it was smaller avian dinosaurs that lived on to flourish today and become birds, one of the most successful animal group.

The biggest dinosaurs, the ones that capture our imagination, were all simply too big for the changed world. What made the dinosaurs that became extinct, different from animals that survived, was their size.  Typically, the very largest animal is at the extreme of how large  the change was how big they were.  Size became their enemy.

The lesson.

It is clear  that growing to be the largest possible can make you the strongest, at least until the rules change and you suddenly become larger than possible.

We current live in a world where the largest tech companies now have GDP at the level of entire nations, they are getting larger and larger at amazing speed. Lesson: beware of changing conditions!

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