Remains Of The Day


Oliver Morton, pausing before a reconstructed gorgosaurus at the Manchester Museum, marvels that “absolutely all that remains of that creature’s life is this scarred skeleton”:

We often think of fossils as being in some way ancestral relatives, if not of humans, then of some other aspect of nature, parts of some great unfolding story. But for the gorgosaurs, the tyrannosaurs and indeed all the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, this simply isn’t true. The most fecund of their matriarchs has left no deeper imprint than a hatchling that died fresh out of its shell. No species alive today can be traced back to any of the dinosaur species except those few from which birds descended.

Fair enough; what everyone knows about dinosaurs is that they became extinct. What is not as well appreciated—but which, for some reason, the peculiar individuality of this one specimen brought home with some force—is this:

so did almost everything else. And almost all those extinct species lack descendants. What is more, even in the species which did contribute to life today—those ur-birds, for example—most individuals played no part in ensuring the continuation of their lineage. Most creatures make no contribution to the next generation, let alone to ultimate genetic posterity. From the point of view of the genes of creatures that are alive today, the overwhelming majority of all creatures that have ever lived are totally irrelevant. That dinosaur, dead in her 14th year, is a remarkable oddity in that her life and death can be known; but the rule of issueless irrelevance she represents is so nearly universal that its exceptions are all but miracles.

(Image of gorgosaurus at the University of Manitoba by Mike Beauregard)