As Jurassic Park’s Alan Grant would say: “I bet you'll never look at birds the same way again.”
Birds live all around us, and for the most part, they aren't very intimidating creatures (ostriches duly excepted). But even the daintiest of hummingbirds is endowed with a rich evolutionary heritage that links it to gigantic theropod dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex. Whether you are chowing down on chicken fingers or spotting the first robin of spring, you are interacting with the only living heirs of the dinosaurs.
This fascinating kinship between dinosaurs and birds is explored in detail in "Dinosaurs Among Us," an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City opening on Monday, March 21.
The show aims to reshape our idea of birds by charting out their ancient family ties, while also reimagining the popular conception of dinosaurs with accurate scale models, like this one of Velociraptor mongoliensis.
Clearly, these animals were not exactly the large, scaly raptors that share the same name in the Jurassic Park franchise. But that doesn't mean that there weren't enormous animals in the theropod family tree, as evidenced by this climbable display depicting the bizarre Cretaceous dinosaur Gigantoraptor.
By showcasing these careful reconstructions, the exhibit demonstrates the diversity of interesting features in the theropod lineage while simultaneously exposing the similarities that define the entire group, over tens of millions of years. The anatomical links between birds and dinosaurs have been recognized since Charles Darwin's era, and contemporary paleontologists have been able to extrapolate even subtler connections.
"One thing that we are finding out a lot more about recently, and that I think is really neat, is that there are also some similarities in behavior [between dinosaurs and birds]," said AMNH paleontology researcher Ashley Heers, at a media preview of the exhibit.
"We know that some of these extinct dinosaurs constructed nests and they brooded their eggs, which is just fascinating. Some of them probably flew. There's anatomical and behavioral similarities there."
I asked Heers and Mark Norell, the exhibit's curator and AMNH paleontologist, why it has taken so long for popular culture to catch up to the reality that dinosaurs had avian features like feathers. It is somewhat ironic, for instance, that Jurassic Park places expounds so poignantly upon the relationship between dinosaurs and birds, while still depicting them as featherless.
"They might not look mean enough if they look like pigeons," Norell speculated.
"I don't know, peacocks can be pretty scary with all their feathers up," Heers pointed out.
Indeed, birds can be intense with their sexual displays and predatory tactics, so it would be interesting to see fictional portrayals of dinosaurs take more inspiration from these vibrant behaviors, which no doubt were also present in the colossal ancestors of birds. I don't know about you, but I think a T. rex decked out with a colorful plumage of feathers and quills is way more captivating—and yes, scary—than the naked variety we have become accustomed to on movie screens.
Hopefully, exhibits like "Dinosaurs Among Us" at AMNH, along with traveling exhibitions like "Dinosaurs Take Flight," will help to influence and update the public conception of dinosaurs, as well as reinforce our acceptance that birds are living dinosaurs.
As Norell emphasized during the exhibit preview: "Dinosaurs are among us, and that birds are a kind of dinosaur. They are still with us. They are represented by at least 13,000 species alive today which is almost two and half times as many as living mammals."
"You could argue that we still live in the age of dinosaurs."