Rise of dinosaurs down to luck not superiority

By Ed Yong | September 11, 2008 2:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchSome 230 million years ago, giant reptiles walked the Earth. Some were large and fearsome predators; others were nimble and fleet-footed runners; and yet others were heavily armoured with bony plates running down their backs. Their bodies had evolved into an extraordinary range of shapes and sizes and they had done so at a breakneck pace. They were truly some of the most impressive animals of their time. They were the crurotarsans.

Wait… the who and what now? Chances are you’ve never heard of the crurotarsans and you were expecting that other, more famous group of giant reptiles – the dinosaurs. There is certainly no doubt that the dinosaurs were an evolutionary success story, diversifying from a standard body plan – a small, two-legged meat-eater – into a dazzling selection of forms.  Today, living dinosaurs – the birds – still rule our skies and back in their heyday, they were the dominant back-boned animals on land for millions of years.

But what was the secret to their rise to power? Many palaeontologists believe that they simply outcompeted other animal groups that were around at the same time like the bizarre, buck-toothed rhynchosaurs or mammal-like reptiles like the cynodonts. Perhaps their upright postures made them faster or more agile; perhaps they were actually warm-blooded and able to cope with a wider range of climates. Either way, the fact that they and not the other reptile groups ascended to dominance is often taken as a sign of their superiority.

But Stephen Brusatte from Columbia University challenges that view. According to his take on Triassic life,  the dinosaurs fared no better than their competitors, the crurotarsans, and were actually less successful for about 30 million years. They eventually supplanted these other groups because of luck rather than because they possessed any special advantage.



During the Triassic period, the crurotarsans (which eventually gave rise to today’s crocodiles and alligators) were at their most diverse. They ranged from top predators like Postosuchus to the armoured aetosaurs like Desmatosuchus to swift, two-legged runners like Effigia and Shuvosaurus. Many of them were incredibly similar to the dinosaurs we know and love (see bottom image) and some were even mistaken for dinosaurs when they were first discovered. These strikingly similar bodies suggest that members of the two groups shared similar lifestyles and probably competed for the same resources.

Did the dinosaurs simply win the battle? Brusette noted that answers to this question often invoke nebulous concepts of “superiority” and he wanted to look at it from a more objective angle, comparing the two groups along measurable lines.  To that end, he worked with three other palaeontologists to construct a family tree of 64 dinosaurs and crurotarsans, based on 437 features on each of their skeletons.

The team calculated how fast each group was evolving based on their bones. If dinosaurs really outcompeted the crurotarsans, you would expect to see the former group evolving at increasing rates during the Triassic, while the latter group’s rate of evolution slowed. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Brusette found that during the Triassic as a whole, the crurotarsans were keeping pace with the expansion of the dinosaur lineage. It’s possible that during the mid-Triassic, the dinosaurs were evolving at a slightly more rapid rate, but it’s hard to be sure based on such few samples.

Brusette also looked at the range of body plans developed by each group, also known as their “disparity”. Animal groups with high disparity and a wide range of body shapes tend to have a more varied set of lifestyles, habitats and diets. And surprisingly, the crurotarsans had about twice as much disparity as the dinosaurs did at the time.

Three strikes… 

So for the 30 million years when the dinosaurs and the crurotarsans shared the planet, both were evolving at equal rates and it was the crurotarsans who were experimenting with twice as many body shapes. To Brusette, that’s a blow to the long-standing view that the “superior” dinosaurs were in some way “preordained for success”.

Instead, he suggests that the dinosaurs’ success hinged on a combination of “good luck” and perseverance. Both they and the crurotarsans survived an extinction event 228 million years ago, which wiped out many other reptile groups like the rhynchosaurs. At the end of the Triassic period, some 28 million years later, the dinosaurs weathered another (much bigger) extinction event that finally killed the majority of crurotarsans off for good.

It’s not clear why the dinosaurs persevered and the crurotarsans didn’t. Perhaps the dinos had some unique adaptation that the crurotarsans lacked, which ensured their survival. But Brusette says that this explanation is “difficult to entertain” because the crurotarsans were more abundant at the time and had vastly more varied bodies. He also says that the death of certain groups during mass extinctions is more likely to be due to random factors rather than any specific aspect of their lifestyles.

Whatever the answer, the sudden volte face of the crurotarsans, from ruling reptiles to evolutionary footnotes, gave the dinosaurs their chance. They were the reptilian equivalent of videotapes, rising to dominance in the wake of a superior Betamax technology. In the brave, new world of the Jurassic, they could exploit the niches vacated by their fallen competitors.

The rise of the dinosaurs is often spoken of as a single event but it was more likely to have been a two-stage process. The predecessors of the gigantic, long-necked sauropods expanded into new species after the late Triassic extinction, while the big meat-eaters and the armoured plant-eaters only came to the fore as a second extinction heralded the start of the Jurassic. Brusette refers to the dinosaurs as the “beneficiaries of two mass extinction events”, which is ironic given what happened next. About a 130 million years later, the dinosaurs’ luck proved to be finite. They survived through two extinctions, but as the saying goes, third time’s the charm.

Reference: Science doi:10.1126/science.1161833


An array of crurotarsans taken from Wikipedia and illustrated by Arthur Weasley. Clockwise from top left: Effigia, Shuvosaurus, Rutiodon, Postosuchus, Lotosaurus and Desmatosuchus

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Dinosaurs, Evolution, Palaeontology

Comments (9)

  1. Kele Cable

    So does -saurus, -suchus and -don not specific to the dinosaurs? Or should they be, and names such as Shuvasaurus are just artifacts of when crurotarsans were thought to be dinosaurs?

  2. kdon

    An old point about evolutionary theory but one that bears reminding: there is no objective distinction between luck and fitness in what survives. What survives is what what most fit, and what was most fit is what allows you to survive.
    I kept waiting for what the supposed “luck” of the dinosaurs was and it turned out to be…nothing, or something that wasn’t known, or…”Perhaps the dinos had some unique adaptation that the crurotarsans lacked, which ensured their survival.”
    That’s not luck! What else could be more “superior” in a discussion of evolutionary fitness than a “unique adaption…which ensured their survival?”
    As someone outside of the field, I’m surprised that such a debate between superiority and luck even takes place. I realize this post was just a summation of the argument (and a good one at that, I’m much appreciative) but how does a philosophically incoherent debate like luck vs. superiority wrt evolution even get started?
    It’s all fun and games in the blogosphere, but grafting moral judgments like luck onto evolution is what got the whole nasty business of social Darwinism going.

  3. Big Cat

    Okay, this is a request for pure speculation… but it’s fun!
    If the cards had played out differently, could the crurotarsans have given rise to cruro-birds, and how would they have differed from the dinosaurian birds?

  4. Art

    This is probably a stupid question but some years ago I read several articles that pointed to some evidence that suggested that dinosaurs were warm blooded. Sounded like there was some debate over this assertion.
    If indeed dinosaurs were warm blooded, like present day birds, were crurotarsans cold blooded, like present day alligators?
    Wouldn’t warm blooded dinosaurs would have an advantage in a large scale extinction event if that event meant that the temperatures dropped precipitously and stay abnormally low for months? The ability to stay active at colder temperatures, and possibly feed on those who are inactive, sounds like a pretty big advantage.
    Wild speculation but something that crossed my uneducated mind.

  5. So does -saurus, -suchus and -don not specific to the dinosaurs? Or should they be, and names such as Shuvasaurus are just artifacts of when crurotarsans were thought to be dinosaurs?

    None of those terms has anything specifically to do with dinosaurs at all. Sauros is Greek for “lizard”, and has come to be used to mean reptiles in general. Suchos means “crocodile”, specifically the Greek name for the Egyptian crocodile god Sebek. Odous (often converted to “odon”) means tooth.

  6. kdon – I think the question of luck comes into play when you bring mass extinctions into the mix. In such situations, it may not be a simple case of “survival means fitness” and species may be wiped out for reasons completely aside from their everyday adaptive struggles. Other readers may be able to correct me on this point, but I gather this was what Stephen Jay Gould asserted – that mass extinctions introduce a large element of chance into evolutionary biology that is often not appreciated by people who have their adaptive hats on too tight.

  7. kdon

    Sorry Ed, just got back to this. Thanks for responding to my question.
    I guess I’m still not seeing the difference between being properly adapted to survive “punctuated” events and being properly adapted to deal with the relativley stable – everyday – elements of a given biosphere.
    That one is luck and the other deserving* makes no sense in evolutionary terms(the species itself sure doesn’t care why it’s still around) – it only makes sense if we import a whole bunch of human ideas about whose success is luck and whose is deserving, ideas that themselves are contingent in human affairs based on a whole host of socio-economic relations.**
    Since the biological metaphorical arrow points both ways, studies like the one described have the effect of not only importing a bunch of unsuited language into evolution, but also reaffirming the biological “struggle” as the appropriate metaphor for human interaction.
    Basically, we read ourselves into nature on one hand, and report with surprise our “discoveries” found there on the other.
    *Not sure if that’s the best term, but it is sorta the opposite of luck.
    **For example the lotto winner is lucky but the kid born with the big brain isn’t.

  8. Dan

    I believe the distinction between “luck” and “deserving” (using the above terminology) in fitness/survival in evolution is whether it is transmitted to the offspring. A lucky survival means that your offspring are not likely to survive a similar event – a “deserved” survival means that your offspring can survive such events.
    Therefore fitness is the heritable portion of reproductive success, and luck is the non-heritable (i.e. chance) proportion. The important thing about mass extinction events is that they would produce environmental effects that nobody had evolved for, so resistance to them would appear to be lucky. BUT – it would be a heritable trait, that would be passed on to offspring, and so really is being more “fit”. This is despite that the fitness may have arisen through chance.
    A problem is that mass extinction events occur very rarely, so every species changes dramatically between them and is unlikely to have the “survival” traits maintained between them, since these are only selected very occasionally. So dinosaurs change between extinction events, but random phenotypic drift allows some other species (mammals, say) to be the best type to survive the next extinction event.

  9. Shade

    As stated, I think the “luck” is the fact that you cannot evolve against an event you don’t see/experience until its on you, therfore it fortunate that you “happened” to have what was required to survive.

    To use an anology: lets say there is an event that puts out tons of raditation and the vast majority of humans died out, but a few people with cancerous tumors survived due to the tumors. You really can’t claim that they were “superior”, because the tumors would have killed them in normal conditions and it was “luck” that changed conditions for their benifit.

    That is how I read it anyway.

    Sorry for any misspellings.


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