If the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs had taken place just a few million years earlier or later then the Earth might have ended up as dino-only zone, according to new research.
A study of the events leading up to the prehistoric creatures’ demise suggests that the timing of the impact was “colossal bad luck”, hitting the dinosaurs just when their food chain had been seriously weakened by environmental upheaval.
The impact of the 10km-wide asteroid some 66 million years ago essentially caught the species off-guard, adding tsunamis, earthquakes, wildfires, temperature swings and other natural disasters to their already troubled ecosystem.
Only the flying dinosaurs were able survive (evolving to become modern-day birds) but scientists say that if the asteroid had hit just a few million years earlier, then the range of species in the dinosaurs’ food chain would probably have been robust enough for them to survive.
This new study, published in Biological Reviews, involved dinosaur experts from across the UK, US and Canada, and used the latest fossil records and improved analytical tools to build the new narrative.
"The dinosaurs were victims of colossal bad luck,” said Dr Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences. “Not only did a giant asteroid strike, but it happened at the worst possible time, when their ecosystems were vulnerable. Our new findings help clarify one of the enduring mysteries of science."
Speaking to the BBC, Dr Brusatte added that it was “possible that dinosaurs could have evolved intelligence” if they hadn’t been wiped out, to the point where we might have held a conversation with them. “It’s possible!” said Dr Brusatte. “With evolution never say never.”
However, Professor Simon Conway-Morris of the University of Cambridge clarified this, saying: "As far as dinosaurs becoming intelligent is concerned the experiment has been done and we call them crows.”
Scientists agree though that was bad luck for the dinosaurs was a stroke of good fortune for us mammals - it was the demise of the giant creatures that led to other species diversifying and evolving.
“Although our research suggests that dinosaur communities were particularly vulnerable at the time the asteroid hit, there is nothing to suggest that dinosaurs were doomed to extinction,” said Dr Richard Butler of the University of Birmingham.
“Without that asteroid, the dinosaurs would probably still be here, and we very probably would not.”