Family values: were dinosaurs the first social creatures?

The majority of dinosaurs were peaceful, plant-eating creatures that developed the Earth's first strong social communities.

Herds, packs and families of dinosaurs were commonplace. Many fossils have been found where groups of dinosaurs died together, such as the ones which sank in the quicksand off the Isle of Wight. In Alberta, Canada, a mass grave has been discovered containing at least 300 grazing dinosaurs of all ages and sizes. This herd was swept to death by a flash flood while trying to cross a deep river. In Montana, in the USA, an even bigger herd of about 10,000 dinosaurs has been discovered. These creatures were poisoned by volcanic gases and buried in ash. Their fossilised bones stretch out in a straight line for more than a mile.

Modern understanding of how dinosaurs lived together was transformed by a fossil specialist called Dr Jack Horner, who made a most extraordinary discovery in the mid-1970s. Horner and his team were fossil-hunting in Montana when they came across America's first dinosaur nesting site. They found a number of dinosaur eggs as well as the fossilised remains of baby dinosaur embryos. They called these creatures Maiasaura, which means "good mother lizard". Each season Maiasaura returned to the same breeding grounds where they refurbished their old nests. These dinosaurs lived in colonies and looked after their young in herds until they were old enough to start families of their own. Here, beyond all reasonable doubt, lie the origins of the family unit. More than 200 dinosaur-egg sites have now been found across the world. The eggs range in size from as small as a pebble to as big as a football.

Other dinosaur-like creatures, too numerous to mention, also lived through these times. The pterosaurs were enormous flying reptiles that dominated the prehistoric skies. One of them holds the world record for biggest wingspan of any creature ever to have lived. At nearly 20m across, its wings were as large as those of a Second World War Spitfire.

A mystery of feathered flight: where did the world's first birds come from?

Hermann von Meyer, a German fossil-hunter, thought he'd got the answer to this puzzle in 1861 when he announced the discovery of what he claimed was the first ever bird. He called it Archaeopteryx. It was about the same size as a modern magpie, and was definitely bird-like. Its feathers were arranged in just the same way as modern birds', with an aerodynamic configuration to make flight possible. It even had bird-like claws on its legs, and a wishbone.

Von Meyer's fossil dated back some 140 million years, at about the same time that the first flowers were beginning to bloom ( see Part 2). Since then, a further 10 Archaeopteryx specimens have been found in a region of Germany called Solnhofen. But for years a mystery remained. From what did these creatures descend, and how did they learn to fly? So perplexing was this puzzle that the birds were shunted into their own separate group, neither reptiles like the dinosaurs, or mammals like man. They were just, well, birds.

Then, in 1995, Chinese scientists announced that they had dug out a fossil which proved conclusively that some dinosaurs did indeed have down-like feathers. Sinosauropteryx caused a sensation. It was a small, 1.5m-long, two-legged dinosaur with the jaws and flattened teeth typical of meat-eating dinosaurs. It had clawed fingers, and its hind limbs show that it must have been a fast runner. At last, the puzzle of where birds descended from seemed to have been solved. They are indeed the last and only surviving branch of the dinosaurs. But this still left several perplexing questions unanswered.

Sinosauropteryx feathers show no signs of the aerodynamics needed for lifting a body into the air. It couldn't fly. So what were its feathers for? Experts began to think that perhaps feathers were not originally intended as equipment for flight at all. Perhaps it was only later, by some freak or accident, that they became adapted for the purpose. Small dinosaurs may have developed feathers as a way of keeping warm – a form of insulation.

Feathers are now thought to have been common on all kinds of dinosaurs. The reason this has only recently come to light is that feathers are not normally preserved in fossils.

Lots of dino-birds have now been discovered in China's treasure trove of fossils and bones. One of the most famous is Dave, the fuzzy raptor, unearthed in 2000. He was covered from head to tail in a coat of fine feathers, although they weren't designed for flight.

The final part of the bird riddle remains unsolved. How and when did they adapt their insulating feathers into wings for flight? Did they jump from the trees after spying a tasty meal from on high, swooping down to snatch their prey? Or did they run along the ground, perhaps trying to escape some other hungry beast, and flap up to safety? No one is certain, although another recent fossil from China's "Pompeii", a microraptor, suggests the "top-down" theory, because it has both the right kind of feathers for flight and the right sort of claws for climbing trees. But just how and when its feathers of flight evolved is still a mystery, whose answers probably lie somewhere in rocks still waiting to be found.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Arts and Entertainment
Shelley Duvall stars in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
filmCritic Kaleem Aftab picks his favourites for Halloween
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Sport
Luke Shaw’s performance in the derby will be key to how his Manchester United side get on
footballBeating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Life and Style
Google's doodle celebrating Halloween 2014
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior IP Opportunity at Major Firm

vary Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - AN OPENING AT A VERY HIGH Q...

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes