Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dinosaur Watching

We have become birdwatchers at our house recently. At least my wife has. I sit on the porch and read or write, while she patiently watches and photographs the birds that visit our yard. I presented her with a book of recorded birdcalls last Christmas, and it has been fun to identify birds by voice as well as sight. There is one, I swear, that sings the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. If you know which bird that is, please let me know. It is not listed in the book under Beethoven.

As I was sitting on our front porch yesterday watching Jude watch the birds, it struck me that we were viewing creatures from ancient history. Birds are descended from dinosaurs. It is more accurate to say that birds are dinosaurs that have survived the massive extinctions of their larger ancestors.

Just ask any paleontologist who is familiar with the phylogeny of vertebrates, and they will tell you that avians are dinosaurs. Using proper terminology, birds are avian dinosaurs. In other words, I have a Jurassic Park in my front yard!

It got me wondering what other extinct creatures might be roaming about unnoticed. And I am not talking about yetis or Nessies. The prehistoric Coelacanth, known only from fossils, was thought to be extinct until a living specimen was discovered in the 1930's. The gar - also known as the dino fish - is known from fossils dating from the Cretaceous period, and is now living in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately it is now threatened by extinction caused by the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

The Bible describes creatures living in ancient times that bear no resemblance to any living today. The Leviathan and Behemoth of Job 40 and 41 sound a lot like dinos. They are traditionally interpreted as crocodiles, hippos or elephants, but they are not like any animal I have ever seen at the zoo.

"Look at the behemoth, which I made along with you and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength he has in his loins, what power in the muscles of his belly! His tail sways like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are close-knit. His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like rods of iron. He ranks first among the works of God." I have never seen a elephant or a hippo with a tail like a cedar.

Wooly Mammoths and Saber Tooth tigers are known to have coexisted with man. What other extinct creatures did ancient man know? There are legends from many cultures about dragons. Where did the idea for dragons come from? It makes you wonder how long man's ancestral memory really is.

I am sure this is just my interest in science fiction coming through here. I have been reading a lot of fantasy books these days. But that is all right. I am allowed to have a geek streak; it keeps me sane. In any case it makes birdwatching more interesting.
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Photo is the birdlike foot of a Tyrannosaurus rex

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