Dinosaur Extinction: When and how did dinosaurs become extinct

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Dinosaur Jungle   >   Dinosaur Facts   >   Extinction

Dinosaur Extinction



Dinosaurs inhabited the earth for over 165 million years, during the Mesozoic Era.

Most dinosaur species lived and died out during this period, but at the end of the Cretaceous period (65 million years ago), all remaining types of dinosaurs (with the exception of birds which had already evolved, and are widely believed to be descended from dinosaurs) died out. At the same time many other creatures (for example Ammonites, and Belemnites, as well as Pterosaurs, and many large marine reptiles such as Mosasaurs. Plesiosaurs and Pliosaurs) also became extinct. In fact, all animals weighing more than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) seem to have died out!

While are not sure what happened, we do know that something happened at about 65 million years ago. This event shows up as clear boundary in the rocks, known as the "K-T boundary", the extinction event usually being referrred to as the "Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction".

K-T boundary in rocks near Drumheller, Alberta, Canada

Scientists have proposed many different possible explanations for what may have happened, and why this mass extinction might have happened:

(Note: Sometimes these suggested explanations are informally called "theories", however in this case "hypotheses" is the correct term, since in science a theory means a well-substantiated explanation of some natural phenomenon or observation, whereas as "hypothesis" means a suggested explanation which needs to be tested against experimental evidence).
    Artist's impression of KT impact event
  • Asteriod Impact Hypothesis

    • Hypothesis: An asteriod hit the earth.

    • Effect: Apart from the immediate impact of fires and flooding (if it hit the sea), this would have caused catastrophic changes in the environment because of the dust thrown up in to the air blocking out sunlight.

    • Our Evaluation: This is currently the most popular hypothesis with scientists, because, as Luis and Walter Alvarez pointed out, iridium (which comes from asteroids) has been found all over the world in rocks at the K-T boundary (which were laid down at the time of the mass extinction). There is also a large crater at Chixulub in southern Mexico, which appears to be of the right age, and could have been made as a result of an asteroid hitting the earth.


    Artist's impression of Deccan traps volcanism
  • Volcanism Hypothesis

    • Hypothesis: Volcanoes (there is known to have been very active volcanic around this time, especially in India in a region that is today known as the Deccan Traps) could have caused catastrophic changes in the environment.

    • Effect: The dust from volcanoes would have affected the climate, sulphur from volcanoes could have caused immensely strong acid rain, and poisonous substances such as selenium could have been released into the atmosphere.

    • Our Evaluation: After the Asteroid Impact Hypothesis, this is probably the second most popular explanation among scientists - partly, because we know that volcanoes were active at about this time.


    Artist's impression of a supernova
  • Supernova Hypothesis

    • Hypothesis: A nearby star exploded as a supernova.

    • Effect: A nearby supernova would have bathed the earth in deadly radiation.

    • Our Evaluation: If this hypothesis is true, rocks at the K-T boundary should contain 244Pu (a long-lived isotope of Plutonium). However, this does not seem to be the case.


  • Climatic Change Hypothesis

    • Hypothesis: Changes in the Earth's climate caused the mass extinction. This could have been caused by gradual changes in the positions of continents effecting ocean currents and winds, or by changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun, or even by a relatively sudden greenhouse effects.

    • Effect: Depends on the particular climate change theory in question.

    • Our Evaluation: This hypothesis can not be discounted, and even if climate change was not the main cause of the extinction, it could have played a part - there is some evidence that the Earth cooled at the end of the Cretaceous period.


  • Flowers Drugged the Dinosaurs Hypothesis

    • Hypothesis: The first flowering plants appeared during the Cretaceous period, and if dinosaurs ate them they could have been drugged by them.

    • Effect: Could perhaps have wiped out some dinosaurs.

    • Our Evaluation: This hypothesis does not explain the extinction of many other species, especially marine species. It also struggles with the fact that dinosaurs and flowering plants were contempories for many millions of years, and only suddenly, at 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs died out.


  • Mammals Ate the Dinosaurs' Eggs Hypothesis

    • Hypothesis: Mammals ate the dinosaurs' eggs.

    • Effect: Could perhaps have wiped out some dinosaurs.

    • Our Evaluation: This used to be a popular hypothesis - but does not explain the extinction of many other species, especially marine species. It also does not explain why dinosaurs were very successful for millions and millions of years, during most of which time, mammals were also around.


  • Caterpillars Ate All the Plants Hypothesis

    • Hypothesis: Caterpillars ate all the plants and there was not enough food for herbivores, and eventually not enough meat for carnivores.

    • Effect: Could perhaps have wiped out some dinosaurs.

    • Our Evaluation: This hypothesis does not explain the extinction of marine species, and some may wonder whether caterpillars could really affect every continent on the Earth at the same time to this extent.


  • Disease Epidemic Hypothesis

    • Hypothesis: The dinosaurs could have been wiped out by a disease epidemic.

    • Effect: Could perhaps have wiped out some dinosaurs.

    • Our Evaluation: The problem with this hypothesis, is could it effect dinosaurs to the extent of wiping them all out, and how could it explain the simultaneous extinction of marine animals?


Although many scientists now favor the asteroid impact hypothesis, it is not yet actually certain that this is the reason why the dinosaurs died out. It is possible that one of the other theories might be the correct one. It is also possible, that there could have been several events which happened together, and between them, killed all the dinosaurs.


Related Information & Resources


See Also

Books about Dinosaur Extinction


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The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World
By Steve Brusatte

William Morrow
Released: 2018-04-24
Hardcover (416 pages)

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World
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"THE ULTIMATE DINOSAUR BIOGRAPHY," hails Scientific American: A thrilling new history of the age of dinosaurs, from one of our finest young scientists.

"A masterpiece of science writing." —Washington Post

A New York Times Bestseller • Goodreads Choice Awards Winner • A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: Smithsonian, Science Friday, The Times (London), Popular Mechanics, Science News

"This is scientific storytelling at its most visceral, striding with the beasts through their Triassic dawn, Jurassic dominance, and abrupt demise in the Cretaceous." —Nature

The dinosaurs. Sixty-six million years ago, the Earth’s most fearsome creatures vanished. Today they remain one of our planet’s great mysteries. Now The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs reveals their extraordinary, 200-million-year-long story as never before.

In this captivating narrative (enlivened with more than seventy original illustrations and photographs), Steve Brusatte, a young American paleontologist who has emerged as one of the foremost stars of the field—naming fifteen new species and leading groundbreaking scientific studies and fieldwork—masterfully tells the complete, surprising, and new history of the dinosaurs, drawing on cutting-edge science to dramatically bring to life their lost world and illuminate their enigmatic origins, spectacular flourishing, astonishing diversity, cataclysmic extinction, and startling living legacy. Captivating and revelatory, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is a book for the ages.

Brusatte traces the evolution of dinosaurs from their inauspicious start as small shadow dwellers—themselves the beneficiaries of a mass extinction caused by volcanic eruptions at the beginning of the Triassic period—into the dominant array of species every wide-eyed child memorizes today, T. rex, Triceratops, Brontosaurus, and more. This gifted scientist and writer re-creates the dinosaurs’ peak during the Jurassic and Cretaceous, when thousands of species thrived, and winged and feathered dinosaurs, the prehistoric ancestors of modern birds, emerged. The story continues to the end of the Cretaceous period, when a giant asteroid or comet struck the planet and nearly every dinosaur species (but not all) died out, in the most extraordinary extinction event in earth’s history, one full of lessons for today as we confront a “sixth extinction.”

Brusatte also recalls compelling stories from his globe-trotting expeditions during one of the most exciting eras in dinosaur research—which he calls “a new golden age of discovery”—and offers thrilling accounts of some of the remarkable findings he and his colleagues have made, including primitive human-sized tyrannosaurs; monstrous carnivores even larger than T. rex; and paradigm-shifting feathered raptors from China.

An electrifying scientific history that unearths the dinosaurs’ epic saga, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs will be a definitive and treasured account for decades to come.

Includes 75 images, world maps of the prehistoric earth, and a dinosaur family tree.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
By Elizabeth Kolbert

Kolbert Elizabeth
Released: 2015-01-06
Paperback (336 pages)

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
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  • The Sixth Extinction An Unnatural History
Product Description:

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE
ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW'S 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST

A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes

Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

Edge of Extinction #1: The Ark Plan
By Laura Martin

HARPERCOLLINS
Released: 2017-05-02
Paperback (384 pages)

Edge of Extinction #1: The Ark Plan
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Product Description:

Jurassic World meets Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in this epic new middle grade series full of heart-pounding action and breathtaking chills! "Amazing adventures!" raves Brightly.com as they recommend Edge of Extinction as a Holiday Gift for Tween Readers. 

One hundred and fifty years ago, the first dinosaurs were cloned. Soon after, they replaced humans at the top of the food chain. The only way to survive was to move into underground compounds. . . .

Five years ago, Sky Mundy’s father vanished from North Compound without a trace. Now she has just stumbled on a clue that not only suggests his disappearance is just the tip of an even larger mystery, but also points directly to the surface. To find her dad—and possibly even save the world—Sky and her best friend, Shawn, must break out of their underground home and venture topside to a land reclaimed by nature and ruled by dinosaurs.

Perfect for fans of Brandon Mull, Lisa McMann, and Rick Riordan, this exhilarating debut novel follows two courageous friends who must survive in a lost world that’s as dangerous as they’ve always feared but also unlike anything they could ever have imagined.

What Happened to the Dinosaurs? (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2)
By BRANLEY

Collins
Released: 2000-06-21
Paperback (32 pages)

What Happened to the Dinosaurs? (Let s-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2)
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  • Harpercollins Childrens Books
Product Description:

What happened to the dinosaurs?

For millions of years these fantastic creatures roamed our planet. Then, suddenly, they all disappeared. Scientists wonder why. What could have caused this huge extinction 65 million years ago?

In this enlarged edition, distinguished writer Franklyn M. Branley and award-winning artist Marc Simont provide the perfect introduction to an always fascinating subject - the disappearance of the dinosaurs.

Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children 1989 (NSTA/CBC)

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions
By Peter Brannen

Ecco
Released: 2018-06-19
Paperback (336 pages)

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth s Past Mass Extinctions
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New York Times Editors' Choice 2017

Forbes Top 10 Best Environment, Climate, and Conservation Book of 2017

As new groundbreaking research suggests that climate change played a major role in the most extreme catastrophes in the planet's history, award-winning science journalist Peter Brannen takes us on a wild ride through the planet's five mass extinctions and, in the process, offers us a glimpse of our increasingly dangerous future

Our world has ended five times: it has been broiled, frozen, poison-gassed, smothered, and pelted by asteroids. In The Ends of the World, Peter Brannen dives into deep time, exploring Earth’s past dead ends, and in the process, offers us a glimpse of our possible future.

Many scientists now believe that the climate shifts of the twenty-first century have analogs in these five extinctions. Using the visible clues these devastations have left behind in the fossil record, The Ends of the World takes us inside “scenes of the crime,” from South Africa to the New York Palisades, to tell the story of each extinction. Brannen examines the fossil record—which is rife with creatures like dragonflies the size of sea gulls and guillotine-mouthed fish—and introduces us to the researchers on the front lines who, using the forensic tools of modern science, are piecing together what really happened at the crime scenes of the Earth’s biggest whodunits.

Part road trip, part history, and part cautionary tale, The Ends of the World takes us on a tour of the ways that our planet has clawed itself back from the grave, and casts our future in a completely new light.

The Amazing Dinosaur Detectives: Amazing Facts, Myths and Quirks of the Dinosaur World
By Maggie Li

Pavilion Children's
Released: 2017-04-01
Hardcover (32 pages)

The Amazing Dinosaur Detectives: Amazing Facts, Myths and Quirks of the Dinosaur World
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  • Pavilion Books
Product Description:
The Amazing Dinosaur Detectives is a fun and informative insight into the inner and outer world of everything dinosaur. We all know that the dinosaurs walked the Earth millions of years ago, but we’re going to break the myths behind their extinction.Some dinosaurs had amazing teeth, claws, scales and hidden talents. Even though most were smaller than the T-Rex, they could outwit them and stay on top. You may think we’re joking when we say Gigantosaurus, but we’re not – there really was such a thing and we’re going to get to the bottom of what it looked like and how it survived in such a hostile world.Explore fossils, see how long the dinosaurs actually lived on Earth (compared to us!) and see what the Earth actually looked like in their time. Which dinosaur was the longest? Which was the fastest? Which was the loudest? Find out who was a clever dinosaur, and who was not…We reveal the hidden talents of their daily lives, what they ate and how they ate it, how they entertained themselves, how they battled with each other, how they made their homes and what eventually caused their demise.Following on from BUG DETECTIVE and THE AMAZING HUMAN BODY DETECTIVES, this follows the same interesting, fun and quirky look at the dinosaur in all its shapes and sizes. Hidden elements appear on every page making this interactive and enjoyable. This series looks at the facts as well as dispelling the myths.
The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction
By Robert T. Bakker

William Morrow
Hardcover (481 pages)

The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and Their Extinction
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One of the world's leading paleontologists presents revolutionary discoveries about how dinosaur brains worked, how their metabolism influenced their lives, and comments on dozens of other heretical ideas about dinosaur habits and habitats
Night Comes to the Cretaceous: Dinosaur Extinction and the Transformation of Modern Geology
By James Lawrence Powell

Brand: W H Freeman
Hardcover (268 pages)

Night Comes to the Cretaceous: Dinosaur Extinction and the Transformation of Modern Geology
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In 1980, the radical theory was proposed that a comet or meteor struck the Earth 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and 70 percent of all other species. "Night Comes to the Cretaceous" is the first comprehensive and objective account of how this incredible theory has changed the course of science. 35 illustrations.
The Great Dinosaur Extinction Controversy (Helix Books)
By Charles Officer

Basic Books
Hardcover (224 pages)

The Great Dinosaur Extinction Controversy (Helix Books)
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Refutes the commonly accepted theory explaining the extinction of the dinosaurs and offers an alternative explanation for the mass extinctions that occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period
Pathfinder Adventure Path: Siege of the Dinosaurs (Extinction Curse 4 of 6) (P2)
By Kate Baker

Paizo Inc.
Game (96 pages)
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The heroes and their circus arrive in Willowside, a swamp community in dire need of diversion from the relentless expansion of the blighted land known as the Welt. Willowside soon experiences a problem of a different sort, as dinosaur-riding xulgaths blockade the town. The heroes mount a defense of the village and learn what has brought the xulgaths to this isolated settlement. When the heroes break the siege, they learn that the xulgaths follow a monstrous ex-slave and have forsaken their directive to assault a nearby aeon tower. The tower's current occupants know more, and put the heroes on the path to reach the fifth and final aeon orb.

“Siege of the Dinosaurs” is a Pathfinder adventure for four 13th-level characters. This adventure continues the Extinction Curse Adventure Path, a six-part, monthly campaign in which the heroes lead a traveling circus as they unravel a plot to eradicate all life from the islands of the Inner Sea. This volume also includes a gazetteer of the town of Willowside and lore about the inhabitants of the Abyssal realm of Gluttondark, as well as new monsters and xulgath-themed rules.

Each monthly full-color softcover Pathfinder Adventure Path volume contains an in-depth adventure scenario, stats for several new monsters, and support articles meant to give Game Masters additional material to expand their campaign. Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes use the Open Game License and work with both the Pathfinder RPG and the world’s oldest fantasy RPG.


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