How long did dinosaurs live?

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Dinosaur Jungle   >   Dinosaur Facts   >   Life Span

Dinosaur Life Span

While we know when dinosaurs first appeared (during the Triassic period), and when they finally went extinct (at the end of the Cretaceous period), one common question is how long did individual dinosaur live for?

There is no single answer: There were many different types of dinosaurs, and they ranged in size from chicken-sized or smaller, to over 100 feet (30 meters) long, and each species would have a different life span (just as different species of birds and mammals have different life spans). However, a number of different approaches have been suggested for estimating the life span of a dinosaur:
  • One idea is to look at the life span of modern large reptiles. The common alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, has a life span of 60 to 70 years, and there are reliable records of a number of giant tortoises living for over 150 years (for example, a tortoise named Harriet, was collected by Charles Darwin in the Galápagos islands at about age 5 in 1835, and died in Australia Zoo in Queensland, Australia in 2006, meaning she lived to about 176 to 181 years old).

    Of course, the problem with using these figures, is that dinosaurs differ in many ways from modern reptiles - for example, some dinosaurs were massively larger, some dinosaurs are believed to have been warm-blooded and bird-like, etc.

  • Another idea is to use growth rates of modern reptiles. Using this approach, provided we can find a dinosaur hatchling (or a egg which was close to hatching), and compare it to the adult-size of the same type of dinosaur, we can estimate how long it would take for the hatchling to grow to adult-size. (Of course, this approach gives us no indication about how long the adults lived).

    The problem is of course the assumption that dinosaurs would have grown at the same rate as modern reptiles. We simply do not know whether that is true. Furthermore, if we actually try this approach, we find that large dinosaurs (such as Sauropod dinosaurs), which hatched from comparatively tiny eggs, could have taken 100 or 200 years to grow to adult-size, which does seem rather unlikely.

  • If we measure the life span of modern animals, we can make a general observation that larger animals tend to live longer than smaller animals. Based on this approach, we might expect the largest dinosaurs (the Sauropods again) to live on average for 100 years, and smaller dinosaurs to have much shorter life spans.

    This method of course only provides a very rough estimate. It is also based on the assumption that all animals follow more or less the same formula - in real-life things are (of course) much more complicated.
All the methods described above, of course, only lead to a very approximate estimate of life span, and each method is based on somewhat dubious underlying assumptions. There is however a method to obtain direct evidence of dinosaur's age at its death, by looking at fossils. This method uses the fact that animal bones, show annual growth rings (similar to tree rings) which can be using a microscope and specialist equipment.

From research into these rings, we are now starting to learn more about how dinosaurs grew and how long they lived. The evidence seems to show that dinosaurs grew quickly, that at least some species (including Tyrannosaurus rex) bred while still growing. Of course, the interpretation of growth rings is itself a subject that has generated much debate, and new mysteries - such as unusual variations in the growth patterns of some types of dinosaur.

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