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As time goes on, Paleontologists discover more and more fossil remains, and with that more and more information about dinosaurs. Yet even with the great deal of fossils that have been discovered in the past century, scientists are still forced to make educated guesses about certain dinosaur behaviors, traits, and appearance. Dr. Lawrence Witmer’s recent research addresses this issue. Dr. Witmer argues that the fleshy nostril of dinosaurs lies in a different place than has been assumed and portrayed for over the last one hundred years.
Dr. Witmer’s discovery was published in the August issue of Science magazine in 2001 and may change how we envision dinosaurs forever. Movies like “Jurassic Park” and the BBC’s “Walking with Dinosaurs” portray dinosaurs with fleshy nostrils which lie very high on their head. Not only in popular media is this true but in sculptures, kids’ books and scholarly journals.
How could so many scientists have been wrong for so long? Very easily. When a dinosaur fossil is discovered it has an extremely large nasal cavity in its skull, sometimes several feet in length. Since flesh does not preserve all too well over the course of millions of years, paleontologists have been forced to make an educated guess as to where the fleshy nostril lies within the larger nasal cavity.
Since the 1880’s scientists assumed that the nostril existed near the top of the head. The reason for this is that when sauropods (long necked dinosaurs) were discovered, it was thought that they must live under water in order to avoid crushing themselves under their own weight. This would explain their long necks. It would also follow that the fleshy nostril would be near the top of the head so the creatures could breathe easily while their bodies were under water.
Even after it was realized these dinosaurs did not live under the water, the idea that the fleshy nostril existed near the top of the head persisted. The idea was also spread to most other dinosaurs that were discovered thereafter. Perhaps you have noticed this in a drawing or movie, that Tyrannosaurus Rex’s large nostrils do not lie in the front of his face but instead halfway up his head.
Witmer believes his years of research with his “DinoNose” project prove that dinosaurs’ fleshy nostrils actually exist on the front end of the nasal cavity instead of the back end as was once believed.
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"Inaccurate Portrayal of the Dinosaur Face." 123HelpMe.com. 16 Aug 2018
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Nostrils have many very important purposes in the lives of dinosaurs and other animals. If nostrils lie near the back of the nasal cavity, much of their use cannot be utilized. If the fleshy nostril lies in the front of the nasal cavity like Dr. Witmer believes it would provide the dinosaurs with a better sense of smell. Certainly almost all dinosaurs relied upon this sense in their daily life. Predators needed an acute sense of smell to find their prey, while the prey needed the sense in order to avoid predators.1 The sense of smell is also thought to be important in the process of dinosaur mating as.
If the fleshy nostril was located at the front of the nasal cavity it would also provide the dinosaur with a better sense of taste as well. More importantly it would help keep the dinosaur better adapted for survival. With the nostrils located more to the front of the head dinosaurs would be able to breath much easier than if the nostrils were located on top of their head. This would allow dinosaurs to perform daily tasks like hunting much easier with far less effort. The more natural airflow would also help to keep the head and most importantly the brain cool. This trait could help keep the dinosaur alive in the most humid weather or in the most stressful of conditions.
Though Dr. Witmer’s ideas seem practical they still needed to be tested in some manner. Without dinosaurs to test his hypothesis on however, Witmer chose the next best thing. Today scientists feel that some members of the bird and reptile families are the closest relatives to the ancient dinosaurs. Witmer therefore used these animals as evidence for his theory. Witmer took X-Rays of over 60 types of lizards, birds, crocodilians and turtles in order to see their fleshy nostril placement in relation to the larger nasal cavity.2 In almost all of the X-Rays it could be seen that the fleshy nostril was located near or at the front of the nasal cavity as he had hypothesized.
While studying the fleshy nostrils of these animals, Witmer also noticed that small blood vessels feed the tissue of the nostrils. Besides supplying the nostril will fresh blood and oxygen, these blood vessels also leave small imprints on the bones of the nasal cavity. From these observations, Witmer felt it could be assumed that wherever these blood vessel marks were found on the fossils of dinosaurs was where the fleshy nostril must have been located as well. As he predicted, Witmer found these markings near the front of the dinosaurs’ nasal cavity and not in the back.
Dr. Witmer believed that since the dinosaurs’ closest relatives from the present exhibited these traits, it is reasonable to assume that dinosaurs themselves would share these same characteristics. As Witmer himself stated, the research “basically says that dinosaurs are like almost all other animals today”.3
Many have hailed Witmer’s efforts. Though to many the research seems insignificant, it is an example of the efforts to go beyond just the fossils and learn more about dinosaurs without merely guessing. As Witmer’s colleague Dr. Christopher Brochu stated, “He’s looking at something a lot of us took for granted and applying some common sense to it”.4
Witmer’s discoveries bring to light the fact that even with all of the recent discoveries in the field of paleontology; scientists are left to their own assumptions in many instances about the traits and characteristics of ancient creatures. When watching “Jurassic Park” the viewer must realize that not only could the placement of the T-Rex’s nostril be incorrect but the way and speed at which the T-Rex moves, or the way he hunts his prey or interacts with other dinosaurs.
But as research like Dr. Witmer’s continues to be conducted it can be assumed that the amount and accuracy of our knowledge about dinosaurs will only increase with time. The impact of Witmer’s research still has yet to be seen. Perhaps illustrations of dinosaurs in schoolbooks and scientific journals will include his findings from now on. Or perhaps Steven Spielberg will correct his representations of dinosaurs in a special edition of “Jurassic Park” some years down the road. In any case it is exciting to wonder and hypothesize how different dinosaurs will look and behave in future media representations as our knowledge of these creatures continues increase.
1 Science, Vol 293, Issue 5531. pg. 853
2 Science, Vol 293, Issue 5531. pg. 851
3 Science, Vol 293, Issue 5531. pg. 779
4 Science, Vol 293, Issue 5531. pg. 779