Random Thought: Has Anyone Really Looked at Dinosaur Sapience?

I was driving home from work today, and the most random question popped into my head: How do we know there weren’t any Dinosaurs species capable of creating a civilization on even a hunter-gatherer level? Has anyone taken a look to see if there’s any evidence of it? What kind of evidence would we need to look for?

A quick dive into Wikipedia provided me with two terms to consider: sentience and sapience. Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive subjectively. Avoiding the pitfalls of anthropomorphizing can be tricky, but I would argue that any animal that can recognize itself in the mirror, or dream, or figure out a simple problem should lay some small claim to sentience. Sapience is the the trickier one: For the purposes of my essay, lets call it a combination of sentience, self-awareness, conciousness, memory and judgment.

People, all joking aside, are both sentient and sapient. Good arguments are being made that Cetaceans like whales and dolphins are pretty damned close; so are elephants. So are crows and ravens and parrots and magpies. Do I need to mention Chimps, bonobos, gorillas? We’re only just starting to come to grips with the idea that we aren’t as unique as we think we are. What separates us from the animals isn’t so much the sheer capacity of our minds as our opposable thumbs, our social nature (in that we communicate our individual experiences in a number of ways to a larger collective who can understand and process that information), and our tool making. Brains, hands, gadgets and a willingness to share and teach what we figure out to others: That’s how we conquered the world.

Who’s to say dinosaurs didn’t do the same?

We know from over a century of paleontological progress that dinosaurs were not the cold-blooded, stupid, swamp-dwelling leviathans we once took them for. Dinosaurs filled all the evolutionary niches of land, sea, and air, and ruled the world as the dominant air-breathing fauna for around 160 million years. In just 65 million years of evolution Humanity went from something the size and nature of a field mouse to putting a man on the moon. Is it such a stretch to imagine dinosaurs could have spun off a sentient, sapient species in almost thrice as long? Especially when you think that we’re still discovering new dinosaur species all the time, and there are many more that we will never find?

There are dinosaurs in the Theropoda branch (raptors, for a start) that had large brains, binocular vision, grasping hands, and show signs of pack hunting. Perhaps that makes them no better than wolves who could pick things up, but let’s entertain the possibility that some of them might have become something more. What would that look like?

Elephants, dolphins and whales communicate information in a way we are only beginning to understand. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say even non-sapient dinosaurs had the same ability. There’s a lot of fossil evidence that hadrosaurs could make a lot of different, specific noises. That’s clearly the product of evolution, and shows that the sounds conveyed an evolutionary advantage. There’s a wide gap between that and language, but at least it shows that dinosaurs were no more mute than the animal kingdom of today. If you were to combine those vocalizations with our big-brained, grasping, pack-hunting dinosaurs, could it have developed into a language? If so, how far does it go from there to a parallel to human development?

Archaeology studies the physical remnants of humanity’s past, and it has done an admirable job of tracing us back over hundreds of thousands of years. From cities back to towns back to villages back to pastoralists back to hunter-gatherers, there are remnants of mankind to be found and studied. If humanity disappeared tomorrow, there would be plastic and radioactive material that would exist for hundreds of thousands or millions of years to remember us by. Would it still be there 65 million years from now? Probably not. That poses a problem in our search for sapient dinosaurs.

65 million years is a longer period of time than the mind can easily wrap its head around. 65 million years ago the Rocky Mountains were just foothills. The Great Plains were at the bottom of a tremendous inland sea. The Atlantic Ocean was about the same size as the modern Mediterranean. Ground level 65 million years ago can be miles underground today, or ten thousand feet up in the air, depending on the whims of continental drift. We’re not going to find anything from a lost dinosaur culture today using the tools and methods archaeology has left to us. If there was ever a dinosaur village, its ruins are now twisted into unremarkable bedrock. If there was ever dinosaur cave paintings or carvings, those two have now been folded back into the earth. The fossilized dinosaurs we have today are mostly the result of sandstorms or flash floods. The skeleton of a man caught in such a disaster will look just as wild and unsapient to the unimaginably distant future as the dinosaurs do today, especially when you consider that for the vast majority of human history, that skeleton isn’t likely to be wearing a wrist watch or a pair of glasses to show he can fashion things out of the natural world.

That does bring us to an interesting point, though: For most of our history, Mankind has had a toolkit to be discovered. From the time we were still walking the plains of Africa, we were knapping flint and shaping obsidian to make our lives easier. Would dinosaurs have ever needed stone tools, though? Modern men faced with a box wrapped up in packing tape resort to their teeth and nails when left without a cutting implement. Dinosaurs would have been much better equipped with claw and fang than we are. Killing prey and cleaning carcasses would have been much easier for them. They very well could have found a use for ropes, leathers, woodwork, decorations of bone or ivory, the domestication of fire to make their lives easier and better, but those are difficult to find even a few tens of thousands of years later for men. If they ever existed, they are surely lost after tens of millions of years of geological progress. What, then, can we look for?

I can think of only one thing guaranteed to have survived the immense time between then and now: Alloys. If dinosaurs brought copper and tin together to make bronze, that will survive, even if the immense pressures of weight and time have flattened their implements into unrecognizable lumps. Bronze does not happen naturally. If we find bronze artifacts in the strata of the Triassic, Jurassic, or Cretaceous Periods, then they were wrought by a species and civilization that has been lost to us, and can only dimly be imagined. I would argue, though, shouldn’t someone be keeping an eye out for them? Are paleontologists looking for any signs of prehistoric metal working, and, if they found it, would they have the courage to advance the theory as to their origin?

Understand, I’m not saying Dinosaurs had a civilization, or, if they did, it only advanced as far as the Bronze Age. If it went at least as far as the Bronze Age, though, it will leave Bronze behind, even where all other traces of it are lost. Finding bronze embedded in rock sixty to a hundred million years old will be as clear a sign of a lost civilization as finding a dinosaur lunar lander on the moon: We won’t know anything about them, except that they existed. That, in itself, would be remarkable.

What if sapient dinosaurs never made it out of the Stone Age? We were content to linger there for the vast majority of our own existence. What if they never progressed further than the San of the Kalahari, or the Australian Aboriginies? Then, if they existed, they are lost to us. Short of finding a new species of dinosaur improbably clutching a shaped stone implement –something, by the way, we can’t even claim to have found from paleolithic humanity yet– we will never know for sure.

It’s still a fun think to contemplate, though. Isn’t it?

Further reading, collected quickly from Google:






7 thoughts on “Random Thought: Has Anyone Really Looked at Dinosaur Sapience?

  1. LJV

    Hey there. A cool thought to have had while driving home…And you tackled it in an intelligent way. Something funny is that at the point of or just below the K/Pg boundary (it’s not supposed to be called K/T anymore) the world is covered with carbon spheres. A particular type of soot. As produced by INDUSTRY. Industrial burning. The charcoal expected from mass post-asteroid forest fires is nowhere to be seen. Industry?

  2. Kevin

    I don’t think that bronze would survive; both copper and tin corrode. Archaeological bronze finds can be corroded after only a thousand years or less in the ground. It gets worse if sea water is involved. As a result, if there were bronze-using dinosaurs, the bronze would have all corroded away by now to form a mixture of copper and tin salts. In fact the only material that would be certain to survive would be gold.

    Evidence for such a species would be very hard to find, what with meteor strikes, wind and water erosion, glaciation, tectonic movement, UV degradation of plastics, geological pressure probably converting plastics into some gooey, tarry mess, probably micro-organisms evolving to eat synthetic substrates, and so on. Which just goes to show what would be left of our technological advances over a similar space of time.

    Interesting thing is, the planet has probably changed drastically since then. The oxygen content was 30% I gather, and some calculations on the wing loading of pterosaurs suggest that atmospheric pressure was 2-5 bar. That’s plenty of oxygen to support a large brain. Come to think of it, things like steel working would be easier than now, due to the higher oxygen content of the air; you wouldn’t need as much of a blast to get the fire as hot. Glassmaking would be easier too. Whether the residue from such processes (e.g. slag) would survive is another matter.

    BTW, if the ideas about the atmosphere in that period are correct then would lead to the following conclusions: the meteor strike cost Earth about half its atmosphere through atmospheric blow-out which would then rapidly lead to death by suffocation of any creature surviving the impact and blast that required high oxygen levels or high atmospheric pressure in order to live. I don’t think they’d survive long enough for the impact winter and food to be a consideration. That would be the reason why it was largely small creatures that survived. It would also be why herbivores don’t grow to the size of Argentinosaurus any more, nor birds grow to the size of giant pterosaurs. It is no longer possible, given our contemporary atmospheric composition and pressure. Conversely, we wouldn’t survive long in the dinosaurs’ environment, given the high temperatures (I’ve seen 40C mentioned), high humidity (high pressure atmosphere can hold more humidity), and high pressure.

    It might also be an idea to avoid being hit by another large meteor. 🙂 That particular impact was nine times larger than the minimum required to cause blowout, and was, IRC, in the high gigaton range.

  3. Kevin

    I just did a look round. There’s evidence of carbon cenospheres around the K/Pg boundary. Appearance of these in recent history indicates the start of the Industrial Revolution, and are caused by combustion of hydrocarbons.

    There is an argument that cenospheres were present globally 300ky before the impact, but that’s being argued back and forth. One side argues that the contemporary, pre-impact, sedimentation rates (which rise in a pretty linear manner) means that they can’t be contemporary with the impact. The opposing side reckons that they are contemporary with the impact, and that post-impact sedimentation rates were different. The presence of cenospheres is then explained as being due to the meteor hitting a coal seam or oil reservoir, or possibly due to the burning of plant oils.

    All in all, it is going to be pretty difficult to distinguish between strata contemporary with the impact, and those a few thousand years earlier. Also a population of intelligent dinosaurs might not make as much of an impact as we do. They laid eggs, and were probably seasonal breeders. We breed all year round. Our population is therefore likely to grow at a much higher rate than theirs, and thus leave marks much more quickly. An intelligent species of dinosaur – assuming that it developed technology at least as advanced as the Industrial Revolution – might thus take far longer to make a global impact simply because if its lower population growth rate. It might even have never reached a global distribution, as we have.

    There’s also indication of a rapidly warming climate, and increasing extinctions, preceding the impact by a very long chalk, but that could be due to a number of factors. It has been argued that the Deccan Traps vulcanism was responsible for this, but other arguments seem to oppose this.

  4. Kevin

    I did some more digging. It seems that halocarbon contamination won’t persist either. There are various organisms, such as Dehalococcoides, that dechlorinate and debrominate organochlorine and organobromine compounds. They are obligate halorespirators (i.e. we use oxygen, they break out chlorine or bromine from carbon-chlorine or carbon-bromine bonds to do the same thing). The end result of halorespiration are inorganic halides (e.g. salt) and environmentally neutral or beneficial compounds such as ethene.

    The range that Dehalococcoides can deal with is amazing – it can dechlorinate any chlorinated compound, regardless of whether it is an alkane, alkene, alkyne, or aromatic. If it is organic, and has chlorine in it, it will eat it. What’s more such species are ancient – Dehalococcoides speciated from its nearest relative 1.5 million years ago, when the only thing it didn’t bother with was reducing vinyl chloride to ethane. Not enough vinyl chloride to make it advantageous, apparently. That changed about a century ago; the moment we put enough vinyl chloride into the environment, Dehalococcoides reshuffled its genetics via a frameshift mutation, and started reducing vinyl chloride to ethene. Dehaloccoides has sections of very mobile genetic information, enabling it to mutate in next to no time in response to a new substrate. The mutation is then shared laterally amongst populations by bacterial conjugation.

    One of the oddities – there are several – of Dehalococcoides is that the segment that codes for enzymes for making vitamin B12 is truncated. B12 is It therefore relies on other bacteria producing this vitamin. In particular, it works best with methanogenic bacteria that produce vitamin B12, which are fairly common in contaminated sites like landfill sites. Dehalococcoides also has a peculiar cell wall structure which renders it immune to antibiotics. If it is short of a suitable organohalide substrate, or a source of vitamin B12, it goes into suspended animation, reviving when B12 and a suitable substrate become available again. In fact the only thing that seems to be able to kill it is oxygen. However, oxygen isn’t a problem in river sediments an in underground water sources like aquifers.

    The biggest oddity is why it dechlorinates things at all. In all probability, it was originally a marine bacteria that broke down organobromine compounds. There are lots of organobromine compounds in the sea (e.g. in red algae). Whilst it gets more energy by breaking carbon-chlorine bonds than it does carbon-bromine bonds, the transition to freshwater environments is bit like moving from the rain forest to the middle of the Sahara. Naturally occurring organochlorine compounds are vanishingly rare on land and in freshwater. You get the occasional input from forest fires, and from volcanoes – simple things like methyl chloride – but otherwise levels are so close to zero as makes no difference. However these organisms are global, and have been occupying pristine river sediments and aquifers for millions of years. To judge from the genetics of this species, Dehalococcoides has also been capable for all that time of devouring a spectacular range of chlorinated compounds, including PCBs. The question is, how did this situation arise?

    Dehalococcoides should not have made the jump given that, in fresh water, the organochlorine compounds it needs range from zero to vanishingly rare. The only answer that I can see is that somewhere in the remote past fresh water organochlorine compounds were far more prevalent – and in the entire range of possible carbon skeletons – enabling Dehalococcoides to make the move to a freshwater environment and start munching anything that contained carbon, hydrogen and chlorine. This would be consistent with the bacteria’s genetics and evolutionary processes. The only problem is that no one has yet dated, from genetic variation, how far back this would have occurred. This is not surprising; such organisms were only found recently. If it is predating the K/Pg extinction event, one might be able to argue that this might be evidence of a wide range of organochlorine compounds entering the environment, and draw conclusions based on possible modes of entry. If you have forms where the most likely source is synthetic, you can draw conclusions from that. Though to judge from the genetics, it would appear that Dehalococcoides was, at one point, faced with a simultaneous range of different organochlorine compounds, at least in terms of genetic/geological time.

    BTW, there are also a number of recently discovered species that eat plastics, including nylon. It is unknown how long they’ve been able to do this. If it is recent, presumably their original substrates were sufficiently similar as to enable a slight mutation to successfully digest plastics.

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