Many say “bigger is better,” but when it come to species survival, the more appropriate adage is “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
Dinosaurs have to have been the most impressive and fearsome creatures ever to appear on planet Earth. Regardless of how majestic large mammals such as elephants and whales are, they simply cannot match the brute elemental force of dinosaurs.
Although these animals ruled the Earth for millions of years, they disappeared in what was, in effect, a geological snap of the fingers. As far as humanity goes, it’s probably a good thing that they did, since no mammals much larger than opossums would ever have been able to evolve in the face of dinosaurian competition and predation.
A Real Apocalypse
It is thought by most scientists now that the impact of an asteroid was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs approximately 65 million years ago. This catastrophic impact occurred in the ocean just off Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
Estimates put the size of the asteroid at about six miles in diameter, and its impact caused a crater a bit over 100 miles across. The crater has been named for the nearby town of Chicxulub, and the massive collision is generally referred to as the K-T Event.
When an object of this size strikes the Earth at a high velocity, it will not only cause an immense crater, but it will also throw enormous amounts of dust and water vapor up into the atmosphere in a huge cloud. It was this cloud, not the actual asteroid itself, that was the source of the great extinction.
Climate Change on a Grand Scale
Over a period of several weeks, the cloud of debris spread over the entire globe, blocking out sunlight. As the obstruction obscured the sun, temperatures began to drop and snow started to fall even in tropical regions. Even if the falling temperatures had not killed the larger dinosaurs, plant life died, causing a lack of food that would soon polish off the large herbivores; their demise would in turn be followed shortly by that of the bigger meat eaters.
Although about half of all living animal species on Earth perished in the K-T Event, there were survivors, and one thing they all had in common is that they were generally small. Smaller animals were able to find shelter in burrows, and those with fur or feathers had some insulation from the cold as well. Their food requirements were smaller, too; it is obviously much easier for an animal that weighs five pounds to find a meal than it is for one that weighs five tons.
While the Chicxulub asteroid impact is the most probable cause of dinosaur extinction, there were other factors that at least contributed to it:
- At about the same time as the asteroid impact, there was massive volcanic activity in India. The Deccan Traps produced so much lava that the flows covered an area of about 200,000 square miles—a bit larger than California. Could the asteroid impact have triggered the eruptions?
- For those who favor the notion of a slower extinction, continental drift was another contributing factor. As the continents drew farther and farther apart, climates changed and cooler temperatures reduced the food supply for plant-eating dinosaurs.
- Some scientists believe that mammals may have had a paw in the extinction of the dinosaurs, too, either by competing for scant food resources or by eating their eggs.
Whether the dinosaurs’ fight for life was ended by a combination of punches or a single mighty blow, they will always inspire awe. Dinosaurs and their world have excited the imaginations of children and adults ever since their discovery.
Fortunately, cataclysmic asteroid impacts are rare, but the lesson to be learned is a good one. No species is too big to fail.
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