When Dinos Roamed the Tundra

Reading the scientific theories about how dinosaurs coped with the Arctic winter reminds me of what wimps humans are

By Rob Breeding

I’m as old as dirt. When I studied dinosaurs in grade school I was taught the giant reptiles were lumbering, cold-blooded dolts. They dominated the ancient world only because it was a swampy, tropical greenhouse that played to their strengths.

Our textbooks told us the lowly stegosaurus was so stupid it needed a second aft-mounted peanut brain to command its spiked tail weaponry. That tail was used to fend off tyrannosaurs that stood bolt upright. Early fossil displays required the tail to make a bone fracturing 90-degree bend where it met the ground.

The only attribute to this posture was that it made it easier to costume actors playing Godzilla in those Japanese monster films of the 1950s and 60s.

The folks who study the fossil record have done a lot to change our understanding of the life of dinosaurs. Still, there are limits to the insight we can gleam from the fossil record. We’ll never know exactly what they were like. That would take a time machine.

If I ever get my hands on one — a time machine, I mean — the Cretaceous is my first stop.

Science now suggests I would encounter warm-blooded dinos, feathered and far more lively than the dopey beasts of those old textbooks. These adaptations allowed dinosaurs to range far from the tropics and their fossil record extends north of the Arctic Circle.

The polar regions weren’t the frozen icescapes they are today, but they were cold enough for snow. And reptilian counselors would have had plenty of winter work helping moody theropods cope with seasonal affective disorder aggravated by the long winter night.

Reading the scientific theories about how dinosaurs coped with the Arctic winter reminds me of what wimps humans are when it comes to cold. Yes, we’ve mastered winter-defeating technologies such as fire and recycled soda bottle fleece, but physically we remain frail.

I grew up in Southern California before moving to Montana in 1992. It snowed in my hometown twice in the years I lived there. The dogs would occasionally wake to lacy ice in their water bowl.

I played football as a youngster and always dreamed of competing in one of those snowy, mud bowls like those late-season contests involving the Vikings or Packers. It seemed like such fun. But in California my football coaches mostly worried about heat stroke. They sometimes gave us salt tablets before games. I always barfed.

Later, I took pride in surviving my first couple of Montana winters, though I’ve learned to dread the season. These days I mostly survive northern winters by staying out of them as much as possible. I travel south when my teaching schedule allows. When it doesn’t, I stay indoors.

I’m south now, hunting quail in the mountains near my old stomping grounds. I killed a California quail the other day, and my young setter Jade made her first retrieve. When I took the bird from her I noted how delicate it felt. But that quail was making a living in a sagebrush-covered flat about a mile high. While daytime temperatures were comfortably in the 50s, once the sun set it got cold, quick.

You may have seen pictures of quail circled up to ride out a chilly winter night. They huddle together like this, tails to the middle. They need seven or eight birds to form a circle with sufficient mass to fend off the cold. Spend enough time in quail country and you’ll learn to spot piles of droppings surrounded by matted grass where the birds roosted the night before.

They somehow manage an entire winter like this, in temperatures that would kill a human without our winter-defying technology.

That top knotted modern dinosaur seemed but a wisp in hand. Delicate yes, but still tougher than me in almost every way possible.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.

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