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Dinosaur fossils reveal evolution's big picture, says Paul Sereno

other reptiles. It now looks like both the dinosaurs and the large mammals that followed the dinosaurs' extinction came to dominate their world essentially by accident-not as the inevitable outcome of natural selection.

Of course, dinosaurs didn't disappear completely. Some evolved into birds, and the stages of this transformation are recorded in the fossil record. According to Sereno, recent discoveries have been particularly useful in shedding light on how animal groups develop major new abilities such as flying. Several spectacular finds in recent years have shown scientists just how effectively dinosaurs recycled many of their features that had been originally designed for other purposes. Once the "avian dinosaurs" were launched, they quickly evolved in ways that helped them fly even better, shrinking several times in body size, for example.

A third big question about evolution concerns the role that major changes in geography, caused by the shifting of the Earth's tectonic plates, play in the evolution of new species. The dinosaurs are a prime subject for studying this problem, because they reached the height of their diversity during the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea in the early Cretaceous period (about 150 to 100 million years ago). It is now becoming clear that this diversity arose as a patchwork of regional extinctions of certain species and replacements by others, not by the creation of new lineages, which has been considered as an alternative possibility.

Eventually, the dinosaurs met their demise at the end of the Cretaceous. But Sereno isn't letting the mystery of these animals' disappearance overshadow the wealth of information they left behind during their reign. "The Mesozoic world and the dinosaurs offer a look into one of the grandest experiments in the history of life," Sereno said.

Science's special issue on evolution also contains five other articles, an editorial, and a special news package. One article l
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Contact: Heather Singmaster
hsingmas@aaas.org
202-326-6414
American Association for the Advancement of Science
24-Jun-1999


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