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What if dinosaurs hadn’t died out?

It was the kind of cataclysm that we can scarcely imagine. When an asteroid 15km-wide (nine miles) slammed into planet Earth 66 million years ago, it struck with a force equivalent to about 10 billion Hiroshima bombs. A radioactive fireball seared everything for hundreds of miles in every direction and created tsunamis that sped halfway around the globe. Even the atmosphere may have started to burn, and no land animal more than 25kg (55lb) would survive; in fact, around 75% of all species became extinct. The so-called ‘non-avian’ dinosaurs didn’t have a hope, and only the small, feathered flying dinosaurs we know today as birds would make it through.


But what if history had taken a different course? What if the asteroid had missed or arrived a few minutes earlier? That is the scenario suggested by researchers featured in The Day the Dinosaurs Died, a recent BBC documentary. These scientists – including geologist Sean Gulick of the University of Texas – argue that if the asteroid had arrived mere moments earlier or later, rather than hitting the shallow waters of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, it would have plunged into the deep sea of the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, absorbing some of the force and limiting the expulsion of sulphur-rich sediments that choked the atmosphere for the months or years ahead.

但是如果历史朝着另一方向发展呢?如果小行星错过了地球,或者提早几分钟来到又会怎样?在BBC近期播放的一部纪录片《恐龙灭绝之日》(The Day the Dinosaurs Died)中,研究人员提出了这一假设的情形。得克萨斯大学(University of Texas)的地质学家肖恩·古立克(Sean Gulick)等科学家认为,假如小行星提早或者推迟一会儿来到地球,它就不会落到墨西哥尤卡坦半岛(Yucatan Peninsula)的浅水地带,而是撞进太平洋或大西洋的深处。这会吸收一部分能量,并限制含硫颗粒的扩散。而正是这些含硫颗粒在后面的数月或数年里造成了令人窒息的大气层。
Had that been the case, there would still have been a catastrophe and extinctions, but some larger dinosaurs may have survived. Pondering the course of this alternative timeline is an intriguing thought experiment that dinosaur scientists are only too enthusiastic to speculate about. Would dinosaurs be here today? What new dinosaurs might have appeared? Would dinosaurs have developed human-like intelligence? Would mammals have remained in the shadows? Would humans have evolved and – as depicted in Disney’s 2015 film The Good Dinosaur – found a way to survive alongside them?

如果是那样的话,地球仍然会遭遇灾难和物种灭绝,但是一些体型较大的恐龙有可能生存下来。这条不同的时间线成为了一个有趣的思维实验。恐龙学家对此感到非常兴奋。恐龙会延续至今?会出现新的品种吗?恐龙会进化出像人类一样的智慧吗?哺乳类会继续生活在恐龙的阴影中吗?人类能否进化——正如2015年迪士尼动画片《恐龙当家》(The Good Dinosaur)所描绘的那样——并找到与恐龙共存的方式吗?

Some researchers argue that, even without the asteroid, the reign of the dinosaurs may already have been ending. “I take a slightly unorthodox view that dinosaurs were doomed anyway because of cooling climates,” says Mike Benton, a palaeontologist at the University of Bristol in the UK. “They had just about held their own to the end of the Cretaceous, but we know that mammals were diversifying… [and] dinosaurs had already been declining for 40 million years.” Benton believes mammals would still have replaced the dinosaurs. He is an author of a 2016 paper suggesting dinosaurs were slower than mammals at replacing extinct species.

不过有一些研究者认为,即使没有小行星撞击,恐龙家族早已开始走向灭亡的路上。英国布里斯托大学(University of Bristol)的麦克·本顿(Mike Benton)说,"我的观点有些不太符合传统。由于气候变冷,恐龙仍然会灭绝。它们能维持到了白垩纪(Cretaceous)的末期,但是据我们所知,哺乳类动物当时正在向多样化方向发展……而在之前的4000万年里,恐龙的力量一直在衰落。"本顿认为,即使没有小行星撞击,哺乳类仍然会取代恐龙。他2016年的一篇论文认为恐龙更替灭绝物种的速度比哺乳类动物慢。

Other experts take a very different view. Carnivorous dinosaur researcher Tom Holtz at the University of Maryland in College Park, US, agrees there would have been some extinctions 66 million years ago anyway, due to eruptions and massive lava flows at the Deccan Traps in India – but he says “there’s nothing otherwise, once you’re into the Palaeocene and Eocene, that would have affected general dinosaur biology. It would be a world that Cretaceous dinosaurs would still be comfortable in.”

其他专家的看法很不一样。美国马里兰大学(University of Maryland)肉食恐龙的研究者汤姆·霍尔茨(Tom Holtz)也认为,不论怎样,6600万年前,由于印度德干暗色岩(Deccan Traps)的火山喷发和流出的大量岩浆,也会造成地球上的一些物种灭绝——但是他说:"除此之外,在进入古新世(Palaeocene)和始新世(Eocene)之后,没有什么会影响到恐龙的整体生存。那将会是一个来自白垩纪的恐龙能够舒适生存的世界。"

Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh adds that dinosaurs had survived well, doing a great diversity of things, through changing climates, for 160 million years. “Dinosaurs were still very adaptable at the end of the Cretaceous, that’s not the sign of a group that’s wasting away to extinction, just waiting for some asteroid to knock them off. It’s the sign of a group that still has a lot of evolutionary potential.”

爱丁堡大学(University of Edinburgh)的史蒂芬·布鲁赛特(Stephen Brusatte)补充说,恐龙在1.6亿年的时间里经历了气候的变化,进行了多样化的发展。"直到白垩纪末期,恐龙的适应力仍然非常强,没有出现走向灭绝的征兆,它们就是被小行星击溃的。这表明这个物种仍然有很强的进化潜力。"

Assuming dinosaurs had survived, what factors might have shaped their evolution? Climate change might have perhaps been the first big hurdle. An event known as the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, 55 million years ago, saw average global temperatures reach 8C hotter than today, and rainforests spanning much of the planet.

假如恐龙存活下来,会有哪些因素影响它们的进化?气候变化可能是首要的阻碍。在5500万年前的古新世-始新世最暖期(Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum),全球平均气温比现在高8摄氏度,地球上很多地方都为热带雨林所覆盖。

In this hothouse world with abundant vegetation perhaps many long-necked sauropods might have grown more rapidly, breeding at a younger age and shrinking in size; several ‘dwarf’ sauropods (some little bigger than a cow) were already known from European islands in the late Cretaceous. The largest titanosaurs of mid-Cretaceous South America – 40m-long (131ft) creatures heavier than two jet aircraft – were already long gone.


Another trend in the later Cretaceous was the rise of flowering plants or angiosperms. During the Jurassic, most plants were ferns and gymnosperms (which include ginkgoes, cycads and conifers). These tend to be less nutritious than angiosperms, and the huge size of sauropods may have been driven by the processing time and gut size needed to digest them efficiently.


“If plant evolution continued as it has in our modern world, the herbivorous dinosaurs would almost certainly have had a diet primarily of flowering plants,” notes Matt Bonnan a palaeontologist at Stockton University in New Jersey. “Given that they are somewhat easier to digest, perhaps we would have seen an overall decrease in body size… the gigantic sizes of Mesozoic dinosaurs might have disappeared.”

"假如植物继续朝着现代世界的方向进化,那么食草恐龙基本上会以开花植物为主要食物来源,"新泽西斯托克顿大学(Stockton University)的古生物学家马特·博南(Matt Bonnan)提到,"由于开花植物较容易消化,恐龙的体型可能会普遍减小……中生代的大型恐龙可能会灭绝。"

Along with flowering plants came fruit, which co-evolved with mammals and birds to help plants disperse seeds. Might monkey-like dinosaurs have evolved to take advantage of this resource, just as primates did in our timeline? “Many birds eat fruit. So, there may also have been non-bird dinosaurs adapted to a frugivorous diet,” says Bonnan.


Brusatte agrees that some “small, feathered dinosaurs might have gone the route of primates,” as some were already scampering about in the branches. Others may have become nectar-drinkers, spreading pollen from flower to flower in the process.


Another major event, about 34 million years ago at the Eocene-Oligocene boundary, was the separation of South America and Antarctica. This caused a circumpolar current to develop, leading to the formation of the Antarctic ice cap and cooling and drying the world. During the Oligocene, and later the Miocene, grasslands then spread across great swathes of the planet.


“Slender-legged, fast-running, herbivorous mammals became common – in the past you could amble or leap off and hide, but you can’t hide in the open grasslands,” Holtz says. This is when, in our history, we started to see a burst in the diversity of hoofed, grazing animals and the carnivores that preyed upon them.


Darren Naish, a vertebrate palaeontologist in Southampton, UK, says that perhaps in our alternative timeline the speedy, grass-mowing dinosaur equivalents would be descendants of horned relatives of Triceratops or bipedal, beaked herbivores akin to Hypsilophodon.

英国南安普敦(Southampton)的脊椎动物古生物学家达伦·奈什(Darren Naish)称,在另一条时间线上,行动快速的食草类恐龙会成为三角龙有角的相近物种或者与棱齿龙相近的两足有喙食草恐龙的后代。

“Dinosaurs already come with a huge set of evolutionary advantages that it took mammals a long time to evolve,” he adds, and would have a head start at adapting to grasslands. Duck-billed hadrosaurs had ‘batteries’ of up to 1000 teeth in their jaws, as opposed to the 40-odd teeth a horse has, so could have made short work of grinding grasses.


Dinosaurs also had better eyesight than mammals, with increased colour vision, and may have been more adept at spotting danger. Horses and cows have flattened muzzles useful for cropping tough, low-lying vegetation, so duck-bills and sauropods might also have developed squared off snouts, and sauropod necks might have shortened to aid grazing at their feet.


Even closer to the present day, dinosaurs would have had to deal with the various ice ages of the past 2.6 million years. But we know that Cretaceous dinosaurs were living above the Arctic Circle. “Maybe in cooler places you would see things with thick and elaborate pelts, covered in fuzz and feathers all the way down to the tips of their toes and tails,” says Naish.


“It wouldn’t have been difficult for a ‘woolly’ tyrannosaurus or dromaeosaur relatives of Velociraptor to evolve,” adds armoured dinosaur expert Victoria Arbour of the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. “Maybe we could have even had shaggy and woolly ceratopsians, ankylosaurs, or hadrosaurs.”

"对于和伶盗龙有亲缘关系的多毛的暴龙或驰龙来说,这并不困难,"加拿大皇家安大略博物馆(Royal Ontario Museum)的甲龙专家维多利亚·阿尔布尔(Victoria Arbour)说,"也许还会有毛茸茸的角龙、甲龙和鸭嘴龙。"

There are other adaptations common today but rare in dinosaurs. Burrowing for example, says Paul Barrett, a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. “It’s odd that dinosaurs didn’t really do it, as it’s a common way of life among lizards and snakes.” Given more time, some dinosaurs might have become subterranean specialists – the scaly or feathery equivalent of mammalian moles.

如今常见的一些适应能力在恐龙中非常少见。一个例子是刨坑,伦敦自然历史博物馆(Natural History Museum)的古生物学家保罗·巴雷特(Paul Barrett)说:"很奇怪恐龙不会刨坑,因为这是蜥蜴和蛇常见的一种生存方式。"如果恐龙能存活更长时间,它们可能会成为地下环境专家——相当于哺乳动物中的鼹鼠,只是多了鳞片或羽毛。

The oceans are another realm little explored by dinosaurs. Species such as Spinosaurus were dabbling in estuarine and river environments, and armoured ankylosaurs are often found as fossils in marine sediments and were living along coastlines. Could spinosaurs or ankylosaurs have followed the path of mammalian whales and evolved to live entirely at sea? They might have returned to land to lay eggs or could have eventually given birth to live young at sea, as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs did.


In a world that never lost the dinosaurs on land, pterosaurs in the sky and ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs at sea, what would have been the fate of birds and mammals?


Birds were already diverse in the late Cretaceous. “Pterosaur diversity had been really knocked back,” says Holtz, perhaps because of this. Remaining pterosaurs included the massive, toothless azhdarchids, some of which were the size of biplanes with wingspans of 12m (40ft). There is already a debate about whether some azhdarchids were flightless, and you can imagine a world where islands, such as Madagascar, Mauritius and New Zealand, are dominated by strange terrestrial pterosaurs, much as in our timeline they were once the province of flightless elephant birds, dodos and giant moas.


Naish argues that a dinosaur world might still have much of the present diversity of modern birds. Mammals, however, are a different story. Though they had already been around for perhaps 160 million years when the asteroid struck, they were still “marginal, shadowy little creatures” says Brusatte, diverse but typically small and restricted to specific niches. “It was only the shock of the asteroid knocking off the incumbent dinosaurs that allowed them to break free,” he says.


Others disagree, accepting that large megafauna might not have had a chance, but bats, rodents, small carnivores and climbing primates and possums could all have been plentiful. If marmosets, langurs and gibbons had swung through the branches while dinosaurs browsed around them, might not something akin to hominids also have evolved?


“Some of the mammal lineages were already evolving before the extinction event,” says Naish. “In view of that, you’d probably still get primates and… [perhaps] a version of humanity. Given that we evolved in a world full of giant mammals, it’s plausible.”


Holtz agrees it’s a possibility: “You could have had some tree-dwelling primates that, as grasslands expand, they move into that habitat and become the pseudo-humans of this alternative universe. And just as our ancestors had to deal with sabretooth cats and big antelope, these guys would have to deal with the dromaeosaurs and abelisaurs.”


People would have had to create protected places, which Naish admits has a “One Million Years BC spin to it”, but he points to the fact that our own ancestors lived alongside large dangerous animals and had to come up with strategies to survive. “People think the Mesozoic world was a continual bloodbath, where you get ripped to shreds within seconds, but a lot of the time big predators are sparsely distributed and the world is relatively safe if you stay out of their way.”


Given that intelligent mammals are possible, could sentient dinosaurs also have evolved? In 1982, Dale Russell – then at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa – published a paper proposing that an intelligent ‘dinosauroid’ might one day have evolved. He commissioned a life-sized model, which today looks like an alien from a dated sci-fi show, with green skin and huge eyes. His theory was that the carnivorous dinosaur Troodon had an unusually large brain and might have been the lineage from which brainy dinosaurs evolved.

考虑到一些哺乳类动物已经具有智慧,有感知力的恐龙是否也可能进化?1982年,戴尔·罗素(Dale Russell)——当时他在渥太华的加拿大自然博物馆——发表了一篇论文,提出恐龙有可能进化出智力。他委托人制作了真实大小的模型,它看起来就像是过时的科幻片里的外星人,长着绿色的皮肤和巨大的眼睛。他的理论是食肉的锯齿龙具有体积非同寻常的大脑,有可能从它开始进化出具有智力的恐龙。

“Dinosaurs equivalent to crows, parrots or primates, with very complex brains and problem-solving abilities might have evolved,” agrees Holtz, but he doesn’t believe dinosaurs could ever have looked like humans. “The pathway to humans was really odd and involved hanging in trees and so forth… dinosaurs got to bipedality and manipulative hands in a much more reasonable approach.”


“I don’t think you would get anything approaching human-level intelligence,” says Naish. “You might get big-brained, intelligent dinosaurs, but they would still look like dinosaurs… It’s anthropomorphic to assume that other kinds of human-like intelligence would have evolved.”


Assuming dinosaurs did make it through to the last few hundred thousand years, and lived alongside humans, could they have survived to the present day? The answer seems to be yes. But just as humans hunted mammoths and other megafauna to extinction, our population growth and hunting technologies would inevitably have taken a toll on big dinosaurs as we spread across the globe. “There could have been a Pleistocene dinosaur megafaunal extinction event, as the humans migrate out of whatever corner of the world they came from,” Holtz says.


In the present day in this alternative timeline, perhaps a few species of large herbivorous sauropods, and even carnivores similar to T. rex, might hang on in protected wildernesses and national parks vast enough to fit their home ranges. They would have to be truly vast wildernesses though, with little human development, in places like outback Australia and Alaska. Maybe some of the smallest non-avian dinosaurs would have adapted to urban environments, thriving alongside people in the cities, as pigeons, rats and seagulls have in our world.


Though in our own past, large mammals were mostly wiped out, a few, such as elephants and rhinos hang on, so perhaps it’s not too much of stretch to imagine a parallel world where today you could hop on a dinosaur safari, Jurassic Park-style, and enjoy spotting some of them, cameras and binoculars at the ready.

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