Age of the Dinosaurs

This material was originally created for Starting Point:Introductory Geology
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.

Initial Publication Date: December 2, 2005

The public undeniably loves dinosaurs. Our students turn up in droves to watch movies like "Jurassic Park." So, many colleges and universities are offering introductory Earth history classes with dinosaurs in the course title: i.e.

  • Geology 16 - Natural History of Dinosaurs (West Valley College)
  • Geology 303 - Dinosaurs and Their Environment (Western Washington University)
  • GEOL 1006 - Dinosaurs (University of New Orleans)
An early reconstruction of a Mesozoic landscape

All of the above-listed courses and hundreds like them across the country are three credits, no prior science requirements, and many of them have labs. These courses have proven to be successful in drawing students into geology programs with declining enrollment (Montgomery, 2003 ) and also give non-science majors another chance to experience science.

There are a number of ways to make the most of this opportunity. Some of the issues in dinosaur paleontology bring together important topics from all over the sciences. For example, the debate over whether or not dinosaurs were homeothermic ("warm-blooded") includes:

  • Ecological evidence (predator/prey ratios)
  • Physiological evidence (bone-growth rates, spiracles)
  • Geographic evidence (dinosaurs in polar habitats)
  • Anatomical/engineering evidence (upright stance)

Likewise, the K/T extinction controversy gets students interested in:

  • Meteor impacts
  • Volcanism
  • The way Earth science phenomena can affect the atmosphere and biosphere

Even majors in non-science subjects might be interested in taking other geology or biology classes afterwards.

The nature of the evidence is probably the most important and useful subject to pursue in an "Age of Dinosaurs" class. Not only is the class a great setting to teach the basics of science, but developing critical thinking skills by focusing on evidence and argumentation is a great way to prepare our students for their responsibilities as jurors, voters, and decision-makers in general.


Below are web resources relevant to the specific subjects described on this page.

Hot-blooded/Cold-blooded Debate
  • Hot-Blooded or Cold-Blooded?. Evidence presented on this site pertains to dinosaur physiology. After a quick review of what has transpired in the last few decades, the reader is asked to form an opinion on what dinosaurs were like. Were they sluggish and stupid as the old conventional wisdom said, or were they mammal or bird-like as in Jurassic Park? Or can we even be sure what they were like? After a few preliminary warnings and some definitions, links take the reader to evidence for and against endothermic or ectothermic dinosaurs. A third link takes the reader to a review of current hypotheses. ( This site may be offline. )
  • What's New with Dinosaurs. This lesson plan is part of the lesson plan library for grades 6-8. It focuses on a current controversary among scientists over whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded. Students research both sides of the argument and then present a debate over this topic. It includes objectives, materials, procedures, discussion questions, evaluation ideas, suggested readings, and vocabulary. There are videos available to order which complement this lesson, and links to teaching tools for making custom quizzes, worksheets, puzzles and lesson plans. ( This site may be offline. )
K/T Extinction Debate
  • The Asteroid Impact vs. Volcano Greenhouse Dinosaur Extinction Debate. This paper discusses two theories of dinosaur extinction, and how Professor McLean's research led to one conclusion. The paper is available in a student version, as well as a science-political version. Several links throughout the text allow the user to access online information relevant to the article. (more info)
  • The KT Extinction. This website provides an excerpt on the KT boundary from an introductory text on paleontology. The text covers environmental and paleontological aspects of the extinction, including alternative hypotheses, and differential survival in different organismal groups. ( This site may be offline. )