How would you take a dinosaur’s temperature?

A tooth from a tyrannosaurus rex.

A tooth from a tyrannosaurus rex.

Were dinosaurs warm-blooded or cold-blooded?

That is an interesting question. And one might imagine that we could infer an answer by looking at fossil skeletons and drawing inferences from analogies with modern animals.

But with dinosaurs all being dead these last 66 million years or so, a direct temperature measurement is obviously impossible.

Or so I thought until earlier today when I visited the isotope facilities at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in East Kilbride.

There they have a plan to make direct physical measurements on dinosaur remains, and from these measurements work out the temperature of the dinosaur during its life.

Their cunning three-step plan goes like this:

  1. Find some dinosaur remains: They have chosen to study the teeth from tyrannosaurs because it transpires that there are plenty of these available and so museums will let them carry out experiments on samples.
  2. Analyse the isotopic composition of carbonate compounds in the teeth. It turns out that the detailed isotopic composition of carbonates changes systematically with the temperature at which the carbonate was formed. Studying the isotopic composition of the carbon dioxide gas given off when the teeth are dissolved reveals that subtle change in carbonate composition, and hence the temperature at which the carbonate was formed.
  3. Study the ‘formation temperature’ of the carbonate in dinosaur teeth discovered in a range of different climates. If dinosaurs were cold-blooded, (i.e. unable to control their own body temperature) then the temperature ought to vary systematically with climate. But if dinosaurs were warm-blooded, then the formation temperature should be the same no matter where they lived (in the same way that human body temperature doesn’t vary with latitude).
A 'paleo-thermometer'

A ‘paleo-thermometer’

I have written out the three step plan above, and I hope it sort of made sense.

So contrary to what I said at the start of this article, it is possible – at least in principle – to measure the temperature of a dinosaur that died at least 66 million years ago.

But in fact work like this is right on the edge of ‘the possible’. It ought to work. And the people doing the work think it will work.

But the complexities of the measurement in Step 2 appeared to me to be so many that it must be possible that it won’t work. Or not as well as hoped.

However I don’t say that as a criticism: I say it with admiration.

To be able to even imagine making such a measurement seems to me to be on a par with measuring the cosmic microwave background, or gravitational waves.

It involves stretching everything we can do to its limits and then studying the faint structures and patterns that we detect. Ghosts from the past, whispering to us through time.

I was inspired.

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Thanks to Adrian Boyce and Darren Mark for their time today, and apologies to them both if I have mangled this story!

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2 Responses to “How would you take a dinosaur’s temperature?”

  1. Dave Says:

    Non avian dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago, but avian dinosaurs (birds to you and me) are still around. Birds make a ‘good’ clade, in that you can write a set of characteristics that include all things ‘bird’ and exclude all things ‘non-bird’. I think warm-blooded and feathery are two of those. We don’t see cold blooded birds or featherless birds, so all birds had a warm-blooded, feathery ancestor. Is it likely that warm blooded and feathery evolved more or less coincidentally? They both can relate to body temperature, so maybe, but it would seem quite likely that birds evolved from something that was already warm blooded or feathery, and acquired the other characteristic in becoming the first bird. Birds (sorry, avian dinosaurs!) are therapods, as was Tyrannosaurus. Therefore. it is quite possible that therapods, and hence tyrannosaurus, were warm-blooded or had feathers. How scary would that make Jurassic park?

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