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Ask an Expert: David Goldsmith on Dinosaurs Network Theory

Dinosaur Fossils

 Network theory is now used to map the migration of dinosaurs from Europe to the rest of the world.

Network theory, a method commonly used to quantify data in physics and computer science, is now used to map the migration of dinosaurs from Europe to the rest of the world by looking at the Paleobiology Database. David Goldsmith, geology professor, explains how network theory is impacting the field of paleontology and how it could give us clues to living in a world of global climate change.

by Lily Wolfe (’18)

What is network theory?

It’s a different framework for looking at data. Instead of treating data points as discrete pieces of information, it looks at the interactions between them. Depending on the question you are trying to answer, it can lead to new insights. Facebook is a good example of a network and how you can use either the points or the connections to answer different questions. If I want to know whether a restaurant is popular in Salt Lake City, I might look to see how many people like it. That would be discrete data. If I want to know how a restaurant becomes popular in Salt Lake, it might be more worthwhile to study the connections between people—who recommends it to whom and why.

Why is it now being applied to hard sciences like physics and paleontology?

Paleontology is not just the study of dead creatures, it is the study of dead ecosystems and how they evolve over time. Every creature in an ecosystem shares relationships with other creatures (predator–prey, parasite–host, and some creatures even live on other creatures like a barnacle and a whale). Therefore, any change to one creature will have consequences throughout the system.

How did dinosaurs continue to migrate after Pangaea split into different landmasses?

Pangaea didn’t break up all at once. The continents continued to rift apart over a period of tens of millions of years. Also, keep in mind that even though we don’t have one big supercontinent anymore, the continents are actually pretty close to one another. Starting from continental Europe, you can still walk to any place in Asia or Africa, and up until very recently you could continue through Asia into Alaska and the rest of the Americas.

How strong is their evidence?

The database used in this study is called the Paleobiology Database. It’s a repository for all of our knowledge about the fossil record. Any time paleontologists collect new fossils in the field, they enter what they found, where they found it, how old it is, and even how many specimens they found in each layer of rock. It’s a huge database that has been fueling new discoveries for decades.

Any theories about why dinosaurs would be moving out of Europe?

Not yet. Trends like this one are tricky to explain. It could be anything from climate change to new ecological opportunities. It could even be something as simple as this particular group of dinosaurs originating in Europe, so that the only direction for them to migrate was out of Europe.

Why is this important?

In practical terms, it’s important because the Mesozoic Era was a time of steady temperature increase. Any information we can get about how life responds to global temperature increase can help us understand how to deal with the changes we are seeing in global climate today. More generally, it helps geologists tell a more detailed and thorough story of the earth as a home for life.

Anything else we should know?

Dinosaurs are awesome, but they are just a small part of what paleontologists study. If you want to be fossilized (and who wouldn’t?) you need to be buried in the mud after you die. That doesn’t happen much to large creatures that live on land. Most of the fossil record is a record of critters that lived in the mud—snails, clams, corals, and other sea creatures. That means most of the good information that a network theorist would be able to work with is in the marine fossil record. Dinosaur fossils are rare and most dinosaur paleontologists study anatomy and physiology because you can get that from a single specimen. Ecology, evolution, and network dynamics, for that you need large populations to work with, so that’s mostly the work of paleontologists who study marine invertebrates.



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