Dinosaurs needed to be cold enough that being warm-blooded mattered

Enlarge / Later theropods had multiple adaptations to varied temperatures.

Dinosaurs were once assumed to have been ectothermic, or cold-blooded, an idea that makes sense given that they were reptiles. While scientists had previously discovered evidence of dinosaur species that were warm-blooded, though what could have triggered this adaptation remained unknown. A team of researchers now think that dinosaurs that already had some cold tolerance evolved endothermy, or warm-bloodedness, to adapt when they migrated to regions with cooler temperatures. They also think they’ve found a possible reason for the trek.

Using the Mesozoic fossil record, evolutionary trees, climate models, and geography, plus factoring in a drastic climate change event that caused global warming, the team found that theropods (predators and bird ancestors such as velociraptor and T. rex) and ornithischians (such as triceratops and stegosaurus) must have made their way to colder regions during the Early Jurassic. Lower temperatures are thought to have selected for species that were partly adapted to endothermy.

“The early invasion of cool niches… [suggests] an early attainment of homeothermic (possibly endothermic) physiology in [certain species], enabling them to colonize and persist in even extreme latitudes since the Early Jurassic,” the researchers said in a study recently published in Current Biology.

Hot real estate

During the Mesozoic Era, which lasted from 230 to 66 million years ago, proto-dinosaurs known as dinosauromorphs began to diversify in hot and dry climates. Early sauropods, ornithischians, and theropods all tended to stay in these regions.

Sauropods (such as brontosaurus and diplodocus) would become the only dinosaur groups to bask in the heat—the fossil record shows that sauropods tended to stay in warmer areas, even if there was less food. This suggests the need for sunlight and heat associated with ectothermy. They might have been capable of surviving in colder temperatures but not adapted enough to make it for long, according to one hypothesis.

It’s also possible that living in cooler areas meant too much competition with other types of dinosaurs, as the theropods and ornithiscians did end up moving into these cooler areas.

Almost apocalypse

Beyond the ecological opportunities that may have drawn dinosaurs to the cooler territories, it’s possible they were driven away from the warm ones. Around 183 million years ago, there was a perturbation in the carbon cycle, along with extreme volcanism that belched out massive amounts of methane, sulfur dioxide, and mercury. Life on Earth suffered through scorching heat, acid rain, and wildfires. Known as the Early Jurassic Jenkyns Event, the researchers now think that these disruptions pushed theropod and ornithischian dinosaurs to cooler climates because temperatures in warmer zones went above the optimal temperatures for their survival.

The theropods and ornithischians that escaped the effects of the Jenkyns event may have had a key adaptation to cooler climes; many dinosaurs from these groups are now thought to have been feathered. Feathers can be used to both trap and release heat, which would have allowed feathered dinosaurs to regulate their body temperature in more diverse climates. Modern birds use their feathers the same way.

Dinosaur species with feathers or special structures that improved heat management could have been homeothermic, which means they would have been able to maintain their body temperature with metabolic activity or even endothermic.

Beyond the dinosaurs that migrated to high latitudes and adapted to a drop in temperature, endothermy might have led to the rise of new species and lineages of dinosaurs. It could have contributed to the rise of Avialae, the clade that includes birds—the only actual dinosaurs still around—and traces all the way back to their earliest ancestors.

“[Our findings] provide novel insights into the origin of avian endothermy, suggesting that this evolutionary trajectory within theropods… likely started in the latest Early Jurassic,” the researchers said in the same study.

That really is something to think about next time a sparrow flies by.

Current Biology, 2024.  DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.04.051

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