Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at the NHRD Archaeology Program! In addition to being a chance to get together with friends and family, Thanksgiving is also a prime opportunity to study a dinosaur skeleton up close. Birds are dinosaurs – not just relatives of dinosaurs, but bona fide dinosaurs that survived the extinction event 66 million years ago. Specifically, they are theropods - the two-legged, mostly meat-eating group which includes Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor.
Anatomists like Thomas Huxley noticed the similarity between and bird and dinosaur skeletons as early as 1860, but this notion would be dismissed for most of the next century. In 1969, however, John Ostrom described the raptor-type dinosaur Deinonychus from Montana, noting its extreme similarity to the prehistoric bird Archaeopteryx. Evidence for the dinosaur-bird connection has been piling up since then, including literally hundreds of feathered dinosaur skeletons from Europe, Asia, and North America. We now know that a wide range of dinosaurs were covered in downy fluff, from small, beaked herbivores to giant relatives of T. rex.
The connections between extinct dinosaurs and living birds are not only skin deep. Their skeletons also betray their family ties, and you don’t need to be a paleontologist to see the similarity. Your Thanksgiving turkey shares a laundry list of anatomical parallels with theropod dinosaurs. Examples include legs carried straight under the body, an s-shaped neck, air-filled leg bones and vertebrae, and collar bones fused into a single wishbone. Features like the large, blade-like breastbone and fused tail vertebrae are unique bird specializations that help with flight.
To study your Thanksgiving dinosaur in detail, you’ll want to save all the bones you can as you clean up after dinner. Be sure to keep the neck – it’s one of the most anatomically interesting parts! To get clean bones, you’ll need to boil them for at least two hours. Next, run them under cool water, then scrub off any remaining meat and cartilage. To remove the last bits of grease, you’ll want to soak the bones in soapy water (or if possible, a bleach solution) overnight. Let the bones dry in the sun or near a radiator for a few hours, then you’re ready to re-assemble your dinosaur!