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Dr. Kenneth Lacovara
By Jim Breitinger
Kenneth Lacovara, paleontologist and discoverer of one of the largest animals to ever walk the Earth--the 42-ton and nearly-90 foot Dreadnoughtus, recently visited the Natural History Museum of Utah. He shared some of the highlights from his new book Why Dinosaurs Matter, and discussed why he loves NHMU.
Dr. Lacovara is the founding director of the Edelman Fossil Park of Rowan University.
Your new book is titled Why Dinosaurs Matter. Why do they matter?
Lacovara: Dinosaurs matter because the future matters. Everyone, even paleontologists, are more concerned with the future than they are with the past but we don’t have access to the future, we can do no experiments in it, we can never go there to collect data. Really, all we’re ever going to know about the future is by looking at the past. So if we want to understand this environmental future that we’re sailing into with these multiple existential crises that humanity is facing—the global climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, and sea level rise, and desertification—we have to look to the ancient past to see what has happened on our planet before and to see how ecosystems and how geological systems respond to these things.
There is a chapter in your book titled “Are Penguins Dinosaurs,” can you tell us a little bit about that?
Lacovara: All birds are in fact dinosaurs. It’s not correct to say that birds are closely related to dinosaurs, birds are dinosaurs. Birds are dinosaurs to the degree that a T. rex is a dinosaur or a Stegosaurus is a dinosaur. Being a dinosaur is a binary condition, you are one or you are not. Just like we are humans, but we are also apes, we are also primates, we are also animals. Once you become a human you don’t get kicked out the ape club, or the primate club. It’s the same with birds. Once birds evolve they don’t get kicked out of the dinosaur group, they still have those defining qualities that we look for in dinosaurs and just like every other dinosaur they can trace their ancestry back to the very first one and if you have the first dinosaur as an ancestor, they are a dinosaur. I use penguins in the book simply because they look so much not like dinosaurs. They’re these cute, blubbery creatures that at this point look more like fish than birds or dinosaurs, and it was to illustrate the point that no matter what morphological adaptations these animals have gone through in evolution, they can still trace their ancestry back to the first dinosaur.
Another thing you talk about in your book is the arms on T. rex and how they’re actually a key to the strength which is counterintuitive to a lot of people.
Lacovara: Yeah, that’s right. There are countless internet memes and cartoons about the arms of T. rex . . . Well those tiny arms of T. rex are actually related to the evolutionary pattern that made T. rex this ferocious beast that dominated its ecosystem and has the most powerful bite ever found on a land animal. The reason for this is, if you’re going to have a really big bite, you need a really big head. And if you have a really big head with really big jaw muscles on that head, you need a really strong neck to hold up that head. And if you’re going to have a really strong neck, you need big neck muscles. Where do neck muscles attach? They attach around the shoulder. Where do arm muscles attach? They also attach to the shoulder. So the neck muscles and arm muscles compete for the same muscle attachment space around the bones of the shoulder, so as the arms of T. rex got smaller, it created an opportunity for its neck muscles to get bigger, creating the opportunity for its bite to get more and more powerful. So the next time you make fun of those T. rex arms, just think about the murderous bite that they make possible. Those arms don’t look so silly when you start to think of it like that.
What have you thought of NHMU thus far?
Lacovara: I’m so impressed with what [NHMU] has done here. I’m in the process now of looking at museum design and we’ll be building a museum soon and I’ve learned so much about how to do it right by coming here to the Natural History Museum of Utah. It starts with just gorgeous, gorgeous architecture and then the exhibits are really thoughtfully done. I think there’s something for everyone here. You could be four years old or 94 years old and you’re going to be able to come here and learn and have fun and make some connection with Utah’s ancient past and learn about the natural resources of our planet and evolution. It’s just wonderful.
Watch the whole interview here and be sure to check out Lacovara’s book Why Dinosaurs Matter.