Apparently not content with my time traveling research, a comment posted the other day asked the delightfully intriguing question of: “If you could travel back in time what are the five top things you’d want to check out in the field?”. Wow, and cool!
I can see this becoming a meme of some kind so I’ll stick to / create a few rules. I’ll only talk about things that really interest me. If I really only had 5 shots at this, I’d probably do some things that would genuinely help science and go looking at early hominids or vertebrates or whatever, but that’s too general and non-specific. I’ll also assume that I couldn’t bring anything substantial back with me – a bone or a blood sample is fine to do some genetics work or compare things in the lab, but no herds of sauropods. I should be in a position to travel freely and make general observations and simple analyses (so even if it’s not obviously clear, that I could say tell males from females, or identify cryptic species etc. Finally, I’ll cheat a bit and allow single ‘trips’ to take some time (like a few million years where necessary) and consider them more ‘observations of single events’ than ‘going somewhere / when for 24 hours’, so by that definition going to see the KT extinction is fine, or watching the transition from Ambulocetus to Basilosaurus is OK. Bearing that in mind, here’s the 5 things i’d be checking out if I could:
1. The origin of flight in birds. OK this is almost a cliche, but this is well within the reals of my research and I really would love to see how those first gliders / parachuters / protobirds got going and where they started from (up or down) and if there really were multiple origins of powered flight in different lineages.
2. The predation habits of theropods in the Kem Kem. I’m picking this specifically because it’s (possibly) a weird ecosystem but more importantly I could get to see a nice big range of different taxa all together and look at their ecological partitioning and exactly what they hunted and scavenged and how (the juveniles, obviously!).
3. Just a general visit to the Jehol biota. I really want to see a proper, functioning, diverse, dinosaurina ecosystem and this has everything. Birds, pterosaurs, big and small dinosaurs of all kinds, odd mammals and the rest.
4. The pterosaur transition from rhamphorhynchoid to pterodactyloid. Obviously that includes Darwinopterus and the like, but what exactly happened here, did the head really go in one big chunk or did that take ages with various changes in sequence before the body played catch-up and what was the tail doing?
5. Quetzalcoatlus locomotion. Pure personal thrill on this one. I’ve been lucky enough to see wild condors at very close range flying around and it was absolutely incredible. I just must see something 3 times that size get into the air and cruise around. A natural history phenomenon.