Dinosaurs have always been cute—at least to this particular writer—but as it turns out, they may have been even cuter than we previously thought. Though we have spent literally hundreds of years imagining dinosaurs as reptilian roarers, as scientific discovery has continued, our understanding of what dinos may have actually looked and sounded like has evolved. And on Friday it was revealed in a new study published in Nature that dinosaurs may have been far less aggressive, vocally speaking, eschewing gigantic roars for a much more subtle coo or a duck’s quack. (Seriously.)
In an interview with NPR, paleontologist Julia Clarke discussed her discovery and the implications it has for our understanding of Earth’s earlier inhabitants—to which you can listen below:
But how does this all make sense? Clarke’s team looked at a recently discovered, fossilized avian vocal organ from the Mesozoic era—the oldest such fossil by tens of millions of years—and used some handy dandy scientific theory and deductive reasoning skills to put together a pretty solid hypothesis, all things considered.
See: when it comes to vocalizations, humans and most other land-dwelling animals have a larynx—a cartilaginous structure in your throat that uses air to produce sound from the mouth, which in turn becomes the vocalizations that make up roars, chatter, and human speech. However, birds—one of the dinosaurs’ living cousins—have something called a syrinx, a far more unique organ that’s located near the heart. And while there is evidence that some dinosaurs had larynxes, vocalization is not the sole function of it, whereas that is, in fact, the only function of the syrinx.
Does this mean all dinosaurs made sounds this way? Cooing and bellowing rather than roaring? Not necessarily, as it has not been confirmed whether or not ALL dinosaurs had syrinxes (something that feels ignorant to assume, considering the variety of dinosaurs we’ve discovered throughout history). But this information does fall in line with the more recent development/hypothesis that dinosaurs were probably be-feathered rather than scaled.
“We know that the two groups of animals alive today that are most closely related to extinct dinosaurs are birds and crocodilians. In fact, birds are living dinosaurs,” explained Clarke to NPR. She went on to add that, “in the last 10 years, we’ve discovered that we can gain insight into the colors of dinosaurs and how they may have used visual signals in important contexts. And so what we wanted to ask is, can we gain insight into the vocal communication that extinct dinosaurs might have had?”
In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Clarke explained that even those few dinosaur larynx fragments are not definitive proof that they animals could vocalize in that more traditional way. In fact, Clarke explained that the fossil was more simple in its structure: “what we see in the fossil is totally consistent with the variety of sounds produced by ducks or ostriches.”
But what about those without a syrinx? They, says Clarke, likely “vocalized in a manner more similar to that which we see in crocs” like “low-frequency booms, maybe using a resonating structure such as an inflated esophagus or something like that.” Either way? Dinosaurs were not the screamers we’ve long assumed them to be.
What do you think of this new development? Let us know in the comments below!
Here’s the first animal that’ll likely be cloned from the era:
Image/GIF Credit: Disney/Pixar
Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor of Nerdist, creator and co-host of Fangirling, and a JURASSIC FAN of dinosaurs. Follow her on Twitter!