Wide-eyed dinosaurs

Dinosaur Exhibition Beijing

Image by Ivan Walsh via Flickr

One of the surprises concerning the dinosaurs was that some species were able to live at near-polar latitudes. The surprise is not about their ability to survive a cold climate for the Cretaceous world was one characterised by greenhouse conditions and ice-free polar regions swathed in forests. On top of that, evidence is accumulating that some dinosaurs at least were able to regulate their body temperature; they may have been warm-blooded. The oddity is that they were able to survive the winter darkness of latitudes above those of the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. It now seems that some groups of dinosaurs evolved excellent night-time vision (Schmitz, L. & Motani, R. 2011. Nocturnality in dinosaurs inferred from scleral ring and orbit morphology. Science, v. 332, p. 705-708). Not only did some have large eyes, but preservation of the fibrous outer ring of the eye or sclera – the ‘whites’ in our case – in some large-eyed dinosaurs shows a reduction in width that is characteristic of good scotopic or night vision. Since much of the polar ‘night’ is more like twilight than perpetually full darkness, enhanced night vision would have allowed high-latitude dinosaurs to survive winter by crepuscular feeding habits. This more or less extinguishes the notional day-night duality of terrestrial vertebrate life during the Mesozoic; dinosaurs by day and early mammals by night that allowed mammalian ancestors to escape the clutches of dinosaur predators. Indeed many Mesozoic mammals show signs of diurnality.

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