Monday, July 13, 2009

The 10 Smartest Dinosaurs

How could dinosaurs possibly have been smart? Pound for pound, they were some of the dumbest creatures ever to roam the planet. However, not all raptors, tyrannosaurs, stegosaurs and hadrosaurs were equally stupid; some may even (just barely) have attained a mammalian level of intelligence. Here’s a list of the 10 smartest dinosaurs, based on an analysis of their anatomy and behavioral patterns.

1. Troodon

Wikimedia Commons
This human-sized carnivore of the Cretaceous period has become the poster lizard for dinosaur intelligence. Based on its predatory arsenal--big eyes, fast speed, and stereo vision--paleontologists think Troodon must have had an especially big brain, "big" in this context meaning about the size of a modern opossum's (which, for its size, still placed it well ahead other dinosaurs). More aboutTroodon

2. Deinonychus
Wikimedia Commons
Despite what you saw in Jurassic Park, Deinonychus wasn't nearly clever enough to turn a doorknob (the "Velociraptors" in Steven Spielberg's movie were actually played by this much bigger raptor). But there's convincing evidence that Deinonychus hunted in packs, which must have entailed a certain level of strategic thinking and communication, and hence a bigger brain. More about Deinonychus

3. Compsognathus

Wikimedia Commons
When it comes to dinosaur intelligence, it's not how big your brain is compared to other reptiles, but how big your brain is compared to the rest of your body. In this respect, the tiny, chicken-sized Compsognathus appears to have been an honor student, perhaps as smart as a very dumb mouse (and yes, in the Mesozoic Era, this was enough to land you in the advanced-placement class). More about Compsognathus

4. Tyrannosaurus Rex

Wikimedia Commons
You wouldn't think T. Rex had to be particularly smart to hunt down its food--after all, this was the apex predator of its day, equipped with huge teeth, powerful legs, and a keen sense of smell. But based on an analysis of existing skulls, T. Rex appears to have had a fairly large brain by Cretaceous standards (although today it would be outwitted by a newborn kitten). More about T. Rex

5. Oviraptor

Wikimedia Commons
As a general rule, even the dumbest birds alive today are brainier than the dumbest dinosaurs. By this token, the feathered Oviraptor (which was not technically a raptor, by the way) must have been one of the most intelligent dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous period; for instance, it was one of the few creatures smart enough to sit on its own eggs until they hatched. More about Oviraptor

6. Maiasaura

Wikimedia Commons
It takes a certain amount of intelligence (combined with instinct, of course) to migrate in large herds, dig out nesting grounds, and look after your young after they've hatched. By those standards, Maiasaura must have been one of the most intelligent hadrosaurs of Cretaceous times; "Egg Mountain" in Montana is a testament to this dinosaur's level of parental care. More about Maiasaura

7. Allosaurus

Wikimedia Commons
This fierce, two-legged carnivore probably wasn't as quite as intelligent as T. Rex, which appeared on the scene tens of millions of years later (paleontologists have found numerous Allosaurus skeletons at a site in Utah; the theory is that they stopped to feast on herbivores trapped in mud and stupidly wound up getting stuck themselves). But fast, agile hunters tend to have fairly large brains, and Allosaurus was nothing if not fast and agile. More aboutAllosaurus

8. Ornithomimus

Wikimedia Commons
The "bird mimics," of which Ornithomimus was the poster genus, were large, fast, two-legged dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period that resembled (and behaved like) ostriches. In fact, based on the size of its brain cavity, scientists think that Ornithomimus may have been nearly as smart as a modern ostrich--which would have made it the Albert Einstein of the Mesozoic Era. More about Ornithomimus

9. Tarchia

Wikimedia Commons
The only ankylosaur on this list, Tarchia (Chinese for "brainy") was so named because its brain appears to have been a smidgen bigger than those of other ankylosaurs. Ankylosaurs were spectacularly dumb creatures, though, so what this means is that if Tarchia had studied really hard, it might have had a successful career as a giant paperweight. More about Tarchia

10. Barney

The only dinosaur ever to evolve the ability to sing and dance, Barney has been a fixture on public TV for over 15 years, a tribute to this unspecified species' intelligence, savvy, and management team. Based on a careful analysis of his PBS show, scientists have concluded that Barney possesses an almost human-sized brain, albeit slightly atrophied from extended exposure to adorable toddlers. More about Barney

No comments: