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In the 1970s and 1980s, when dinosaur paleontology held relatively low interest to the public, an imaginative and dedicated professional was helping to keep science going in Canada.

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Dr. Dale Russell, who for years was a paleontologist based at the Canadian Museum of Nature and conducted extensive research on the fossil creatures of western North America, including Alberta. Unfortunately, Dr. Russell passed away in 2019, but dozens of students, colleagues, and others who were inspired by his work fondly remember him.

I recently attended an online tribute to Dr. Russell and got to thinking about one of his most famous thought experiments. By the looks of almost anyone who knew him (sadly I’m not among them), he was not only brilliantly intelligent, but also had limitless imagination and creativity, which flourished in his work as a professional paleontologist. Dr. Russell, by all accounts, had a mind that dreamed big and went where no one else would have thought to go. The most famous example of this is his controversial idea of ​​the ‘dinosaurioid’.

In the early 1980s, Dr. Russell was researching troodontids, which at the time were a rather mysterious and obscure group of theropod dinosaurs. No complete skeleton was known from North America, only fragments from which we had to extrapolate what the complete animal might have looked like. Better material from closely related Asian species helped, but didn’t give a complete picture.

The badlands of southern Alberta produced tooth and bone fragments from a troodontid known as Stenonychosaurus, which we knew to be a medium-sized bird-like predator. Dr. Russell noted Stenonychosaurus’s sophisticated features, including flexible finger joints, forward-facing eyes, and relatively large brain for its body size compared to other dinosaurs.

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He wondered what would have happened millions of years in the future if these creatures had never become extinct. What evolutionary path were they on?

To communicate this thought, Russell commissioned a couple of models to be made, one of which represented the Stenonychosaurus as it was understood at the time. The other featured Russell’s idea of ​​a hypothetical distant descendant, informally known as the “Dinosaurioid.”

This creature looks reptilian in a way, but it has gone further with the anatomical features that Dr. Russell found so important in troodontids. The eyes look forward in a shortened snout, the animal walks fully upright as its tail has been shortened and its brain has evolved to grow many times longer.

This idea of ​​speculative evolution attracted attention, but many paleontologists dismissed it as unlikely and noted how suspiciously human the ‘dinosaur’ was – humans, after all, are not the ultimate goal of evolution. There was little reason to suppose that a dinosaur would evolve to look so much like us.

In the end, the ‘Dinosauroid’ laughed off being a bit too eccentric for most people, and now we understand better how much more bird-like than human-like troodontids actually were. However, I would advocate not taking it too seriously and not being harsh on Dr. Russell for publishing it.

I think the goal of the ‘dinosaurioid’ was not to seriously defend the descendants of human-like dinosaurs if they had continued to thrive. Rather, I think it was intended to spark people’s imaginations, get them talking, and exchange ideas and speculations. The ‘Dinosauroid’ inspired people to learn more about the mysterious big-brained troodontids and their relatives, and made them dream of the infinite possibilities of evolution. This was something Dr. Russell excelled at, and I’d say the ‘Dinosauroid’ ended up succeeding in the end.

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Upcoming Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum Events:

August 7: Virtual Speaker Series with Caitlin Schroeder “The Influence of Juvenile Dinosaurs on Community Structure and Diversity,” 3:00 pm

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