I am a documentarian, not a dinosaur expert, and I am looking for some guidance.
I have been working with the huge media barrage of T-Rex Sue coverage and the claims and theories that I've been listening to have inspired me to do some preliminary research on the theories and facts that exist about dinosaurs and how scientists arrive at those theories.
I'm assuming that the scientific specialty at the heart of these theories is Paleontology, supported by numerous other specialties. What interests me is that when these theories are presented to the public, the theories are presented as more or less pure fact with no explanation as to how the information was deduced. Obviously the science behind these suppositions would be a little hard to squeeze into a 90 second news piece aimed at an 8th grade education level.
For example, when Sue was unveiled at the Field Museum, the reports claimed that because of the fossil evidence from Sue, scientists have determined that instead of previous theories that put T-Rex's top speed at something like 35 miles and hour, it could probably only do 15 mph. I am interested in how the first theory was developed and why a single T-Rex skeleton would change the theory for the whole species? What kind of a team of scientists had to be gathered to make perfect this theory? You have some guess I suppose as to how long a stride that the beast could make, but then how do you figure how quickly that stride can be accomplished by looking at bones? I'm guessing the strength/depth of the ligament attachments to the bone give an indication of the power of the muscle attached to it, but what do I know? How do you guess how long it can keep up this pace? How accurate would these theories be if they were applied to human bones? What speed would a paleontologist come up with if they looked at the bones from MY legs? How do you guess on all these dinosaur behaviors from bones? I suppose there is fossil evidence beyond just the bones. How do figure whether T-Rex hunted or ate carrion? I don't care about the theories themselves really, but how they came to be.
Also, theories about the T-Rex's ability to smell were touted. Supposedly the CAT scans of Sue's skull showed a huge olfactory bulb. How can you look at a cavity of a 67 million year old skull and tell that one part of an animal now one has ever seen is its oldfactory bulb. Could you look at MY skull and say, "Wow, that guy smells great!"
Some things make sense to me. Even I can look at a set of dino teeth and guess which ones belonged to a meat eater and which to a vegetarian, but many of the other theories seem hard to understand to the lay person. The whole thing about dinos and birds. Sue has a wishbone. So what? What is the significance? (Many of these questions are kind of "Devil's Advocate"-style questions. I am trying to provoke a response.)
I saw a web site that showed some old models of dinosaurs from the last century. The models looked silly. The legs were set too far apart. But how can scientists accurately mount these fossil remains in a life-like way when we've never seen a dinosaur really stand up? There were a couple of Sue's bones that they'd never found before in another T-Rex, so how do they know where they're supposed to go or that they belong to Sue at all? Or maybe Sue isn't really a T-Rex because she's got these new bones? When you discover a totally new dinosaur, how do you know how the bones go together? Sue's stapes is supposedly the first T-Rex ear bone ever found. How do they know that's what it is then? Maybe it's a leg-bone from something she ate...OK probably not, but I'm playing Devil's Advocate.
Anyway, I'm basically interested in exploring a little more deeply the development of the theories about dinosaurs and what scientific specialists participate in their development. Are there any good references that I should read before exploring this topic further? Has a documentary already explored this subject aimed at a general audience? Are there any big names in "dino-theory" of which I should be aware? What are some of the interesting stories behind the theories about dinosaurs? What are some of the big theories that have been shot down in flames? What living subjects do scientists use to support or develop theories concerning dinosaurs? Any specific references I should search for in trhe listserve's archives?
If you feel this is not a topic that you would like aired "publicly" on your listserve, but you would like to help me out anyway, please e-mail me personally off-list.
(I am a "guru" on the listserve for my profession, and often answer questions for newbies that stumble onto the list. I hope someone will take pity on me and give me at least a single reference that I can read to get me started. I have worked on documentaries for A&E, PBS and The Discovery Channel, but most have been social or historical in nature. This is my first shot at science. Thanks for bearing with me.