on-line book icon

table of contents

The Dinosaur Quarry NPS logo

Why Did Dinosaurs Become Extinct?

At Dinosaur National Monument only Morrison rocks of the upper Jurassic Period contain the fossil bones of dinosaurs. After Morrison time, the Cretaceous seas invaded this area. More than 5,000 feet of sandstone, shale, and mudstone were formed from sediments deposited in these seas.

Elsewhere in North America and the rest of the world, the diversity and numbers of dinosaurs actually increased. Entirely new groups evolved and achieved success in the battle for survival. The climax of reptile development seems to have come near the end of Cretaceous time in the Mesozoic Era. As the dinosaurs ruled the continents, so did other strange reptiles dominate the seas. Had you been able to see this ancient world, you would surely have been convinced that the dinosaurs and other reptiles would rule forever.

But it was not to be. The dinosaur hordes were wiped out and the reptiles reduced to the position of relative insignificance they occupy today. Such a profound and sudden change in the evolutionary trend of life must have had a cause, and scientists have sought it. Several theories have been proposed to explain extinction of dinosaurs, and they are most interesting.

At the end of Cretaceous time, some of our great mountain ranges were formed. It was a time of earthquakes and of volcanoes that belched forth clouds of ash and rivers of molten rock. Some people would say these catastrophic events killed all the dinosaurs. The scientist shakes his head. If these events killed dinosaurs, why not the other animals that lived with the dinosaurs. And what of those parts of the world that had no volcanoes, what killed dinosaurs there?

Changes in environments, the drainage of lakes and swamps as young mountains rose, changes in vegetation as new plants replaced old, and sudden shifts of climate occurred. These conditions could explain local extinction, but there were places where these changes did not occur and yet all dinosaurs in all places died.

A one-time favorite theory suggested that increasing numbers of small mammals ate dinosaur eggs, but there were many mammals eating dinosaur eggs during all of Cretaceous time and the dinosaur hordes increased. Many more mammals during succeeding ages have not killed off the turtles, snakes, lizards, and crocodiles that lay eggs and exist in great numbers today.

Some disease or combination of plagues may have swept the dinosaurs into extinction. If so, no evidence has been found to date that confirms or denies. However, most paleontologists do not accept this theory.

These are some of the theories that have been advanced to explain the sudden extinction of dinosaurs throughout the world. Each theory will explain the death of some dinosaurs in some places but attempts to apply any of them, or combinations of them, to world wide extinction have failed.

This dinosaur story is like a mystery thriller with the last pages torn out. A most important part is missing. That is true and the paleontoloist knows it. He also knows the riddle will probably never be solved. He might point out, however, that no one has successfully explained the extinction of the passenger pigeon which occurred quite recently, nor do we know why some other species of wildlife are on the brink of extinction today. The paleontologist is not the only one who must say, "I don't know."

Previous Next

top of page

NPS History  |   History & Culture  |   National Park Service  |   Contact

Last Modified: Mon, Jan 17 2005 10:00:00 am PDT

ParkNet Home