When I was a young dinosaur-obsessed kid, my father told me that if scientists ever saw living dinosaurs, they wouldn't recognise them as dinosaurs. He was right in a way. Mind you, this was in the early 90's when a lot of dinosaur-based information was still inaccessable to the public (It was a world before the Internet).
Scientists now may be able to recognise living dinosaurs, but the public, not having kept up the developments in paleontology, probably wouldn't be able to notice if a dinosaur was standing right in front of them. For that matter, how would we know what living dinosaurs looked like?
I saw some on our campus recently. If I asked you to take a wild guess, you might think that lizards are the modern-day equivalent of dinosaurs, but in actual fact, lizards broke off from the dinosaur-related reptilian line relatively early.
The monitor lizards that run around campus may fit our mind's image of what a dinosaur may have looked like, they are far away from how a real dinosaur would have behaved. While they share some superficial characteristics like scales, the bone structures of lizards are so far removed from that of dinosaurs that they look nothing like the actual descendants of dinosaurs. So what animals are the closest to dinosaurs in this day and age?
Above: A Crested Serpent Eagle carries away an Agamid lizard for its next meal.
I'm talking about the birds, or as some paleontologists call them, avian dinosaurs. Since the 1980's, the evidence has been piling up, pointing towards some sort of relation between dinosaurs and birds. Recent fossil discoveries in China show that many two-legged predatory dinosaurs had primitive feathers that were probably used for display or temperature regulation.
We now have a good idea of the evolutionary line from two-legged dinosaurs to bird-like transitional dinosaurs, to the current modern birds that we see today. And because of that we can safely say that not all dinosaurs went extinct (although the large four legged ones did), but many species still persist until this day.
That's one of the strange and marvelous things about life. It never stops changing, and over millions of years the changes pile up and evolutionary lines of some animals go through almost unimaginable transformations. When we look at living things, we're looking at millions of years of refinement.
As Bill Bryson once put it, every single individual that we see has an unbroken line to the earliest living things. To observe the living is to be able to peer back into the deep past of our world. It's a good reason to go birdwatching.
T.G. Goh is an entomologist based in the Museum of Zoology. He can frequently be seen walking around campus, ruminating on the state of biodiversity; it is from his shortcuts through untarred territories that he gets the inspiration for his columns. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.