Finished Dino 101 at Coursera – Great Course!

The dino hunt is over and I’ve bagged a lot of new knowledge and a more critical, scientific way to think.

Chasmosaurus belli, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Pa...

Chasmosaurus belli, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. Late Cretaceous 75-74.5 millions years ago. Found at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, and prepared at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, Drumheller, Alberta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Course

Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology is a MOOC (massive open online course) that was offered by Dr. Phil Currie of the University of Alberta through Coursera.

You could take it for credit at UA or some other universities, sign up to get a completion certificate, or do as I did and just take it for free.

They did two sessions this year, one in January and the one in September that I took.  Hopefully there will be more offered in 2014.

It was a little scary at first, but they were informative without overloading us with science and pretty soon I was looking forward to each course, though sometimes a busy schedule put me behind. It was always easy and fun to catch up.

Each week there were video lectures on a particular topic followed by a short quiz. Coursera also offers a number of forums for users to talk about course topics, the course itself, problems, etc.

Each lecture was filmed in a variety of settings – in the museum, out in the field at a dig or at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, or (my favorite) while scrolling across a diorama in the background while the presenter talked so you could get an idea of the dino’s world and what they might have looked like.

There would usually be a few spot quizzes.  These freaked me out at first, as I’m very test-conscious, but I soon learned that it was just to make you think. Sometimes the quizzes were about things that hadn’t even been covered yet (for example, asking what you think the causes of dinosaur extinction were just before discussing the most likely culprits)  – these got you into good focus for the idea they were going to present.

A real treat was the 3D fossil viewer in some lectures that allowed you to more closely examine a virtual image of a real fossil in UA’s collection – my favorite was the tyrannosaur skull. And let me tell you – you would not believe how teeth varied from species to species, and how much a single tooth or jaw can tell you about a critter!

My Favorite Moment

I filled out a very simple dinosaur phylogenetic tree without looking at my notes. It looked something like this, but not as complicated (right-click image to enlarge):

I could do it because it just made sense after everything else they had talked about. Also it was fun because you moved little pictures of dinosaurs around that settled in with a satisfying “clunk” sound, and when the whole tree was completed, there was a loud roar.

Some Mind-Boggling Knowledge Bits

  • “Birds” are just a classification in our minds. They’re not a separate thing and instead can be thoroughly traced back to theropod dinos, i.e., T. rex and its buddies. Birds are dinosaurs. Period. Something to think about as you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner next week!
  • Speaking of tyrannosaurs, scientists have found some leg bones in Montana that contain soft springy tissue. They’re trying to extract blood vessels. Not to worry – DNA is so fragile that we can’t even attempt to reconstruct a mammoth, though we have flash-frozen specimens from Siberia. And, no, you can’t get dino DNA from an insect caught in amber. (Note that this doesn’t make Jurassic Park any less delightful.)
  • Lystrosaurus murrayi, a dicynodont from the Ea...

    Say hello to your ancient ancestor! This little dicynodont survived the End-Permian extinction. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    The ancestors of mammals dominated the planet for quite some time, while the earliest dinosaurs were small and had to hide a lot (many of our long-ago ancestors were carnivorous). Then came a little thing called the End-Permian Extinction that wiped out more than 90% of marine animals and 70% of land animals and reversed the situation.

    Dinos ended up ruling Earth while the little mammal ancestors that survived (it’s good to be small when a mass extinction event happens) had to hide and scurry until the end of the Cretaceous when a double-whammy of a a massive volcanic eruption and huge meteorite impact ended the non-avian dinosaurs once and for all. Mammals soon came back into their (our) own again.

  • Feathers. Oh my, yes – though not on all dinosaurs.  We can even make intelligent guesses about what color they were, based on living dinosaurs. If the feather imprint is long and narrow, the original was probably dark gray; if short, brown-gray. Blue, green and red feathers are not known to have existed. Velociraptor, by the way, still looked terrifying with feathers.
  • Stegosaurs and diplodocus were extinct long before triceratops and T. rex came along.
  • Speaking of long-necked giants like diplodocus, they ate tremendous amounts of very indigestible plant matter, and so their huge bodies were really fermentation vats where that all broke down. I would guess you could probably smell them coming, if the wind was right, long before the ground started trembling with each step!


Well, I’ve got a dynamic-Earth course on the watchlist, but there is no indication of when that might start, so I’m moving into a different topic, the US Constitution, in January.

Yes, I’m now hooked on MOOCs.

Categories: Random thoughts, Science

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