Exclamations like this are common among bird biologists, especially when face-to-face with a Pileated Woodpecker or a ferocious Chickadee. Decades of Jurassic Park films have caught us in a tautological trap where birds remind us of dinosaurs—because Hollywood models dinosaurs on birds. From the coordinated flock movements of chickens foraging to the reptilian eyes of a Heron, I often catch myself wanting to say, “Amazing, just like a dinosaur!” But, I restrain myself because my source is mostly Stephen Spielberg.
At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History something that makes the Section of Birds special is its proximity to a world-class collection of dinosaur fossils and the paleontologists they attract. PhD students, like Sam Gutherz from Ohio University, use our collections to study the pulmonary tissue and skeleton of birds to address questions regarding the evolution of the respiratory system in a range of archosaurs.
Sam visits natural history museums for both the birds and the dinosaurs—systematically measuring bones and testing questions that ultimately support or refute the connection between birds and dinosaurs. Decades of work by scientists like Sam and his colleagues have built a case using multiple lines of evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs. In fact, paleontologists have been so successful that bird biologists and Hollywood producers stand on their shoulders.
Chase Mendenhall is Assistant Curator of Birds, Ecology, and Conservation at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.