On Thanksgiving, people will gather with their loved ones to share their gratitude for one another over a lavish meal. And in all likelihood, the centerpiece of this feast will be a dinosaur.
That’s right. Birds, like the turkey gracing your Thanksgiving table, are dinosaurs. They are the only dinosaurs to survive the mass extinction that wiped out T. rex, triceratops and other behemoths 65 million years ago.
Scientists got their first whiff of the bird-dinosaur connection in 1861, when they found a fossilized feathered dinosaur called archaeopteryx in Germany. But feathers aren’t our only clue that birds are dinosaurs. Since the 1800s, paleontologists have found a wealth of evidence to support this claim. And on Thanksgiving, you and your family can dissect your own personal dinosaur to see the evidence for yourself.
Shaena Montanari, a paleontologist and dinosaur expert, showed me and my friend Joe Hanson how to perform the dissection. You can follow along in a video Joe made for his YouTube channel, It’s Okay To Be Smart. We used a rotisserie chicken, but you find the exact same structures in the bones of your bird on Turkey Day.
One example of a feature that birds and some dinosaurs share is the wishbone. Also known as the furcula, it is actually two collar bones that have fused together. Wishbones are found only in birds and one lineage of dinosaurs, called theropods. This is the same group of dinos that included T. rex and velociraptors. Montanari explained that the wishbone is one clue that modern birds are dinosaurs.
To be clear, while all birds are dinosaurs, not all dinosaurs were birds. There were many types of dinosaurs (just ask any kid at your Thanksgiving table), and modern birds are descendants of only one lineage. It’s like how all turkeys are birds, but not all birds are turkeys.
Now, while screaming “That turkey is a dinosaur!” is surely a way to delight and bewilder your family at Thanksgiving, this information holds special significance to scientists. Paleontologists can use this relationship to paint a richer picture of the lives of dinosaurs.
Julia Clarke, a professor of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Texas at Austin, studies what colors dinosaurs were and what sounds they might have made. To do so, she looks to their closest living relatives: crocodiles and alligators, which are dinosaur cousins, and, of course, birds.
Joe and I visited Clarke’s lab, and you can see what we learned in a video from Science Magic Show Hooray, a YouTube series by The Washington Post. One of the most surprising things Clarke told us was that dinosaurs would probably not have made the open-mouthed roars you see in movies such as “Jurassic Park.” Instead, they might have made deep, closed-mouth “booms,” like ostriches do. We also found out that dinosaurs probably couldn’t drool (have you ever seen a bird drool?) and that they came in many colors. Some even had iridescent feathers.
So this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my family, friends and birds — the feathered dinosaurs that still teach us so much about their giant relatives who once ruled the Earth.