Dinosaurs and the Ancient Earth:

Science Avoiding a Mystery


G. Lee Zimmerman, PhD

In the summer of 1972, a graduate student from the University of Texas, Douglas A. Lawson, made a discovery in Big Bend National Park. He found the fragmentary fossilized remains of a wing. It belonged to a giant pteranodon -- twice the size of any previously found. This beast was probably the largest flying animal that had ever lived. It had a conservatively estimated wingspan of 15.5 meters (about 50 feet) – about half the wingspan of a Boeing 737.[1]

Lawson published his findings in 1975 and immediately started a controversy. Aeronautical engineers had recently shown that the physics of flight set a hard limit on the size of a flying animal. They had calculated the maximum limit was a 25 foot wingspan and a body weight under fifty pounds. According to this, if an animal were larger, it simply couldn’t fly.[2]

This limit seems to ring true. The heaviest bird able to fly today is the great bustard. It can weigh up to 46 pounds but can only stay aloft for very short time, much like a chicken. The longest wingspan of a bird living today is the albatross, a little over 11 feet from tip to tip. One of the largest creatures able to take wing today—the Berkut eagles of Kirghiz, Russia—weigh a maximum of 20 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan. Tellingly, at this size, the Berkut eagle can only take off from flat ground with great difficulty. It has been bred close to the point at which flying creatures need more musculature for flying than they are able to carry. [3]

The problem of flying animals too large to fly accentuates a question science seems hesitant to voice. Why are there no land animals today that even begin to approach the size of the dinosaurs?


The African Elephant is currently the largest living land animal. The largest elephant ever recorded was shot in Angola in 1974. It weighed 12,000 kg (26,400 pounds). The tallest and heaviest dinosaur known from a complete skeleton is the Brachiosaurus (now Giraffatitan) which was discovered in Tanzania between 1907–1912. It was 12 m (38 ft) tall, and weighed between 30,000–60,000 kg (30–65 tons). The largest dinosaurs were 5 times the size of the largest land animals of today.


In contrast, this is not the case in the ocean. The Blue whale, still in existence today, is believed to be the largest animal ever to have lived, with lengths of up to 30 m (100 feet) and weights of up to 140 tons or more. [4]

To confound the issue further, there is evidence to indicate that the dinosaurs were not slow moving like the large land animals of today. Comparing the structures of dinosaurs, their footprints, and stride length with today’s animal life, it is clear that dinosaurs were in fact quite agile and nimble. This idea also finds support in the motion of predation, in which prey are brought down by leaping, tackling, and tumbling. The scientific re-imagining of dinosaurs as quick on their feet spilled over into popular culture with “Jurassic Park”, where giants such as T. Rex leap and run in accordance with modern bio-mechanical analyses.

The Dilemma and a Possible Solution

We have evidence for the existence of agile land animals with five times the mass of the largest land animal today. We have evidence for flying animals five times the size of the largest birds of today. Why such a difference? One possible answer is that animals alive during the time of the dinosaurs experienced less effective weight than they do today. This would have allowed them to grow bigger and be much more agile.

There are two ways that the Earth could produce a less effective weight. First, the Earth of the dinosaurs could be significantly smaller than it is today. A less massive planet would have less gravity. Second, the Earth of the dinosaurs could be spinning faster than the planet does today. This would decrease the effective weight of animals living closer to the equator. These possible solutions are explored in the next sections.

Smaller Earth

The surface of the Earth consists of several broken crustal plates moving slowly over the surface of a jellylike mantle. This was not always our understanding of the planet. Before the 1960’s the standard belief was that the Earth’s crust cooled in pretty much the way we found it.

When we look at our planet today, it is hard not to notice that the continents look like puzzle pieces that should fit together. South America looks like it should fit under the shoulder of Africa. The curve of Antarctica neatly fits the convex curve of the Australian lower coast. The fit becomes even more convincing when we look at the continental shelf and not just the shoreline.


This was noticed by cartographers long ago, but it wasn’t until 1912 that Lothar Wegner proposed a theory that the continents were originally part of a single large continent he called Pangaea. Pangaea broke up and the component parts began move. Wegner’s theory of continental drift was driven by the finding of similar species of dinosaurs developing at the same time on continents which today are separated by large oceans. Initially rejected, Continental Drift has become accepted doctrine. [Sidebar 2]


The continents do drift. Their movements are a key component to much of our planet’s earthquake and volcanic activity. The theory of continental drift proposes that the movement of the tectonic plates is driven by convection flows of magma in the Earth’s mantle. Little is said about why the Earth’s crust initially formed in a lopsided fashion (with the higher landmass forming Pangea on one side of the globe) or what might have initiated the process. These massive continental movements seem to be unique to us in our solar system [5].

There is a group of people who believe the continental drift theory is in error. They are the proponents of the expanding earth theory [sidebar 3]. They note that the oddly shaped continents could also fit together if they resided on a smaller diameter earth. One of the more interesting re-mapping of the continents, shrink the diameter of the Earth to about 60% of what it is today [6]. When this is done the continents form a complete shell with a large divot in roughly the Pacific Ocean and a smaller divot roughly in the Indian Ocean. (Here is an online video of possible earth expansion from [6]) Notice that in this remapping there is no distortion of the shape or size of the continents. The expansion of the diameter is done by simply blowing up the balloon in the example.

If the Ancient Earth was about the same density but had a diameter of 60% of Today’s Earth, Ancient Earth would be about 1/5 of the mass of Today’s Earth. The pull of gravity would be about half of what we sense today. An animal on the smaller Ancient Earth would feel lighter. The smaller effective weight would allow bigger animals to flourish and larger birds to fly – just as the buoyancy of the water supports larger animals in the ocean.[7]


This idea is not without many difficulties. If a smaller Ancient Earth contained the same amount of water as we see today, the continents would have been hundreds of feet under water. If the Earth of the dinosaurs was smaller it must have held less water than we have today. 

A New Spin

A change in gravity, indicated by the reduction in diameter of our Ancient Earth, could not by itself account for the tremendous size of the dinosaurs in prehistoric times, but there is a second factor that strongly influences effective weight: the angular rotation of the Earth.

The rotation of the earth (about 1000 miles per hour) creates a centripetal force (yes, I know it is not a force) that continually tries to throw us off the planet. This is why we weigh slightly less at the equator than we weigh at either pole. If the smaller Ancient Earth was also spinning faster, the effective weight felt by the animals on the surface near the equator would be further reduced. [7]


For example, if the smaller Ancient Earth had a rotational velocity 10 times that of today (one day in about 2.4 hours like a Las Vegas Casino); an animal on the surface near the equator would feel almost twelve times as light at the equator as it would at the poles.  Is this a possibility? The rotational velocities of the planets in our solar system range from virtually stationary to eighty thousand miles per hour. [8]


A faster spinning Ancient Earth would have another side effect. The length of the days and nights would be shorter and we could expect there to be less daily temperature fluctuations with the same amount of overall light from the sun. Not as much night for things to cool off. Not as much day for things to heat up. This consistency of external temperature might give rise to animals that did not need to regulate their body temperatures. The dinosaurs could be cold blooded like the reptiles we find today or in those 1950 era monster movies.


A faster spinning smaller Ancient Earth could support the existence of large agile cold-blooded land animals and flying animals that greatly exceed the size of what we deem possible today. This would leave room on the planet for smaller animals that could live closer to the poles and could withstand greater variations in temperature.

A Story of Changing Times

A smaller, faster spinning Ancient Earth solves the dilemma but leaves the problem of how the Earth of the dinosaurs becomes the Earth of today. During the 65-70 million years that have passed since the reign of the dinosaurs, the earth must have gained significant mass, slowed its rotation, broken the continental plates into their familiar shapes, and gained a significant amount of water.

This is evidence for a massive comet strike.

In this story, the comet that hits the Ancient Earth would be immense. The force of the impact would slow the planet’s spin to the speed at which it rotates today. It would push the pacific plate into the earth’s mantle, like a finger being pushed into the side of a chocolate truffle. The impact would break the shell of the earth into the fragmented plates and deform its spherical shape. The flight through the atmosphere and the kinetic energy of the impact would melt the comet’s icy bulk – adding mass and new water to the planet.

The spinning earth with its new mass and its broken crust would eventually try to reform into a sphere with a new diameter. The shifting of the surface that we see in the drifting plates theory could be a remnant – a consequence of the planets compression and reformation.

Impact and the Shape of the Earth


The divot formed by the pacific basin in our smaller Ancient Earth looks a lot like a huge impact crater. Not only does this Ancient Earth pacific crater form a single plate, its edges are surrounded by the volcanically active “Ring of Fire” which forms a circle on the model of the smaller earth. The pacific plate is interesting in other ways. It is the largest tectonic plate. It is the fastest moving of the drifting plates.  It shows none of the trenches that crisscross the other oceans (like stretch marks on a pregnant belly). It also contains the thinnest layer of crust – about 5km.

As our Ancient Earth healed from the comet impact, magma from the mantle must have seeped up from the core, forming new land between the broken pieces. Like a bandage, the volcanic activity binds the edges of the tectonic plates together. As we would expect, most of this activity would occur at the edges of the plates. There are a few exceptions -- the most glaring one being the Hawaiian Islands.


Today, the Hawaiian Islands sit almost at the center of the pacific plate as far away from the edge as one can get. Yet lava flows from its volcanoes even today. Mauna Loa is the largest active volcano in the world. Along with its neighbor Mauna Kea they rise a majestic 14,000feet from the surface of the ocean. Measured from the ocean floor they are easily the tallest mountains in the world.


Strangely, the Emperor Chain and the Hawaiian islands form a ridge of volcanoes that seem to not have moved with the movement of the pacific tectonic plate. The islands stay relatively stationary with respect to the North American plate. The youngest of these volcanoes is on the big island of Hawaii. The oldest was formed about 70 million years ago – about the same time that the dinosaurs became extinct.

Geologist offer many explanations of the Hawaiian Islands. They propose that a hotspot or a flume of lava seeping through the rocky crust is the driving force behind their creation. But, they have no satisfactory explanation for the generation of these hot spots other than that they arise "spontaneously."

These explanations are beginning to lose favor. More recently several geologists have proposed that the islands were formed by an asteroid impact. Mark Boslough and his colleagues modeled asteroid impacts. In a 1996 paper, they predicted that seismic energy from an impact can produce a "hot spot" under the surface, like the one that continues to form the Hawaiian Islands.

In our story of the Ancient Earth, the Hawaiian Islands would be at the center of the comet’s impact.  The collision would have created a deep rip in the upper mantle leaving a space for liquid magma to continue to flow. The islands would be a bruise on the earth.

Consequences for the Dinosaurs

On the day of the proposed comet collision there would be tremendous death and destruction. The Ancient Earth would have to change shape and size in order to swallow the impact. It would be tossed like a spinning billiard ball. The animals at the impact point would be obliterated. We assume that plants and animals away from the impact could survive. Keeping this assumption in mind, what would happen to those left behind?


The increase in mass and the slowing of the Ancient Earth’s spin would mean that in a very short period of time, effective weight doubled and in some areas increased by a factor of ten or better. The largest dinosaurs would be affected first. Their hearts would be incapable of pumping blood to their brains. Bones would snap due to the increased torque. Heavy protective armor would become an immobilizing cage. Wings would become useless appendages only to be dragged across the ground.


The surviving dinosaurs, small enough to not be completely debilitated by the sudden increased weight, would have a second challenge. The sudden change in the length of the days and nights would produce tremendous swings in temperature, something previously unknown on the Ancient Earth. Unprepared, they would either die or quickly become prey in their lethargic state.


In the shadow of this devastation would spring a new Eden. Those animals that had shivered in the cold for protection from the dinosaurs would have had to develop a method to maintain their own body temperature. This would be a tremendous advantage in this new World. Suddenly, with the extinction of the terrible lizards, mammals could roam the land in relative safety and flourish on the Earth we know today.


The dinosaurs whose fossilized bones and footsteps still litter the land and whose distorted images still touch our dreams could not survive in our world. Their story is a true Shakespearean tragedy. Their cold-blooded efficiency and immense size allowed them to dominate the planet for 200 million years. Their cold-blooded efficiency and immense size killed them.


We started with evidence of a flying beast that could not possibly fly. This brought us to a story about the Earth punctured by a gigantic snowball. From our present scientific point of view, these ideas may be ridiculous but the questions they raise are pertinent. Why is it in our world we have no animals on land or in the air that even come close to the size and apparent successful ferocity of the dinosaurs?  Often in order to answer a difficult question it is important to challenge assumptions.

As if this article were not far reaching enough, I would like to extend the scenario a bit. When we folded together the continents on the smaller Ancient Earth, we found two divots in the completed crust. The large divot, forming the pacific plate, looked like an impact crater. The small divot was on roughly the opposite side of the globe around the Indian ocean and looks like an exit wound.

The comet impact could have lofted material into orbit about the Earth. This brings us to the real question. Could there be dinosaurs on the moon?



[1] Lawson, D. A., 1975, Pterosaur from the Latest Cretaceous of West Texas. Discovery of the Largest Flying Creature. Science, 187, pp. 947-948.

[2] Robert T. Bakker "The Dinosaur heresies", Zebra Books, pp 290-291.

[3] Wikipedia – Golden Eagles

[4] Wikipedia – Largest Organism

[5] USGS, This Dynamic Earth

[6] http://www.wincom.net/earthexp/n/mdemo.htm

[7] Paul Tipler, Physics for Scientists and Engineers 4e

[8] Children of the Sun, John L’Hommedieu, Twinn, 1993




Sidebar 1 When Facts Don’t Fit: Ignore, Deny, Attack

Douglas Lawson in 1972 found the fragments of the bones of Quetzalcoatlus Northropi. By 1975, careful studies of the specimen by Lawson and his supervisor, Wann Langston, Jr estimated that this giant Pteranodon could have a wingspan of almost 60 feet and an estimated weight of 350 pounds. Quetzalcoatlus northropi is the largest Pterosaur ever discovered.

Robert T. Bakker says about the Texas Pterosaurs in his book "The Dinosaur heresies"( Zebra Books, pp 290-291),:

"Immediately after their paper came out in Science, Wann Langston and his students were attacked by aeronautical engineers who simply could not believe that the big Bend dragon had a wingspan of forty feet or more. Such dimensions broke all the rules of flight engineering; a creature that large would have broken its arm bones if it tried to fly... Under this hail of disbelief, Langston and his crew backed off somewhat. Since the complete wing bones hadn't been discovered, it was possible to reconstruct the Big Bend Pterodactyl [pterosaur] with wings much shorter than fifty feet."

Ted Holden observed in his paper “Dinosaurs and the Gravity Problem,” “…the calculations that say 50 pounds are the maximum weight have not been shown to be in error; we have simply discovered larger creatures. Much larger.”

An examination of what is presently written about Northropi sets its wingspan at 12m with a weight of 127Kg (280 lbs.) Usually followed by the disclaimer that it had “very light bones”.



Sidebar 2 Wegner, Stubborn to the End

Alfred Lothar Wegener was born in Berlin on November 1, 1880. He earned a Ph.D. in astronomy in 1904 but his interests turned to the fledgling science of meteorology. In 1906, he and his brother Kurt broke the world endurance record for hot air balloons by staying aloft for more than 52 hours. Later that year he was invited to join a Danish expedition to Greenland’s unmapped  Northeast coast. Throughout his life,. he was involved in many arctic expeditions. After returning from the artic in 1909 he found a position at the University of Marberg lecturing on meteorology and astronomy.

As a soldier in the german army, Wegener was wounded in 1911. It was probably during his convalescence that he began piece together his theory of continental drift. He became aware of many scientific papers showing the fossils of identical plants and animals developed simultaneously in areas that today are separated by oceans. The theory at the time proposed a series of land bridges to account for these strange facts. Wegner took this information and combined it with the puzzle-like shapes of the continents themselves and in 1915 published a book, The Origin of Continents and Ocean, outlining his theory. Because of the first world war, the scientific world outside Germany took little notice of his book until 1922. Their response was particularly hostile.

The ideas presented in his book shattered the scientific explanations at the time. Instead of being embraced he was thoroughly vilified. Part of this hostility may have been due to the fact that he was a meteorologist and not a geologist or a paleontologist. . Wegner was seen as an outsider who seemed to be attacking the very foundations of geology. Because of the controversy and his unwillingness to just let his ideas die, he could not get a professorship at any German university. Eventually, in 1924, the University of Graz in Austria appointed him professor of meteorology and geophysics.

In 1930, shortly after achieving his academic goal, Wegener died on a meteorological expedition to Greenland. In September of 1930, Wegener and a team set out for the winter station with 15 sledges and 4,000 pounds of supplies. The extreme cold turned back all but one of his team, but Wegener was determined to push on to the station, where he knew the supplies were desperately needed. Wegener reached the station five weeks later. He insisted upon starting back to the base camp the very next morning. His body was found the following summer.






Sidebar 3 Expanding Earth Theory

The example in this paper for an expanding earth, uses a reduction in the diameter without significant distortion of the shape or relative orientation of the continents to each other, and allows large gaps to remain. In this model, these gaps indicate missing parts of a complete planetary crust. There are other proposed remappings on a smaller earth.

Many earth scientists have suggested that the Earth has been expanding in size since the time of the dinosaurs. One of the first reasons proposed to explain continental drift (in 1933 by Hilgenberg) was that the Earth had expanded in size causing the continental land mass to split apart. Other earth scientists note that fitting the land and oceans which existed 65 million years ago on an Earth of today's diameter leaves vast spherical gaps in the ocean floor. These gaps can be removed by reducing the size of the ancient Earth with the addition of some distortion of the land masses.

Other evidence for the expanding earth is presented in the website http://www.expanding-earth.org/

One of the major unsolved puzzles for the Expanding Earth Theory is why the Earth should be expanding over time. One idea is that the earth has a plasma core rather than a solid nickel-iron core and that over time this plasma core has been expanding. Another proposal for expansion is the accretion of space dirt over time.