Below are some resources for turning the remains of your holiday feast into a biology lesson, but before we get into details I want to first answer a simple question: What exactly is a dinosaur anyway?
Dinosaur's are a group of (mostly extinct) reptiles that arose around the early Triassic period about 230 million years ago (mya). They persisted until the mass extinction event that occurred 65mya at the end of the Cretaceous period, (also the end of the Mesozoic era and start of the Cenozoic era), when all of the dinosaur lineages save modern birds died out.
To put this talk of dinosaurs and birds into perspective, lets take a crash course in vertebrate taxonomy. Starting with the ancestor of all land vertebrates, we can follow evolution forward to the present, noting major points of divergence along the way. We're of course skipping a lot, taking the fast track from the first vertebrate land animals to modern day birds.
The first amphibian-like terrestrial tetrapods appeared over 350mya (Late Devonian into the Carboniferous period), with the Synapsids (whose descendants became the modern mammals) splitting off 25+ million years later. Another 25 million years or so later, ancestral turtles and other Testudines appeared, then the sphenodonts (the tuatara) and the squamates (lizards and snakes), then crocodilians, then dinosaurs and birds.
These relationships can be summarized as follows (here I've included proper group names as well as extant representatives):
- Amniotes - Descendants of the first egg-laying terrestrial vertebrates (~ 340mya) split around ~325mya
- Synapsids - Mammalian ancestors
- Mammals ~ 200 mya
- Primates ~ 55+ mya
- Human-Chimp Split ~ 5-10 mya
- Saurapsids - Modern Reptilians
- Anapsids - Turtles
- Diapsids - Other modern reptiles (including birds), split ~ 300mya
- Lepidosauria -Tuatara, Lizards and Snakes
- Sphenodonts - Tuatara
- Squamates - Lizards, Snakes
- Archosauria - Crocodilians, Dinosaurs (including birds)
- Dinosauria - Two dinosaur groups diverged ~250 mya
So how do you bring all this information to the dinner table? Well the easiest way to see the relationship between dinosaurs and birds is from the differences and similarities in their skeletal structure.
Other ideas can be found here, and for a nice reference you can bring with you to the Christmas dinner table...
- Prothero, S. 2007. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. Columbia Univ. Press.
- The Dinosauria, from the University of California Museum of Paleontology website.
- Wikipedia (links above).
- Wedel, Matt. Your Holiday Dinosaur, University of California Museum of Paleontology website.
- Holtz, Tom. Your Thanksgiving/Christmas Therapod from Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings.