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Episode 19: The World of Civilized Dinos

65 million years ago, a comet wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs on Earth. But what if we just... undid that? In this episode, we imagine what could have happened if that space rock had flown just a few thousand miles to the left.

HOSTED by Moiya McTier (@GoAstroMo), astrophysicist and folklorist


  1. Dustin Growick is a dinosaur expert and science communicator who leads an awesome museum tour. You can follow him on twitter at @DustinGrowick and you can check out his Dino 101s with Atlas Obscura every Friday.

  2. Amanda Rossillo is a science writer and PhD candidate in evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. You can follow her on twitter at @amanda_rossillo and catch up on her writing projects on her website.


- Inked Gaming: with the code EXOLORE at checkout


Moiya 0:08

Hello, and welcome to Exolore, the show that helps you imagine other worlds but with facts and science. I'm your host Moiya McTier. And I'm bad at making decisions. I'm an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system. Those are called exoplanets. And I'm also a folklorist who specializes in building imaginary worlds. And this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds with you. It's time for another expert panel episode where I invite smart people to help me imagine what life and culture might be like on a made up planet. But today's episode is a little bit different. Instead of building up an alien world, we're going to imagine what Earth might have been like if that asteroid hadn't wiped out most of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. My first guest is probably the first person you think of when you hear the word "dinosaur". In fact, I'm pretty sure it would have been illegal for me to make this episode without him. He kept us sane early on in quarantine with his Dino 101s and it's Dustin Growick. Dustin, do you want to tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Dustin 1:06

Yeah, I'm incredibly excited to be here. And you're right. You're contractually obligated to at least have me in mind when you do anything related to dinosaurs on the internet. Like you mentioned, I've been doing Dino 101s almost every day, at least [at] the beginning of quarantine. And now every Friday night, we do nerdy boozey Dino 101 and it's a ton of fun. Outside of that I do a lot of museum consulting, working on some side gigs, as well, as we all are in quarantine, but any chance to come together with some other nerds and nerd out about the hypotheticals like I'm here for it.

Moiya 1:34

Thanks for being here. My next guest is getting her PhD in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, which is super cool. I asked my Twitter followers who their favorite early human scholars were, and they told me about the amazing Amanda Rossillo. So Amanda, want to tell us more about you?

Amanda 1:50

Sure. Hi, everyone. Thank you for having me, I still can't believe I'm actually doing this. Thank you to my friend Haley, who's the one who tagged me. So like Moiya said, I'm a PhD student at Duke studying evolutionary anthropology. So I study human evolution by looking at human fossils. Specifically, I'm studying this one species that made the news a couple years ago because it was found in this deep, crazy dark cave in South Africa with no tools or fire and there's like 15 of them, and no one has any idea how any of them got in there. So I'm trying to figure out how this species called Homo naledi got in what they were doing. Just like what's the deal with all that?

Moiya 2:27

That's so cool. Have you been to the cave?

Amanda 2:30

I have. I haven't been inside the cave, but I've seen the cave.

Moiya 2:34

Okay. That's closer to a cave than I've ever been.

Amanda 2:37

Yeah, it's really cool.

Moiya 2:38

I ask all my guests this, what fictional worlds have you been inhabiting lately? It could be books, movies, video games, whatever.

Dustin 2:46

I was not prepared for that. That's a really good question. This isn't a fictional world we're all living in right now? I mean, maybe.

Moiya 2:52

Oh, it might be.

Dustin 2:52

Yeah, honestly, the fictional world I live in every week almost every day is with respect to dinosaurs. I like thinking a lot about, "what would it be like if we had some of these animals alive here today", instead of thinking them as this kind of fantastical monster almost as you see in movies, or just a dusty skeleton in a museum? But you know, what, if you outside of your morning jog, and you saw like, a dilophosaurus come around the corner, like you might see a deer. So at least in my brain, I'm always living in fictional dinosaur world.

Moiya 3:18

Dustin, have you seen the movie, Dinotopia?

Dustin 3:21

I have not. I'm writing that down right now. I've heard of it.

Moiya 3:24

Okay. I think it's the perfect movie for you.

Dustin 3:27

Alright I will report back.

Moiya 3:28

There was a movie and then there was a miniseries. So there are two versions you can choose. Or you can watch both.

Dustin 3:34

That'll be my new fictional world to occupy.

Moiya 3:36

Yes, everyone I've ever introduced it to hates it. But no one I know loves dinosaurs as much as you. So maybe it'll work. Amanda, what about you? What fictional worlds are you inhabiting?

Amanda 3:46

Well, I just blazed through the "Queens Gambit" on Netflix, way too fast - so good. And now I'm trying to like fill the void with something else. So if anyone has any recommendations, I'm here for it.

Moiya 3:59

Okay. I just finished "Raised by Wolves". I have thoughts on it. That's not me recommending it, which should tell you what my thoughts are. All right, well, let's move on to the world. Typically, we have to spend some time setting up what the characteristics of the world are. But we're all familiar with Earth - we've all lived on it our entire lives, I'm assuming. I don't know your story. But we probably have been here for a long time. And so imagine earth but earth the way it was 65 million years ago, which is when that stupid dumb asteroid came and killed most of the dinosaurs. So 65 million years ago, Pangea had already started to split but the continents were a little closer together. So you don't have this big Atlantic Ocean in the middle of everything separating all of the land masses. It had a pretty warm, stable climate. A little bit warmer than ours, both at the equator and at the poles. So they had more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And that's really all I know about what the world was like 65 million years ago. Dustin you want to add anything?

Dustin 5:00

That's pretty accurate. There's a lot of misconceptions. For one, a lot of people think that dinosaurs were able to get as big as they were because there was more oxygen in the atmosphere. Or maybe there was less atmospheric pressure. But there's no evidence to suggest that. In fact, some evidence says there was slightly less oxygen in the atmosphere than there is now. So not so dissimilar than today. I mean, if you're thinking about the environment, outside of just like what the geography looked like, obviously, the plants were very different animals are very different, but those like baseline physics of the planet, not so dissimilar from today.

Moiya 5:32

Great. Yeah, it's pretty hard to change the baseline physics of a planet. They're big systems. So what dinosaurs were at like the top of the chain, right before they died?

Dustin 5:40

Oh, we're talking like 65-66 million years ago?

Moiya 5:43

Yeah. So I mean, if we're gonna start the clock there, then we should start with what was around.

Dustin 5:48

I mean, obviously, we got to go T. Rex, [the] T. Rex is around at the end of the dinos. I asked that because dinosaurs non-avian dinosaurs were alive for a very long time, about 230 million to about 65 million years ago. Lots of different types and groups across those millions of years. But at the end, I mean, T. Rex was the apex predator. A lot of people think T. Rex is overrated. Nah, I think T. Rex is appropriately rated. It is in my book, America's dinosaur. It's like that's the first one I think of an animal looking up. Not that they would have looked up and seeing the asteroid. But if they did, like T. Rex looking up and be like, "oh, shit".

Moiya 6:21

Oh, all right. Amanda, what do you think? Do you know anything about the dinosaurs from 65 million years ago?

Amanda 6:27

Nothing. I am learning. Right now along with the rest of you.

Moiya 6:32

Same. Yeah, this episode is mostly just an excuse to have Dustin teach me about dinosaurs.

Dustin 6:37

I'm here for it.

Moiya 6:38

So we know that there were mammals at the time, but they were really small, right? Like early mice, like what were the mammals around at the time like?

Dustin 6:47

It wasn't alive at the time of the asteroid, but one of the most famous early mammals is spider lessees [??] and [they] basically look like a tiny rat like thing. And it really was the extinction the dinosaur that allowed for the diversification and proliferation of mammals that eventually newsflash led to us having this conversation right now.

Moiya 7:06

That was a newsflash, I had no idea. I'm kidding. Yeah, I knew that. That's awesome. Okay, so do we think that the mammals would have survived if the dinosaurs hadn't left? It's a big question.

Dustin 7:18

It is a big question. Uh, when mammals arrived in general, I think, yes, they had been around for quite a number of millions of years, before the rest of the dinosaurs went extinct. So they clearly found a niche or multiple ecological niches in which to live alongside these large dinosaurs. Now, that being said, had non-avian dinosaurs not gone extinct? Whether they would have been able to evolve into the larger forms, like us and other large mammals that we see today? I'm gonna guess probably not. Because dinosaurs themselves are incredibly diverse. They were filling all these different areas in the environment, both for carnivores and herbivores. So for mammals to be able to like find their way to kind of push dinosaurs out of those ecological niches. I don't really see that happening because dinosaurs had been around and had evolved for millions of years to fit really well into all those places in the environment. It's actually pretty lucky that mammals were able to find their own little spot at all.

Moiya 8:11

Go us.

Dustin 8:12

Yay, early little rat looking things.

Moiya 8:14

Yeah. Good for them. Okay, so we have an interesting task ahead of us cause what I want to do is imagine what dinosaur civilization could have been like, and that's why I invited Amanda here, because you study early-early human civilization, and I think you can help us bridge that gap between ancient dinosaur as beast and merge that with modern dinosaur as an intelligent being. So what are the types of problems or issues that early humans had to solve? Like, what is that bridge from beast to person?

Amanda 8:48

Yeah, that's a great question. It's like foundational, I would say, to the field of anthropology, you know, like what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. And I think that one of the big things that people tend to think about is recognizing you or your group as different from others and other groups. And so like, once you start thinking, like, "okay, this is me and my people versus those, and those people", you start to naturally develop ways to like, visually identify yourself - linguistically, culturally. And so you have like an in group versus out group type of thing, where you can either start to cooperate, or you can start to fight with them. Once you kind of start to become self aware, you see others like you naturally, humans anyway, primates started to form groups like that, that became exclusionary to other groups. So I think it would have to try to deal with how you approach other groups.

Moiya 9:42

It sounds like that means that you have to be intelligent.

Amanda 9:45

Yeah, to an extent like primates are very social creatures in general, and a lot of them live in large social groups. And so you have to have the capacity to recognize who's in your group and who's not and that usually comes with intelligence to an extent.

Moiya 10:00

Okay, so we have to find a way to make dinosaurs intelligent. How smart were dinosaurs?

Dustin 10:05

Again, it depends on which dinosaur you're talking about. It also depends on how you measure intelligence. One of my favorite things that I learned when I took anthro back in college was we talked about encephalization quotient, it's like one measure of intelligence.

Moiya 10:18

What is that?

Dustin 10:19

Basically, and please Amanda, correct me if I'm wrong, it's been a minute. Generally speaking, there's an average sized brain for an animal's body, right? And so if an animal has a larger brain - larger than you'd expect for its body size, it has a higher encephalization quotient. So for instance, I believe humans we have a brain that's like 7 and a half times bigger than you'd expect for an animal of our size. Cats and dogs are about 1. I believe dolphins are in like the 4-ish range and I say all this because we had dinosaurs that were incredibly dumb with an EQ of less than one like 0.5 up to the Germayasaurs [??] or the Raptors. You had certain ones like Troodon, who had an EQ of about 4, which would mean it's four times more intelligent, or at least its brain is four times bigger than you'd imagine it to be for an animal that size. So we think about like smart dinosaurs. I think a good place to start are dinosaurs not so dissimilar to the Raptors, you see in Jurassic Park, which by the way, were not Raptors - they were Deinonychus and that's a whole other conversation. Amanda, did I do my Anthro 101?

Amanda 11:18

No, that was great.

Dustin 11:19


Amanda 11:20


Moiya 11:21

I love it. So if T. Rexes were at the peak of the physical chain, and these Raptor-like dinosaurs were the most intelligent, which do we think would have won out?

Dustin 11:33

Let's go with Troodon. And the reason why people have done actual speculative evolution exercises with Troodon is because it had the largest EQ of any dinosaur we know - like where they drew and rendered what it may have looked like had it not gone extinct and continued to evolve. That being said, I think it's very self-centered that they basically made it look like green alien human dino mashup.

Amanda 11:53

That's really creepy.

Dustin 11:54

Do you know what I'm talking about, Amanda?

Amanda 11:55

No, I'm trying to picture it though.

Dustin 11:57

Listen, take a moment when you're done listening to this everyone at home, look up "Troodon speculative evolution". It's t-r-o-o-d-o-n, it's almost like the stuff of nightmares.

Moiya 12:06

I will absolutely be linking to that in the description box. I love it. So the Troodon. So we have an intelligent dinosaur.

Dustin 12:12


Moiya 12:12

And you know, we are talking about 65 million years in an hour. So we're not going to go through all of the different evolutionary phases to get from Troodon to like intelligent, civilized, Troodon but let's start with it. So one thing that we have to remember is that the earth did actually change a lot in 65 million years, any dinosaur that stayed alive, and let's say all of them stayed alive, would have had to survive an ice age and adapt to that. So if we're starting with Troodon, how do we think they would have adapted to something like an ice age, and the other big shifts in our climate that have happened since the extinction of the dinosaurs?

Dustin 12:49

Feathers. I mean, more and more people are understanding [and] recognizing that so many different dinosaur species, specifically the Theropods, the three-toed - primarily carnivorous dinosaurs, like Raptors, like Troodon had feathers. That's one of the reasons we think feathers evolved. But insulation for a cooler climate, that's a great place to start, like if the temperatures are going to get lower - obviously, those members in your species that have more feathers are going to pass on that gene because it can help them stay warm. So yeah, I think them simply having feathers would be a great place to start.

Moiya 13:18

Yeah, feathers. Absolutely. Amanda, have you seen anything else in the evolutionary history of humans that helped us adapt to different types of environments?

Amanda 13:26

Yeah, for sure, the last million years especially has been really tough in terms of climatic shifts, like that's when the ice ages started. And there was a lot of them. And a lot of them were really, really big. And we don't have fur, we don't have feathers. We didn't have clothes for much of that. So what we did was actually more behavioral in terms of just moving further south to where it was warmer, because when you don't have the physiological mechanisms with feathers or anything, it's harder to insulate yourself. But really, it was a lot of migration.

Moiya 13:55

That's so interesting, it never occurred to me that migration is also a form of adaptation to like harsh environments.

Amanda 14:03

Yeah and humans are really good at it. And we also had fire which helped.

Moiya 14:07

Yeah, and deep dark caves.

Amanda 14:09

And deep dark caves. Humans love a good cave. Whenever you find a cave, there's probably bones in there.

Moiya 14:13

Hmm. Do we find a lot of dinosaur bones in caves?

Dustin 14:16

I mean, other than birds - not really.

Moiya 14:18

They didn't like caves?

Dustin 14:19

That doesn't mean there haven't been caves for forever. It's not like you're walking into a cave and there's like a bone on the ground. So usually those fossils are like embedded in rock. So maybe in a cave in the rock. Yeah, but it's not like there's just like bone beds lying in caves for stuff that's that old. Question for Amanda, so obviously, the use of different aspects of material culture allowed humans to survive. I'm curious to know like, when do we think we started seeing cultural exchange in these like earlier protohumans where it's not just, "oh, we have adapted. We invented this type of clothing, but we came across another group of the same species or similar species, then we adopted some of that technology to help us survive"?

Amanda 14:54

Oh, that's such a good question. So it depends on if you're talking about like other humans or other human species, because we did encounter other human species outside of Africa where we encountered Neanderthals, and we interbred with them. And this other super cool mystery species called Denisovans. We don't know what they look like, we know they lived in Asia, and we only know them from DNA - from bones found in caves. We think at some point, we must have encountered them; and we don't know how those interactions would have occurred, or if we would have adopted any of their cultural aspects if they had any at that point. But in Africa, I think I might be misremembering what there's evidence of like seashells kind of deeper in the interior of a continent that are pretty old. I don't know exactly how old so I don't want to say it's 10s of 1000s, which suggests that there was some kind of long distance trade going on for sure. And Neanderthals they had been living in Europe and Asia for a long time before we got there. So it's possible that all the cave art that we start to see around 40,000 years ago that we made it or Neanderthals made it they might have taken some stuff from us there's really no way to know which direction that would have happened when it comes to species, but humans were coming into contact with each other long before that.

Moiya 16:05

That's so cool. I love to think of early Troodon trade. Is "Troodon" like an umbrella term. Are there multiple species underneath that?

Dustin 16:15

Whenever you hear a dinosaur name, that is the genus like Tyrannosaurus Rex is the actual species, but there are tons of different types of tyrannosaurus. Troodon originally was called a "wastebasket taxon" where lots of unidentified Raptor-like thing[s] got thrown in. So I'm actually not sure if there are like multiple species at this point of Troodon - that's simply the genus. That's a great question, when you think about like competition between very similar animals.

Moiya 16:40

Yeah, I'm realizing now... Can we learn a little bit more about the characteristics of the Troodon? How big was it? Did they have talons? Like, what? What's going on?

Dustin 16:51

Again, not so dissimilar to the Raptors. So let me step back. In Jurassic Park, we see these animals that are called Raptors. In real life, and in Michael Crichton's book, those are actually called Deinonychus and based off Deinonyhus. I bring this up because in real life Raptors - Velociraptors. Velociraptor mongoliensis, if you want to get specific with the genus and species, were about the size of like a large turkey or [a] medium to large sized dog and covered in feathers. So very different than what you see in the movie. That being said, they thought the name "Velociraptor" was scarier [so] they went with velociraptor.

Moiya 17:20

I agree.

Dustin 17:21

So when I talk about deinonychus, deinonychus and Troodon we're much closer in size to the Raptors you see in "Jurassic Park", so they had the sickle claws. They're pretty intelligent. We don't know if they could coordinate and work socially and hunt in packs. But we do know at this point, they had feathers. I think Raptors and dinosaurs in general feathers are arguably scarier than without feathers. So yeah, when I mentioned Troodon, think about basically the Raptors in "Jurassic Park", but cover them in feathers, whatever colors you want, we're not sure quite yet of their feather color. Quick sidebar, we're starting to figure out certain colors, of feathers and other species, which is really cool to be able to tell the actual colors of feathers of animals that hadn't been alive for 100 million years. But for now, when you think of Troodon, think of Raptors in "Jurassic Park" covered in feathers.

Moiya 18:07

I like to think that the coloring of the feathers would be like a regional thing. And you could tell where someone was from by the color of their feathers, or like what their ancestry was.

Dustin 18:17

Absolutely. And maybe even the colors are different between sexes, or even between individuals, like for interspecies recognition. Amanda talked about how you get to a point where you can consciously recognize yourself as different from another group, but so many animals, I guess we're unconsciously doing that with different coloration for interspecies recognition.

Moiya 18:34

Yeah. Oh, I love that. Let's say they get to that point, they're smart enough that they can recognize us versus them. And definitely like me versus other. And let's say that they're starting to gather into early civilization, which didn't happen for humans until the last what, like, maybe 20,000 years depending on what you consider civilization. So when we were first figuring things out - when the humans were, we had to learn how to do things like get food that could feed everyone and make tools for hunting and maybe building things. But I feel like dinosaurs knew how to get food because they had the teeth, like they could just eat things. So what types of problems would early dinosaur civilization have to solve?

Dustin 19:15

Honestly, some of the similar problems that early human civilizations might have had to solve with respect to protection from larger animals that might try to eat them. Now, I'm starting to think about like food caching and storage. And there are lots of different animals alive today, including some birds that do that similar type stuff. And when I say birds, it's because birds are literally living dinosaurs. So they're probably connections there, so I would imagine being able to protect yourself from not just the elements, but from predation, as well as possibly certain ways to store and catch food for later so that when you have lean times, you still have something to eat.

Moiya 19:48

Did they mostly eat meat? Or can they also eat a lot of plants?

Dustin 19:51

[They are] carnivorous I mean based on their teeth, but again, that being said, birds, which are the only living dinosaurs, they're opportunistic feeders, most of the time. They will eat pretty much whatever. I think that's actually one of the reasons why birds were able to survive the extinction that killed the rest is like if you're small and you can eat anything, it's helpful for survival.

Moiya 20:09

Yeah. Okay, so let's say that they're also opportunistic feeders just so they can get over things like the ice ages and different climatic shifts. That seems good to me. But we don't think they have any special issues like feather maintenance, I don't know, like ... interesting mating rituals, like, Is it hard for them to mate like pandas? Like, do you think they have any other problems that humans didn't have?

Dustin 20:33

I love when people throw shade at pandas for not being able to mate.

Moiya 20:38

They deserve it.

Dustin 20:40

I don't know. I wonder if as time went on, if sexual selection may have like kind of gone haywire, because we just talked about different colors of feathers. What if that was a case where you have certain Troodon that evolved wildly different color patterns in those feathers, simply as a sexual selection technique? Technique is not the right word -"adaptations". There we go.

Moiya 20:59

It's also a technique.

Dustin 21:01

Yeah, Amanda, is there any evidence for that in human evolution?

Amanda 21:04

In humans, it's actually the opposite where like, usually, with sexual selection, the male kind of gets bigger and stronger, and things like that because that's what the female wants. And that's what you see in a lot of primates, like gorillas, but in the human lineage, things actually kind of even out more, and like the canines and males get smaller, we still have sexual dimorphism. Like the males are generally larger, but for sexual selection like that, I can't think of something off the top of my head. I had a question for you, though. Dustin. So there would be other dinosaurs around, right, like different kinds, [would] they be thinking about competition with the other types of dinosaurs too, or do you think that they wouldn't have to worry about it?

Dustin 21:44

[There'd] definitely be competition, their intelligence are probably pretty helpful to beat the competition. But yeah, just like today, every species has competition with other animals around it. How intense that competition would be, I don't know. I guess that's like that's the question with human evolution too. It's like how intense is that competition as our brains kept getting bigger and as we are able to utilize different things to be able to hunt survive, but yeah, [there was] always competition for sure. I mean, there were even other types of similar types of Raptors around just like there were similar types of hominid species.

Moiya 22:13

Just briefly, like what do we think would happen to the bigger more aggressive dinosaurs like the T. Rex if a Troodon got way more intelligent and could beat out the T. Rex like with the T. Rex go extinct? Would it just get smaller and eventually become the Troodon's pet?

Dustin 22:29

Let's say Troodon gets a lot smarter, they're able to coordinate hunts together really, really well. So that would potentially be able to take food away from a T. Rex like not physically take away but like eat food that the T. Rex otherwise wouldn't be able to get. But that being said, the sheer size of the T. Rex - many people argued was a scavenger. So let's say Troodon gets really smart. They've coordinated hunting, they take down I don't like a giant Apatosaurus or something, the sheer size of [a] T. Rex [would] just walk over and be like, "get out of here, this is mine now". But then my next thought is, oh, well, maybe if they're smart enough, they probably recognize that and they'd figure out ways then to immediately hide that food or eat it or store it or maybe exist in areas that [the] T. Rex doesn't. If there's one thing we've learned from human evolution, it's [that] we're really good at taking over an area and just basically making it ours and only ours and only allowing things that we want to allow to survive in that area to survive. That's why we look out the window, you basically only see like squirrels and birds and most places in the states were dicks like that.

Moiya 23:26

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So ... I'm trying to work my way up Maslow's hierarchy of needs here. That's what I'm doing [and] if they have the base settled, and they have food, they have shelter that is reliable, the next thing that happens is that their population would grow right, as they have more reliable access to food. And with bigger populations comes more complex social structures, at least that's my understanding of it. So with these complex social structures, you have to make rules and laws for people to follow. So what kinds of laws do we think that [the] advanced Troodon would make? What do they value? Do they care about killing? Do they care about stealing? Like, what are their values?

Dustin 26:01

Amanda, what do you think were some of the first, for lack of a better phrase like laws, even if they're, like, casual laws the early people put into place?

Amanda 26:08

That's such a good question. So for humans, people started settling down, I would say, at the earliest 12,000 years ago or so. And that's when you started to domesticate plants and animals, and it kind of tied you to a specific region. And from there, you know, people started sharing common beliefs based on deities, usually associated with fertility. And there's a lot of really cool like figurines from the Near East. And like just really cool art that you can see from that time where it seems like they were worshipping female fertility and presumably other deities that were associated with food and rain and things like that. So I wonder if the first kind of laws would be almost religious in a way or if you're talking about agriculture and food, maybe it's something like, "we don't steal other people's food", because you have possession now, like for the first time, so maybe something along those lines.

Dustin 26:57

Now I'm thinking about like territoriality, especially when it comes to like a Troodon or of species related to birds. You see a lot of territoriality. So maybe that is part of it. It's like sequestering certain areas for certain groups and like, "this is my area, this is your area". You'd have to be able to figure that out, and most things in that species should have to follow those laws or it certainly wouldn't work.

Moiya 27:15

We can call them people. They're not human people, but they're Troodon people.

Dustin 27:18

Sure. Do you know that certain countries have given dolphins non-human persons status?

Moiya 27:24


Dustin 27:24

Yeah, so because of their intelligence and their social structure, they're non-human persons according to the laws in those countries?

Amanda 27:31


Moiya 27:31

Where? Yeah.

Dustin 27:32

I don't remember. It's one of those things that you know, you guys are into. I remember looking it up like, "really"? Yeah, there's like a list of like, 30 countries or something. Dolphins and non-human person status. I don't know if they can get a driver's license. But ...

Moiya 27:47

Yeah, I wonder what rights come along with that.

Amanda 27:49

Dolphins are really smart. They're really smart people in my department actually study dolphin cognition. They know what's up.

Moiya 27:54

Has dolphin cognition changed significantly over time?

Amanda 27:58

I don't know anything about dolphin cognition, but people I do, do if you're curious.

Moiya 28:02

I am curious. I'll look into it. Yeah, I love this religion train. Let's keep that going. That's something that early people develop that we've seen throughout time and space here on Earth. So early people worshipping like fertility deities, like Amanda said, and basically other deities that are associated with basic survival - fertility, food, rain, for water, things like that. Once they move up the ladder, the the pyramid of needs, what else do we think they would start to worship? I guess there would be so many different types of religions, like there are here for humans, can we think of anything else that they might worship because they're specifically dinosaurs and not humans?

Dustin 28:41

I want to back up for a second because I mean, religion is a natural thing that evolved to help explain the unexplainable and obviously helped a lot of early groups survive. So that being said, it's not a foregone conclusion that religion would be a part of an advanced species like society's mindset. I'm not really sure. That being said, I don't know how other than those basic tenets like what would a group of dinosaurs evolved in line with religion versus hominids? Wow, good question. Worship of bite-y stuff? No, I don't know. Let me think about that. That's a really good question.

Moiya 29:12

I think bite-y stuff is fair. I mean, primates are, correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like primates are way less aggressive than dinosaurs. Like we don't have claws or sharp teeth. It's hard for us to fight unless we have tools. I can just imagine that a dinosaur society would place much more value on the ability to fight.

Dustin 29:33

I would say movement in general, like when we talk about feathers, we talk about these things being really fast. And then you look at modern corollaries like birds, so many different birds do elaborate courtship, literally dancing and mating rituals. So maybe instead of like worshipping and thinking more about psychological things, it would be more of like dance and sound and movement would be what was held at high court. I would love that. And there are a lot of religions today that use dance and song and movement in ways so I wonder if that could happen as well for a species that is already elaborately colored and obviously has to woo mates in a certain way.

Moiya 30:06

Yeah, I love that. Amanda, any thoughts on dancing or just like body movement? Like dancing is one way of moving your body, fighting is another - sex is another like I can imagine they have different physical movement deities that align with those different like areas.

Amanda 30:22

Yeah, wondering if eventually that would come to be kind of expressed in dinosaur art in some way over time. And that kind of leads me to a tangent that's somewhat related. So with humans, you can like use your hands and like paint or do something with your hands like with these dinosaurs, like could they have physically like use their claws or something to create some kind of art? Like, is there a way that could manipulate objects physically to leave something that was kind of lasting?

Dustin 30:48

Not when Troodon was alive during the time of dinosaurs if it continued to evolve in a certain way, and nature selected for not hands, I guess, but claws and appendages that were more dexterous, maybe I like that idea. One corollary I'm thinking is we have fossils of what we think are scraped displays. So like, imagine if like a bird was doing a mating dance, it would leave like footprints. Imagine like big claws scraping the ground, in some sort of potential, like, mating display thing. So it's really hard to know if that was exactly what was happening. But that is one theory. So I know that's not exactly art, but it's digitally or I guess, with your feet, manipulating a surface for a certain end.

Moiya 31:29

I can see them starting to realize that they were doing that and then say, "oh, if I can do that with my feet accidentally, why can't I do that with my hands intentionally and make shapes that I want to make"? I don't know if that's how cognition evolution happens.

Dustin 31:43

I also wonder if they would use their mouths more. Again, I keep thinking about modern corollaries like birds or crocodiles. It's not like they're using their hands in very specific ways as much as birds, they're using your mouth to walk in a number of different ways, their beak to do a ton of different things.

Moiya 31:58

Yes, let's say more about that. What else could some creature, a Troodon with a more dexterous mouth than we have, what else could they do with it?

Dustin 32:07

What else other than what?

Moiya 32:09

What else other than eating?

Dustin 32:11

That's fair.

Moiya 32:15

Like [what] if maybe they don't evolve to have hands that they can use a lot to manipulate tools. But what if they use their mouths or something else that they've evolved?

Dustin 32:23

I mean, you have incredibly strong bite force and gripping. So whatever we would hold with our hands, they could probably hold with their mouths in a lot stronger way, I guess you're using teeth that are very sharp. So that can be used to not just cut things, but manipulate [and] shave things into certain shapes that are harder. We think about a lot of early hominid species using flint and then chipping away at rocks to make sharp edges to use for tools. What if they could use their teeth to do maybe that or like carve wood that way with those teeth? Because like, we can't carve wood with our hands, but if you have sharp teeth, you could easily carve something. So maybe [the] manipulation of certain materials in order to use those as some sort of tool? Sure.

Amanda 33:04

Yeah, I think that's a really cool thought because when humans manipulate their environment, they usually manipulate a rock or something to create a tool that they can then use to manipulate the environment. So I think it's such a cool thought that dinosaurs kind of could skip that step and just use their teeth to make lasting changes like that.

Moiya 33:21

Cool. Okay, so going back a little bit to religion, that makes me think of burial practices, and Amanda, you've spent a lot of time looking at bones that have been buried. If you could construct your coolest version of advanced Troodon burial practice, what would that look like?

Amanda 33:45

Well, burying itself is indicative of a lot of different things, because you have to recognize first that they're dead and then consciously decide to either move the body somewhere else or bury it into the ground. And you know, you can lay someone to rest in a lot of different ways that doesn't necessarily involve a physical burial into the earth. And a lot of times when you do that, you bury them with objects. And if I'm thinking about these Troodon with their, like crazy, sharp teeth and stuff, I feel like they can easily kind of move earth around if they want to bury them into the ground, so they could put them really deep and make a lot of space. And if they're able to create objects, like carve wood, like Dustin was saying with their teeth. I think they could also like put artistic funerary objects in there maybe somehow related to their dances or any of their deities that they have too, but I also feel like these guys are pretty flashy, like with all their feathers and stuff, and I wonder if they will want to do something a bit more like ostentatious and kind of visual.

Dustin 34:42

Very dramatic.

Amanda 34:43

Yeah, really dramatic. So I'm trying to think because one of the reasons people think or speculate that human burials evolved was to like physically remove a decomposing body away from you. So that it doesn't attract animals.

Moiya 34:55

Also it smells bad.

Amanda 34:57

Yes, it smells horrible. So I wonder like kind of going back to this competition thing, if there would be like a lot of threats and other animals that might try to drag away like a decomposing body, because if you leave it out for like everyone to see it, then other animals might want to come over too so you kind of have to balance what I hope is a desire to like, be dramatic and ostentatious and flashy with the dangers, but I definitely I'm kind of visualizing a lot of art and maybe figurines and statues and stuff like that, you know, kind of showy objects.

Moiya 35:30

Like an ancient Egyptian funerary right type of thing.

Amanda 35:33

Sure. Yeah. Like a lot of times, you want to have some kind of physical representation of something that can accompany the person into the afterlife and like, wish them well and be safe and healthy - kind of good luck charm. So I wonder what kind of things they would put in there.

Dustin 35:49

We're making the assumption of a belief in an afterlife. And so I'm wondering if these things evolved, we don't know necessarily that [a] belief in an afterlife would have evolved. So maybe if they are very smart, and they're cold blooded killers, and they are living in one with their environment, maybe the best way for them to continue to sustain themselves and return their fellow members of the species to the earth is actually used their dead as like bait or lure in hunting for more food. I don't know, that could be possible. I wouldn't mind going out that way. I'm already dead, and then they use my body for something - I don't know. Personally, I mean, I'm not the most religious person. So personally, I like the idea of being returned to the earth through the stomach of a large carnivore after death rather than just being put underground, but that's just me. I can't speak for Troodon.

Amanda 36:39

I like that, too.

Moiya 36:41

Yeah, I think this follows well with their value of physical movement, because that, to me, seems like it would go really well with the value of the present and the now. This is gonna sound really bad, but if they're like more physically inclined people than intellectually or like thought inclined people, then maybe an afterlife isn't something that occurs to them. It doesn't have to, you're right, Dustin. And so maybe they think that like, "once you're dead, you're gone. And your body should be used to do a useful body thing like it did when it was alive. Like it should serve a purpose". I like that. I also like that you didn't go all the way to cannibalism, because you could have.

Dustin 37:19

Is that where you thought I was going?

Amanda 37:21

I thought you were.

Moiya 37:21

It is because we've had a lot of cannibals on this show.

Dustin 37:24

I mean, there's evidence for cannibalism in certain species of dinosaurs, so it's not out of the cards.

Moiya 37:29

I'm not opposed to cannibalism for the the species that we imagine.

Dustin 37:33

Animals that are alive today other than humans, like "intelligent" - I'm throwing up air quotes, "intelligent" animals alive today that practice cannibalism.

Amanda 37:39

I can't think of anything off the top of my head.

Moiya 37:42

When I was younger. We had chickens and I once fed them a bunch of McDonald's chicken nuggets to make them cannibals.

Amanda 37:50

That's stone-cold.

Dustin 37:50

That's forced dinosaur cannibalism, that is not cool.

Moiya 37:53

Oh, yeah, they are dinosaurs.

Dustin 37:55

Yeah, that's why I love dino nuggets, because it's the shape of one dinosaur. with a different dinosaur on the inside. It's like an Inception nugget.

Moiya 38:02

It's the true form of the of the nugget.

Dustin 38:04

It really is. It's the truest form.

Moiya 38:07

Okay. Any other thoughts about burial or funerary practices?

Amanda 38:13

I like that movement thing for sure, because I felt like burying them in the ground that's not really like for them, you know, like something more pragmatic, you know, like, "use this body we have one here might as well use it as some bait or something" why get rid of a perfectly good corpse.

Dustin 38:29

We'll start doing that at some point. Once we get to that next step.

Moiya 38:33

Well, that's kind of what organ donation is. It's not the same, but it's like a long the same vector. Yeah. So the default in this world once they get to have driver's licenses, and IDs is that everyone is automatically an organ donor. One last thing I want to ask. So like, remember, we're moving up the hierarchy of needs. And once you get to a certain point on the hierarchy, you start having more time to just do fun stuff that you enjoy because you don't have to spend as much time doing the basic survival things. So what do we think that archdruid on people would do for fun once they get to that point?

Dustin 39:07

Dinosaurs self-actualization at this point?

Moiya 39:10


Dustin 39:10

Wow. What does a feather dino do for fun other than hunt and kill? I mean, if we are looking at ourselves as the most intelligent species now I wonder if they were just like, lie on the carpet staring at the ceiling for hours contemplating their own existence? I don't know.

Moiya 39:26

Is that what you've been doing lately, Dustin?

Dustin 39:28

I've said too much.

Moiya 39:32

I think that they would have a lot of physical art. I think there would be a lot of dance performances, a lot of people learning how to dance like a lot of dance apprenticeship,

Amanda 39:42

What about like sports, I feel like they're really active people you know.

Dustin 39:46

That's true. If this is a species that depends so much on their physical capabilities. That's a really good point. I wonder if you have like races or some sort of catchy competition for you try to grab stuff. I also think if you still have the sickle claws, you could use those. We talked about carving earlier, you could probably carve some amazing sculptures or representations of things, just Olympic art, that's what they would do.

Amanda 40:09

I like that.

Moiya 40:10

I would love that. There would also be sports. So just the Olympics would also include art. Is it weird to say that they might also be like a very sexual species? That's physical, and they're so pretty.

Dustin 40:22

I don't think that's not weird at all.

Moiya 40:23


Dustin 40:24

Have you seen birds?

Moiya 40:25

I have seen your many tweets pointing at a picture of a bird and saying, "look at this bird. It's sexy as fuck".

Dustin 40:34

Listen, they are, it's true. I don't think Troodon was like that sexually dimorphic. So we have similar sizes. Plus as far as we know, they had a cloaca, which is basically like one hole to rule them all. And modern birds that have like this practice cloacal kisses, so maybe they were just like really good at like, genitally kissing and that became an Olympic sport. We've gone off the rails. I'm sorry.

Moiya 40:59

Okay, yes, we have. Before we go back onto the rails: cloacal kissing. Is that like bird scissoring?

Dustin 41:08

No one has ever said that, but basically, you're just pushing your stuff together. And then the male from the whole some birds have internal penises, but yeah, so I guess, sure. Yes, it's bird scissoring. Okay, yeah, the rails don't exist anymore.

Moiya 41:30

Alright, so since the rails are gone, what else do you think might be different in a world today, where there were dinosaurs that had been here the whole time?

Amanda 41:38

I wonder, do you think that they would start to create, like actual cities? Like, would they create like structures, because we change our environments so much, for the most part, and I wonder if dinosaurs would want or need to do something because we think of ourselves as kind of being outside of nature. We're not like animals, but I'm picturing these dinosaurs as still despite being very intelligent living very much within nature. So I wonder if over time, if you think that maybe they would come to a point like us, where they kind of are so far removed, that they need to create structures like that, or if they don't even need to bother and they can just live their life?

Dustin 42:13

That's a great point. I'm thinking about the amount of space that we need as well, like we talked earlier in the beginning, kind of bring it back about humans migrating. And I wonder how much that would be necessity for this group? I guess you wouldn't migrate if you're building a bunch of spaces as much? I'm not sure.

Moiya 42:29

It's a good question.

Dustin 42:30

I'm trying to get out of my own brain, because our trajectory of evolution is the only one we know that has gotten to this place, like how do you step outside of that? And try to imagine a different one for a totally different animal. But I guess that's the whole point of this conversation.

Amanda 42:45

It's hard though.

Dustin 42:46

It's hard. How do you see the forest from the trees when you're like squarely in the jungle?

Moiya 42:52

Yeah, I think it'd be really cool if they didn't build up cities like we do. Do they need shelter the same way we do? Probably not. Right? They're totally fine being outside in the elements. So they don't need to build houses, you can have technological advancement without building up structures and cities. I think this also means that they would, absolutely once they discovered petroleum, they would absolutely use it because they think that dead dinosaurs should be used.

Dustin 43:22

So I have to push back a little bit there because saying oils made from dinosaurs is kind of like saying your notebook was made from beetles because there was one on the tree they cut down to make the paper. If that makes sense. I was thinking, well, what if they got to a point of self actualization like, "yo, we took over this land, and we are the apex species here". What is next? What are the natural resources we can exploit to get off this planet? And go put dinosaurs on Mars?

Moiya 43:49

What if they had this idea of colonialism, and like, "let's take everything over"? But they also just didn't destroy nature? Because they didn't need to? That's an interesting juxtaposition. I'd love to see that exist together.

Amanda 44:03

Yeah, I'm trying to imagine what that would look like. Because when you ask, like, how would it be different from today, I'm just picturing what I see when I look around. And I see tons of buildings and forests and everything cut down. But yeah, you don't need to do that.

Dustin 44:16

[I'm] thinking about like some of the smarter birds are alive today. They build elaborate nests, or even give like gifts for mating rituals. I think that'd be a good place to start to think about it.

Moiya 44:25

Do they have nests? Do they have like home bases?

Dustin 44:28

I'm not sure about Troodon. I mean, certain dinosaurs definitely built nests and showed certain levels, parental care. I bet that's actually something that would happen as they evolved more and more specific parental care, maybe distribution of roles within the society where certain members are taking care of certain individuals at certain stages of their life. Hard to know.

Moiya 44:48

And it's hard to know, but we're at the top of the hour. So unfortunately, this really awesome conversation has to end but before it does, I want to give you the opportunity to promote whatever you're doing. Tell the listeners How they can learn about you. So Amanda, what are you doing? How can our listeners follow you, learn about you?

Amanda 45:06

Well, I'm supposed to be doing a PhD, but the pandemic has made it a little difficult to do that. So I've been trying to do some science writing, which I've been doing for "Massive Science". I've also been writing a couple of episodes for PBS "Eons", which if you like this kind of stuff, you should definitely check it out. It's a YouTube channel where they talk about like, deep time and like the history of life on earth through cool, weird fossils and stories and stuff. So if you want to check out my stuff, I'm on Twitter, and it's just @amanda_rossillo.

Moiya 45:38

Amazing. Yeah. I'll put all that in the description. Dustin, what about you?

Dustin 45:42

If you just look up Dustin Growick on any platform, you can find me there. I'm pretty active on Twitter and Instagram. But I'm most active on Friday nights because literally every Friday night at 9pm with Atlas Obscura, we do a boozy adults only "Dino 101" which is twice as fun as you think. I don't know how we engendered such a fun community, but we play drinking games. We learn a ton about dinosaurs - it's interactive at home scavenger hunts and challenges and it is boozy and it is a great way to start your weekend. So that's every Friday night at 9pm through Atlas Obscura. I post about it all the time. So follow me.

Moiya 46:13

You do and they're amazing, so definitely do that. At the end of every episode. I include a creative prompt for the listeners in case they want to start a creative project, but they need some help getting the juices flowing. What do we think the prompt should be for this episode?

Dustin 46:27

What medium are we talking about? Can you give me like a medium? Are we talking dance? Are we talking art?

Moiya 46:33

I try to keep it pretty medium agnostic. So that whatever they want to do, they can. So it usually has to do with a theme like, "what type of sport do you think the Troodon people would eventually play"? And you can either write a story about it or draw a picture of it or whatever.

Dustin 46:49

Slightly above PG 13, is that okay? Okay, I want to see someone draw and render two Troodon scissoring. You brought this up not me, but I think it'd be very fun thing to draw. You can look at images here on images online have to add on so you can get the scientific accuracy down. But that's what it's about speculating, hypothesizing about different ways they may have interacted. Troodon scissoring, let's go.

Moiya 47:15

Okay, that's great. So I did a prompt, Dustin did a prompt, Amanda. What would what would you like to see from the listeners?

Amanda 47:25

How am I supposed to top that? Um, so I think Dustin mentioned about like dinosaurs trying to go to Mars and stuff after taking over Earth. So I wonder if the prompt could be something about dinosaurs in space?

Moiya 47:38

Oh, yes.

Dustin 47:39

Dinos. In. Spaaaaaace!

Moiya 47:42

Please, yes, I want to see all of these things. If you're comfortable sharing your work listeners, please send that to or you can put it on Twitter and Instagram and tag "exolorepod". That's all we have today. Thank you, Amanda and Dustin, for this truly unexpected discussion that started with "what if dinosaurs never died" and ended with "dinosaurs scissoring". So thank you for that. Truly.

Amanda 48:10

Thank you for having us.

Dustin 48:11

Of course. Thanks Moiya.

Moiya 48:14

I want to thank Amanda Rossillo and Dustin Growick for helping me build this unexpectedly bizarre world, check out their awesome work by following the links in the episode description. Thanks to my sponsors, Brilliant and Inked Gaming, use the links in the description to get your special Exolore discounts, and most importantly, thank you for listening. If you want to support my worldbuilding work, the first way to do that is to rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. It's free and it does make a difference. Second, you can support me on Patreon, your monthly support would make it possible for me to continue working on this passion project of mine, so please head on over to "" if you're able. If you're looking for other awesome podcasts to enjoy I'd recommend checking out the other Multitude shows. Multitude is an independent podcast collective that Exolore joined over the summer and they have lots of amazing shows, including "Join the Party", which is my favorite D&D podcast. Yeah, I'm the type of nerd who has a favorite D&D podcast. They just finished up their last campaign so it's a great time to start listening. Go to "", to get up to speed. This episode of Exolore was edited by Mischa Stanton. Cover art is by Stephen Reisig and music is from If you like this episode, be sure to share it with your friends and subscribe to the show. That way you can catch me next time on another world.

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