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The Q? Blog

What's the Big Deal About Tiny Fossils?

by Devin Reese -- Feb 17, 2016

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

 Tiny fossil jaw of a rhynchosaur (reptile) from the Late Jurassic that lived alongside dinosaurs in Wyoming. Photo by Matthew Carrano, Smithsonian.
Tiny fossil jaw of a rhynchosaur (reptile) from the Late Jurassic that lived alongside dinosaurs in Wyoming. Photo by Matthew Carrano, Smithsonian.

A fossil the size of our pinky nail is not typically what we hope to see when we come to a natural history museum to learn about dinosaurs. But, it is exactly those tiny fossils that are paving the way for a new understanding of where and how dinosaurs lived. 

In the fervor to find skeletons of the large dinosaurs that roamed Earth during the Jurassic and Cretaceous, paleontologists have been probing fossil formations for more than a century. Huge skeletons of Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, and other iconic dinosaurs have been unearthed. They have provided the foundation for research on what dinosaurs looked like, what they ate, and how they moved. However, those characteristics of big dinosaurs are only part of the story.

Image icon160316_q_webcast_button_carrano_b.pngLike animals today, dinosaurs lived in complex environments populated by many smaller species. Dinosaurs depended on their more diminutive community members for food and functioning ecosystems. Many dinosaurs were themselves rather small, like dog-sized dromaeosaurs who roamed the United States during the Cretaceous. And, of course, even giant dinosaurs started life as little hatchlings.

Some paleontologists are combing fossil formations for the hordes of tiny fossils left over from dinosaur communities that lived millions of years ago. Find out more in a "Smithsonian Science How" webcast on What Tiny Fossils Explain about Big Dinosaur Ecosystems. Dr. Matthew Carrano from the National Museum of Natural History will discuss and answer questions. Get teaching resources to use with the webcast.