Dinosaurs Died Agonizing Deaths

A new theory suggests that dinosaurs suffocated to death.

Fossilized dinosaurs often have wide-open mouths, heads thrown back and tails that curve toward the head. Paleontologists have long assumed the dinosaurs died in water and the currents drifted the bones into that position, or that rigor mortis or drying muscles, tendons and ligaments contorted the limbs. “I’m reading this in the literature and thinking, ‘This doesn’t make any sense to me as a veterinarian,'” said Cynthia Marshall Faux, a veterinarian-turned-paleontologist at the Museum of the Rockies. Faux and a colleague say brain damage and asphyxiation are the more likely culprits.

Archaeopteryx Photo Image of a skeleton with wing and tail feather impressions of the tenth specimen of the first known bird, Archaeopteryx. The new specimen provides important details on the feet and skull of these birds and strengthens the widely but not universally accepted argument that modern birds arose from dinosaurs. Credit: G. Mayr/Senckenberg A classic example of the posture, which has puzzled paleontologists for ages, is the 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx, the first-known example of a feathered dinosaur and the proposed link between dinosaurs and present-day birds. “Virtually all articulated specimens of Archaeopteryx are in this posture, exhibiting a classic pose of head thrown back, jaws open, back and tail reflexed backward and limbs contracted,” said Kevin Padian, professor of integrative biology and curator in the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley. He Faux (pronounced “Fox”) published their findings this week in the journal Paleobiology.

Some animals found in this posture may have suffocated in ash during a volcanic eruption, consistent with the fact that many fossils are found in ash deposits, Faux and Padian said. But many other possibilities exist, including disease, brain trauma, severe bleeding, thiamine deficiency or poisoning. “This puts a whole new light on the mode of death of these animals, and interpretation of the places they died in,” Padian said. “This explanation gives us clues to interpreting a great many fossil horizons we didn’t understand before and tells us something dinosaurs experienced while dying, not after dying.”


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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Volcanos can produce more than ash and lava; they often release deadly gases, to include Sulfur Dioxide, Chlorine and Fluorine (Hydrogen Fluoride).

    The Icelandic Laki volcanic fissure’s eruption in 1783-84 produced 120 million tons of sulphur dioxide leading to widespread deaths across Europe, and abnormal weather worldwide.

  2. G.A.Phillips says:

    Yup, people killed them and ate them.

  3. G.A.Phillips says:

    And the the 180 million year old T-Rex leg bone that they found not to long ago and had to break in half for transport that still had flesh in it and was said to have the same D.N.A type as a chicken must have been nice for roasting.

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    Of course they died while suffocating. Everyone knows that the dinosaurs were wiped out by the Flood because they couldn’t fit in Noah’s Ark!

  5. It’s interesting to know something about how the fossilized dinosaurs died. However, one should keep in mind that fossils are exceedingly rare. Most dead animals quickly decay without leaving any trace. Those very few who die under circumstances allowing preservation are a thoroughly unrepresentative sample of the overall dinosaur population.

    Did they die choking in volcanic fumes? Very plausibly. Does that mean there were lots of volcanoes back then? Not at all. Did they drown in a flash flood? Very plausibly. Was the whole world flooded back then? Not necessarily. And so on. Even a lack of thiamine might have been a local and rare phenomenon somehow connected with whatever preserved the remains.

  6. floyd says:

    I heard that the ones that didn’t get run over by SUVs, died from the fumes or worry over the environmental impact.
    I saw a documentary where they were abused as slave labor for everything from stone quarry work to lawn mowing, but were eventually replaced by illegal immigrants and starved to death!
    Or was that “The Flintstones”??