...if humans can coexist with dinosaurs? (with Jingmai O'Connor)

Ever Wonder? / June 8, 2022
Jingmai O'Connor
Image attribution
Courtesy of Jingmai O'Connor
Jingmai O'Connor_2
Image attribution
Courtesy of Jingmai O'Connor
Dillen Render
Image attribution
Courtesy of Dillen Render
Jaime Lopez
Image attribution
Courtesy of Jaime Lopez
David Magaña
Image attribution
Courtesy of David Magaña

Science Center interns have taken over the show! David Magaña, Jaime Lopez, and Dillen Render from Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles were excited about this summer’s new movie Jurassic World: Dominion and had a question: 

Ever wonder if humans can coexist with dinosaurs?  

Dinosaurs have been extinct for a very long time, so what would our world be like if dinosaurs were roaming the earth once again only this time it is in the modern era? To help answer this question, they talked to paleontologist Dr. Jingmai O’Connor from the Field Museum in Chicago. She not only talked about what would happen if dinosaurs came back from extinction, but also said there are already dinosaurs living among us today! 

Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to the podcast team to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes. 

Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts. To see a full list of episodes, visit our show’s webpage



David Magaña (00:05):

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. My name is David Magaña. Yeah, we kicked Perry off the show! I'm David.

Jaime Lopez (00:15):

And I'm Jaime Lopez.

Dillen Render (00:16):

And I'm Dillen Render.

David, Jaime & Dillen(00:17):

And we're from Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles, and we've been interning at the Science Center for the past four years.

David Magaña (00:24):

We were tasked with pitching an idea for the podcast and with the new Jurassic World movie releasing soon, we came up with a great question: Ever wonder if humans can coexist with dinosaurs?

Jaime Lopez (00:36):

Dinosaurs have been extinct for a very long time, so what would our world be like if dinosaurs were roaming the earth once again only this time in the modern era?

David Magaña (00:44):

To help us answer this burning question, we have a paleontologist with us today, Dr. Jingmai O'Connor from the Field Museum in Chicago. She helped us think about what would happen if dinosaurs came back from extinction, but also said there are already dinosaurs living among us today!

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:02):

Dr. Jingmai O'Connor, you are a paleontologist and Associate Curator of Fossil Reptiles at the Field Museum in Chicago—Jingmai, welcome to the show!

Jingmai O'Connor (01:09):

Thank you so much, Perry. It's a pleasure to be here.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:12):

Yeah. And hosting with me today are Jaime and David from Verbum Dei high school in Los Angeles. Hi guys.

Jaime Lopez (01:17):

Hey Perry and Jingmai thanks for joining us.

David Magaña (01:20):

Yes. Hello. Thank you for coming on.

Jingmai O'Connor (01:21):

Thank you so much for having me guys.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:23):

So Jingmai we are thrilled to talk to a dinosaur expert like you today. I think you have just one of the coolest jobs as a paleontologist, especially, and I'm biased here, cause I like flying things. One that focuses on understanding the dinosaur bird transition. Uh, that all sounds really fascinating. I'm sure you hear this a lot, but I don't think I'd ever heard of paleontologists until I watched the movie Jurassic Park as a kid in the nineties and with the new Jurassic World Dominion movie coming out this summer, I bet there's a whole new group of kids. Uh, getting excited about this field again. So why don't we start there? Uh, just in case listeners might not know what is a paleontologist, exactly?

Jingmai O'Connor (02:02):

A paleontologist is somebody who studies ancient life through the petrified remains of once living organisms, which are called fossils. So paleo means ancient life. Paleo is ancient to means life and ology is like the study of, so it's the study of ancient life.

Perry Roth-Johnson (02:20):

Cool. And, and how did you end up becoming one?

Jingmai O'Connor (02:23):

You know, most people, uh, are like kind of like you described, they saw Jurassic Park as a kid, or they played with dinosaur toys when they were young and they've been obsessed ever since. Like that is a cliche that holds strong for like 99.9% of all paleontologists. It's like, it's scary how much that cliche holds true. Um, I am the only paleontologist I've ever met, like serious one, you know, who is, you know, was not reeled in at this at such a young age. So I always, I always joke that I'm like I'm late to the paleo party. Um, but yeah, I discovered paleontology in college, I mean I knew of it, you know, I had gone and hunted for fossils with my mom. Who's also a geologist and my little brother had a huge trilobite collection and I was like, I was aware these things existed. Of course mm-hmm . But um, yeah, I was in college and learning about, you know, how our planet formed and, and how the, you know, the plates have moved around and how life has evolved and, and how life has changed. You know, as these plates are moving around and animals are, are dispersing and all these things. Yeah, whatever. Uh, so I learned about that in class as a geology major and my freshman year at Occidental college. And I just, you know, the idea of how organisms have changed, how you go from a single cell organism to the incredible diversity of animals living on our planet today. Like really just, just hooked me. And so, um, I was already a geology major and if you're gonna study, uh, evolution through the lens of geology, it's gonna be as a paleontologist. And so voila here I am.

David Magaña (03:55):

When you were introduced to paleontology, was it a welcoming experience?

Jingmai O'Connor (04:01):

Uh, that's a really good question, David, cause I think it's, it's important to talk about these experiences and uh, it was really a mixed bag, uh, you know, and um, you know, my actual advisor was super supportive. I mean, after giving me the like, you need to know what you're getting into run for your life speech that I then was like, not listening to that still wanna do it. And then he was like, all right, like, you know, you've been warned and now I'm gonna help you. So he was really wonderful. His name is Don Prothero, he's written tons of books. He's a really, really great guy, really supportive of his students. But yeah, there were plenty of other people I ran into who were just like, get out of here kid. Like, you know, there's not enough fossils for everyone. And like, yeah, like really, you know, really mean and like, and just did nasty un- thing, unfair things to prevent young researchers from succeeding because it's such a competitive field. Like what are, what's the easiest competition to eliminate young students just trying to get on their feet, young female students, especially, or like minorities like, yeah. So, um, you know, sadly, even though our field is dominated by white men, it was other women who were the nastiest to me, uh, when I was, when I was a wee one. But uh, you know, like through these experiences, I see how you can go one of two ways you can either be like, oh, that's how the game's played. And then you just be really nasty to other people too. Right. Or you could do what I did and you can be like, that's messed up. That is what I'll never do. I'm gonna be supportive to students. So I really, really, really try as hard as I can to just give whatever I can to, to young researchers and help support them and be successful.

David Magaña (05:37):

Right. So almost like breaking the, the chain and hopefully the positive attitude you showed to these new students coming into paleontology could show that when they get older.

Jingmai O'Connor (05:48):

Yeah. I mean, partly it is a little bit selfish because it's just good to have good relationships with the next generation when I'm all old, they can nominate me for awards and stuff. I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding. That's not at all. Why I do it. I, I really genuinely do it because I'm so grateful for the help I got when I was young from the nice people and those experiences from the nasty people are so still, so like real to me, you know, like I just really don't want anyone to have to go to go through that. And uh, and I also see how much I benefited from having the support of good advisors. And so I just, you know, I wanna pass that on, you know, and if, if everybody's nice to each other, the world is gonna be so much of a, a better place. So we'll start with paleo and, and move out.

David Magaña (06:33):

You gotta start somewhere.

Jingmai O'Connor (06:35):


David Magaña (06:36):

So when you are studying a dinosaur, what, what do you hope to find?

Jingmai O'Connor (06:41):

Well, every fossil first you have to be like, is this something new? Is this a, a fossil that we've never seen before? Then that means it's a new species. So that's kind of exciting, uh, cause then you get to name it. Um, but uh, and then you have to say, well, if this is something new, how is it different than other animals that we've known about before? And what does that difference? Tell us about life, about diversity, about how animals we're adapting, about how animals were, you know, competing with each other. You know, there's so many different aspects of life that you can learn about from different aspects of these extinct to animals. And it really, I guess, depends on what that fossil gives you like. And so that's essentially what you're doing. Every time you find something new, you're like, what does this tell me that we did not know before? And it could be anything. It could be like, oh, we didn't know that, you know, this, this one species. We only had a head. Now we have a leg. Now we know what it's like, you know, it expands the knowledge of just that animal or maybe it preserves, a little bit of soft tissue and it tells you about, you know, how feathers evolved or something. Yeah. There's just a million things you can learn from all the different types of fossils that there are out there.

David Magaña (07:43):

Are there any animals alive today that are similar or related to dinosaurs?

Jingmai O'Connor (07:48):

Excellent question. Cause yeah, you know, some people I've realized don't really seem to make the connect that birds are actually living dinosaurs. Like for example, if you see like frozen dinosaur chicken nuggets, right. Why is that box not being like these dinosaur nuggets are made of dinosaur? You know? Like that would Be so cool. Right?

David Magaña (08:09):


Jingmai O'Connor (08:09):

I mean, I guess maybe they're like worried they're gonna like freak some people out. They're like, well, like, you know, like, yeah, I don't know. But um, yeah, so birds are not just descended from dinosaurs. Birds literally are one group of dinosaurs that survived the end cretaceous mass extinction and divers diversified into the most specious group of vertebrates on that live on land. So fish are more, there's more species of fish, but they're like vertebrates living in water. But yeah, the most like diverse group of, of land vertebrates are birds. So birds or slash dinosaurs are the most successful group of amniotes on our planet today. So everybody's like, oh, dinosaurs are extinct. It's like, Nope, they're doing quite well. Actually.

Jaime Lopez (08:54):

What is the importance of studying dinosaur DNA? What could we learn from it?

Jingmai O'Connor (08:59):

Ooh, that is yeah. You guys. Jaime you know your stuff like cutting edge paleo here. So right now the idea of studying dinosaur DNA is really very, very new. So, uh, there's a joke about like what it means to be a paleontologist and all you do is you're like, that's not a fossil, that's a rock, that's a rock, that's a rock. No Jurassic Park. No, no, no, that's a rock. Oh, okay. Maybe that one's a fossil that's you know the joke. So we're always getting asked like could Jurassic Park happen? And it's like, well I always counter with, why would you want it to like the movie ended terribly, you know, like why, but uh, but the fact is DNA in the fossil record degrades after 2 million years. So people who study ancient humans do look at DNA, but once they get past that 2 million point, there's just, they've never been able to find anything that still preserve the structure that you could actually sequence. So, you know, the oldest or the youngest, sorry, non-avian dinosaurs are 66 million years old. Right.

Perry Roth-Johnson (09:58):


Jingmai O'Connor (09:59):

So it's way beyond that 2 million point.

Perry Roth-Johnson (10:01):


Jingmai O'Connor (10:01):

But as you've clearly read, and I'm very impressed about that. There was a recent paper came out like two years ago or something about somebody reporting that they found DNA of a dinosaur and a fossil that was 70, I think 76 million years old from Montana. So, um, the cells in the bone of this dinosaur were incredibly preserved. You could actually see the cell nucleus, you could see other like intracellular bodies, like it was crazy, really fantastic preservation. And then these, these authors did some tests called immunohistochemistry where you basically apply a chemical, that's only gonna react with one thing. Like it's gonna react specifically with DNA and they applied it to this incredibly well preserved fossil and it showed that there was DNA in the cell nucleus exactly where it should be. Right. Wow. Cool. But like, if you want to understand an experiment, what do you have to do? Like you have to have a control, right? You have an experiment and you have a control and without the control, you do not know what your experiment's telling you. So this experiment with dinosaur DNA did not have a control. So as possible, some human DNA got in there and contaminated the sample, but then why is the DNA only found in the nucleus exactly where it should be? So there's like, I mean, I'm kind of on the fence right now. I'm just like, this is potentially really exciting, but there are some issues. So it's really basically a new area of paleontology where there's a lot of work to do where there's a lot of, you know, um, ex new experiments to design to try to figure out what's there. And if we can actually extract useful information, I reckon that we're not gonna be able to sequence any dinosaurs. But I do think we're gonna be able to prove that there are like building blocks of DNA, fragmented building block blocks that do survive in fossils in deep time. But whether or not those can tell us anything, that's something that's, uh, you know, we're just really gonna have to figure out over the next couple decades as this new field emerges and new researchers, you know, start putting their talent to it.

Jaime Lopez (12:06):

You know how you said we can't get really can't get dinosaur DNA from fossils. Is there a way that we could somehow track dinosaur DNA from current birds?

Jingmai O'Connor (12:15):

Yeah. So there actually is a, a, a famous paleontologist named Jack Horner who apparently like the, the main guy, this like this shows how ignorant I am, but like, who's the main guy in the first Jurassic Park movie. Like I know like he's a hero to all paleontologist, but like the, the paleontologist in that movie, whatever. So he is based off of this guy, Jack Horner. So Jack Horner has a thing called like, uh, the Dino chicken project or something like that. And what he's trying to do, it's like basically a big umbrella project for all this research that is trying to reverse engineer a dinosaur from birds. And so like, there's, some people are working on like, well, how did the tail become short? Or how did teeth become lost? Like all these different characteristics of dinosaurs that separate dinosaurs, non-avian dinosaurs from birds. Right? So, um, there's a lot of research being done to do this, but for example, uh, just with the tooth research alone, they realize that you cannot reverse engineer a bird with teeth. It's impossible. The DNA has changed so much, even just in the 68 million years, since teeth were lost in the, you know, living bird lineage of dinosaurs, cause teeth were actually lost in dinosaurs, like at least a dozen times. And the beak was evolved, you know, teeth lost really beak evolved many times. Yeah. So, um, but in the particular lineage, leading to birds that are alive today, that was at probably about 68 million years ago that the teeth were lost and yeah, the genes are just no longer there. So you can sort of make these little teeth buds appear like, but you cannot make them develop into full teeth. So if that's true and that's just one aspect and we've already hit a wall, right. I think it's probably gonna be impossible with our current technology to reverse engineer, um, birds into dinosaurs, but also like just, just saying that sounds like the beginning of a horror movie. It does not sound like a good idea to me. So please don't do it guys. Jack Horner stop. No, I'm kidding.

David Magaña (14:14):

I have to ask this question. What would a future with dinosaurs look like?

Jingmai O'Connor (14:19):

Ooh, well a future with non-avian dinosaurs. Right. Okay. Right. So, um, yeah, I mean, it probably would be pretty gnarly for people. I mean, mammals have been around a long time, so mammals and dinosaurs, coexisted, even during, you know, the Jurassic, right. So this is not a new thing like humans and mammals and actually there's a really cool fossil from the, from China for this early cretaceous age. And it's a mammal, like a raccoon size mammal with baby dinosaurs in its stomach. So it's like, there is not this like one way, like mammals get dis like it's like dinosaurs mammals. It's like, no, it goes both directions. But, um, but if we bring back these big things, you know, like sauropod dinosaurs, the largest animals to ever walk the, you know, walk on land or, you know, things like Giganotosaurus or T-rex or Spinosaurus. I mean, these are massive apex predators, the likes of which we have are not around and have not been around in at any point in human history. And um, yeah, I think, you know, we're small, weak, little mammal, naked mammals running around like, ah, you know, like I, I think we, we would probably not do very well against these large animals. I mean, I mean like you you'd have little kids, you know, getting stepped on by sauropods, getting buried alive in sauropod feces, like...

Perry Roth-Johnson (15:38):

Oh no.

Jingmai O'Connor (15:39):

You know, and like, and I think I mentioned this to you guys, last time we were chatting like the movie Jurassic Park, the book, the book starts off with a dinosaur breaking into someone's house and eating their baby. So like yeah. That's how the book starts, you know, like, yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, yeah, I, for one am like, don't, don't bring them back.

David Magaña (15:57):

Right. So basically in a world with dinosaur's alive today, the environment would look pretty different and, and animals would be probably behaving differently or probably be a lot more bottom of the food chain, but could humans possibly live alongside dinosaurs?

Jingmai O'Connor (16:16):

Yeah. But I just like, I mean, it's possible, but again, for me in my mind, I'm just like, but it's gonna go terribly wrong. Like, okay, what have you put some kind of like collar on them so that they like, you know, can't, you know, think violent thoughts or like, you know, don't wanna eat people or I don't know. But like, again, this just sounds like, you know, we've all seen that movie and it doesn't go like, it doesn't go well, no, um, yeah, like that Rick and Morty where they, like, they make the dog intelligence and then it just like takes over. Oh yeah. Or like, yeah. I mean, cause if you're doing this, you're essentially enslaving an animal, you know, like, and I just think that when we try to force nature, like when we try to bend nature to our will, rather than trying to live in harmony with nature, I just think that what's bad for nature and for the earth usually ends up being bad for us too. So I would better try to figure out how we could live in harmony with dinosaurs. Like, all right, Australia is yours, you know, we'll you guys stay there. Like I yeah. Or, you know, like, yeah, just like live in cities that somehow like, you know, concentrated mega cities where dinosaurs can't come tramping around and, and stepping on children and we give them like big open spaces and we just fly around in little helicopters and look at them and we're like, look what we made. You know, that would probably be the best way to go.

Perry Roth-Johnson (17:34):

I understand you're writing a children's book that's coming out later this year. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?

Jingmai O'Connor (17:40):

Thank you for letting give me the opportunity cause I'm actually like really excited about it. I'm somebody who really doesn't feel good about like shameless self-promotion. So I kind of like, uh, like, but it's also like I love this book. We did such a good job. It came out so well. So I actually just saw the, the proofs yesterday and I'm super excited about it and it, you know, it basically teaches you about the ideas of evolution, how we came to understand what evolution is like the history of paleontology kind of like shout out to how many different cultures at many different times have understood what fossils are and what they can tell us. Like what we consider to be the history of paleontology is actually just the history of paleontology within western society. Right so I think it's important to like, you know, to, to broaden our, our, our minds about that. And uh, so we talk a little bit about Darwin, about the discovery of archaeopteryx , like how humans came to understand what that evolution is a process that has shaped the life on our planet. And then I just like teach you everything there is to know about Mesozoic birds, like their feathers, how we can tell what color their feathers were about, all different flying dinosaurs about all these cool birds that lived in the past about the fifth mass extinction about the birds that survive and then about how all we get these birds that we have alive today. And then my favorite page is my last page of the book where yes, I'm sorry. I do get all preachy on everybody. And I'm like, this is my six mass extinction. Like, help. Uh, yeah, but for real, we, we are in the sixth mass extinction of verse history. Uh, the last one took out all the non-avian dinosaurs. This one is the only one that's ever been caused by a species, a conscious species that's supposedly very intelligent. And uh, yeah. And I, I think it's, it's a call to, you know, for us to change our lives and to, uh, to protect the life that the, the species that we do have left. Yeah. So I'm, I'm really excited for it. It comes out November. Uh, it's Quarto publishing, you can already pre-order it.

Perry Roth-Johnson (19:37):

And what's it called?

Jingmai O'Connor (19:37):

It's called When Dinosaurs Conquered the Skies.

Perry Roth-Johnson (19:41):

Wow. I'm super excited for that.

Jingmai O'Connor (19:44):

Yeah. Thank you.

Perry Roth-Johnson (19:45):

For that. Um, you know, if people are interested in becoming paleontologists or just wanna know a little bit more about your story, uh, where can people follow you online and find your work?

Jingmai O'Connor (19:55):

I call myself paleontologista. And so I have a website paleontologista.com. Also. I really love Instagram, like and so yeah, I have a paleontologista account where I post fossils for everybody all the time, #FossilFridays.

Perry Roth-Johnson (20:11):


Jingmai O'Connor (20:12):

If you go on my website, there's plenty of talks that I've posted there. And uh, and I'm very easy to find. You can easily find my email. I do encourage people to, to reach out. I usually respond pretty quickly, but like paleontologists, we are we're silver servants. We're serving the people like it's all for, you know, everything we do is for the good of mankind, not to like, you know, I mean, I know that sounds like really like high and mighty, but it's like, this is ultimately what we're doing. We're trying to uncover new knowledge for humanity. And so if we're gonna do it, we have to share it with the people like, otherwise what's the point. So please, yeah. Please reach out. If you have fossil questions, if you found something weird and you need identified or if you need advice for how to become paleontologist. Um, yeah. I'm happy to help.

Perry Roth-Johnson (20:55):

Well, it's been so wonderful talking to you. Thanks for joining us on the show.

Jingmai O'Connor (20:59):

Yeah, no, thank you so much. Jaime, David, Perry. It was a wonderful time chatting with you guys and Dillen, thank you so much for being there in the background and uh, I wish you guys the best.

Perry Roth-Johnson (21:08):

Yeah. Thanks. Jaime and David.

Jaime Lopez (21:09):

Thank you.

David Magaña (21:10):

Thank you.

Jaime Lopez (21:10):

And that's our show. Thanks for listening. Unfortunately, it does not look like dinosaurs will return anytime soon. However, we can enjoy the dinosaurs that we have today, just looks towards the sky. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center was produced by David Magaña and me, Jaime Lopez, Jennifer Aguirre, and Perry Roth-Johnson. This episode was edited by Dillen Render and Liz Roth-Johnson. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop a new episode every other Wednesday.

David Magaña (21:42):

If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people discover our show. Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to [email protected], to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.