Dinos on the Moon

At the SETI conference last week I was surprised to hear NASA’s Chris McKay suggest we look for dinosaur relics on the moon.  Dinos went suddenly extinct about 65M years ago, and the dino fossil record seems spotty enough that we could have missed a lineage that went from possum to human sized brains in the ~10M year period it took mammals.  We could also have missed relics of a stone-tool phase that lasted only .2M years.  But a dino lander left on the moon should stay visible a very long time. 

Humans have apparently already dug up a substantial fraction of the richest near-surface Earth metal deposits.  So a dino civilization that went much beyond our metal usage would have left a signature in reduced rich metal deposits.  And since the metal doesn’t actually disappear, they would also have left "strange" metal-junkyard deposits.  If modest efforts by geologists could exclude this possibility, that seems well worth the effort. 

It would be very big and bad news to hear that metal-using dinos suddenly went extinct just when the other dinos did, and immediately after becoming big metal users.  If so, either dinos destroyed themselves with far more power than we humans can now muster, or powerful aliens exterminated them.

From McKay’s 1996 paper "Time for intelligence on other planets":

It is now considered probable that the dinosaurs were not the lumbering clods of urban myth but that they were biochemically and behaviorally as sophisticated as present mammals.   Evidence continues to point to parentling and social behavior that is on a par wit small mammals and birds.   …  [Considero] the small carnivorous dinosaur Stenonychosaurus, which stood about 120cm, weighed about 40 kg, and had [a brain size ratio] about equal to that of a possum or an octopus, and lived over 12 million years before the end of the dinosaurs.  …

One might speculate that perhaps Stenonychosaurus or her progeny did build radio telescopes, but their civilization was destroyed by some internal or external catastrophe.  Perhaps the lifetime of their civilization was so short compared with the resolution of the geological record (typically millions of years) that it is simply lost without a trace in the depths of time.  It is difficult to say what evidence would survive of human civilization – if it was terminated now – after 65 million years of tectonic activity, erosion, and sea level change.  It is interesting to note that there is one place where the record of human technology will be preserved for times much longer than 100 million years.  … The Apollo landing sites on the Moon would bear mute testimony to technological humans.   

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  • Nick Tarleton

    It would be very big and bad news to hear that metal-using dinos suddenly went extinct just when the other dinos did, and immediately after becoming big metal users. If so, either dinos destroyed themselves with far more power than we humans can now muster, or powerful aliens exterminated them.

    …or, more plausibly, they couldn’t divert the Chicxulub impactor or survive its result.

  • David Rotor

    “It would be very big and bad news to hear that metal-using dinos suddenly went extinct just when the other dinos did, and immediately after becoming big metal users.”

    If true, we humans can, at least, claim some superiority over the dinosaurs. We survived our heavy metal period. Now, if we can survive the screamo-emo period the universe is our oyster!


  • Say they developed technology to the level of 1500 Europe.
    According to Guns,Germs and Steal by Jared Diamond the agricultural revolution meant that humans had numerous diseases they acquired from domesticated livestock.
    European diseases (measles and smallpox) killed about 90% of the native American population. American diseases (Syphilis) killed many Europeans.

    Now there were 3 densely populated groups of people. The orientals(bubonic plague),Americans and Europeans. Each with a different diseases imagine there was more civilisations with similar numbers of new diseases.

    The results of developing ocean transport would create a massive cross contamination of disease epidemics. If introducing Native Americans to European diseases killed over 90% of them. What would introducing a 1500’s level Dino society to diseases from many other civilisations do to it?
    A 1500 level society would not have altered the environment in a way detectable 65 million years later I believe.

    Could Dinos have reached the age of exploration?

  • Colin Reid

    It’s interesting to speculate what aliens would make of the evidence for intelligent life on Earth if they arrived millions of years after it had died out.

    For the record, if something bad happens soon, the longest-lived trace of humanity in the universe could be the various probes we have sent into outer space, in particular the Pioneer and Voyager probes. If they pass through the Oort cloud without a collision, they are unlikely to hit anything for an extremely long time, perhaps never if we assume an expanding universe. Even after the Sun engulfs the inner planets and humanity’s radio emissions have long attenuated to background levels, there could still be two plaques with etchings on them, and two phonograph records encoding a selection of music chosen by Carl Sagan. However, given the vastness of space, it seems unlikely any extraterrestrial intelligence would ever find them.

  • Vilhelm Sjoberg

    Is there really no existing research about the distribution of metal in the earth’s crust? It would seem like something that would be amply funded, given the applications for mining. Maybe one could exclude this possibility just by a literature search…

  • …or, more plausibly, they couldn’t divert the Chicxulub impactor or survive its result

    Sanity check: Chicxulub-level events happen once in dozens or hundreds of millions of years. Going from a metal-using civilization to a Chicxulub-surviving civilizations took or will take us only thousands. If metal-using dinosaurs went extinct in 65M BC, then either that’s a heck of a huge coincidence or they developed a heck of a lot slower.

  • By the way, I think this theory has essentially zero probability of being true, but has more artistic value than most works of art that cost the same to produce.

  • I believe the longest-surviving evidence of humanity would be in the fossil record. It’s not just extinction, it’s that not astonishingly mobile plants and animals suddenly show up far away from their native continents.

  • Steven, there is a mistake in your otherwise-insightful “Sanity check” paragraph, namely, the knowledge that the extinction of the dinos coincides with Chicxulub within error interval E screens off any knowledge we might have about the average time A between Chicxulub-level events if E is less than A.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Steven: d’oh, good point, but Robin is still wrong about “…with far more power than we humans can now muster” – the sentient dinos could have wiped themselves out through mundane means long before Chicxulub.

  • Tarleton: Same problem, too much coincidence for the asteroid strike to happen right after the dinogenic extinction. It’s just as much of a coincidence if it happens that way, as if it happens right while the dinos are rising to power.

  • The “apparently” link is broken – I assume that this is the correct one.

  • michael vassar

    Well, the dinosaurs could have diverted Chicxulub to hit Earth. That would be “far more power than we humans can now muster”.
    Nancy’s pretty much right about the fossil evidence though. Yet another hypothesis that seems astonishingly unlikely at first glance but seems even more astonishingly unlikely upon consideration (this is how it usually works given conservation of expected evidence after all)

  • Nick Tarleton

    Same problem, too much coincidence for the asteroid strike to happen right after the dinogenic extinction.

    Who says it happened right afterwards? The smart dinos could have killed themselves off ten million years before the impact. Sorry for not making it clear that’s what I meant.

  • Nancy’s point about plant and animal dispersion is a good one, but if humanity destroys itself through a runaway global warming catastrophe (say 10-20 degrees C increase), it would probably wipe out enough life that there would be no substantial fossil evidence left. However other self-destruct scenarios might not erase things so thoroughly.

    I agree that the meteor impact coincidence would seem to imply that the dinosaurs must have brought it on themselves. I wonder if the resulting die-off would be sufficient to cover up a similar dino effort to spread domesticated species around. I’d guess the answer is yes, that the fossil record is sparse enough that such a change in distribution would not show up above the effects of the die-off.

  • jamie

    James Oberg (if I remember correctly) once noted that Venus (with its retrograde rotation) keeps nearly the same hemisphere facing Eath at all times. Oberg (not very seriously) speculated that long ago there was a war between Earth and Venus, and that the Venusians altered their planetary rotation so that only one Hemisphere would be devastated by Earth’s energy weapons.

  • ‘We’re whalers on the moon,
    We carry a harpoon,
    For they ain’t no whales
    So we tell tall tales
    And sing our whaling tune.’

  • Caledonian

    How would we know if the metal deposits on Earth were ‘unusual’? We’ve built our theories around the data we observe. If just one deposit, or a few, were the result of a past civilization, we might notice. But if they were all artifact remnants, they would have redefined the baseline we use to define normality.

    For all we know, our geological sciences are all skewed. I rather doubt it, though – if the metals had been previously mined, I don’t think they would be present as ores, even after sixty million years. Our debris would rust and disperse itself into the groundwater and oceans far earlier than that if we suddenly vanished.

    • I don’t think mineral geology is as arbitrary and easily fooled as you think. For example, if dinos were responsible for current deposits, wouldn’t they all be of vastly higher purity? And where are the aluminum deposits, why do we have to refine it from bauxite? Consider current dumps – aren’t they bizarrely anomalously high purity sources of gold, copper, iron, alloys like steel, all mingled together in a fashion impossible to explain by existing mineralogy? For that matter, think about the locations of hypothetical dino civilization remains – just like us, they needed water, and just like us, water-based transportation would be the cheapest, so we’d see huge correlations of anomalous mineral deposits with past rivers/lakes/oceans. Which we don’t.

      Finally, here’s a killer argument: where is the nuclear isotope signature? We have a good idea of what the natural world should look like in terms of radioactive elements and isotope ratios, based on first-principles from stars, which should be unaffected by any dino activity. Humanity has dumped all sorts of impossible elements and isotopes into the atmosphere and earth from its nuclear tests, power plants, medical nuclear tech, experiments, etc, which should be visible indefinitely (a bit like mass extinctions in the fossil record, hm…).

      This objection makes about as much sense as the resolution to the Fermi Paradox that ‘maybe all the aliens are all around us and the stars are just what their mega-engineering projects *look like to us*!’ Except the stars are a massive waste of energy which serve no purpose, and the observed universe is precisely predicted by astrophysics models which include no equations for ‘and then intelligent aliens colonized the universe and decided to rearrange the stars in exactly this manner’…

  • Ben

    I, for one, salute our Dino overlords. Because you can never be too careful.

    But I wouldn’t go around talking out of my ass either…

  • cara

    Maybe the dinosaurs developed technology so great that they forsaw the coming comet that would cause their demise and loaded up their top minds onto spaceships headed for distant galaxies and now monitor us through radio waves.
    Get real people.

  • Georgi Marinov

    There is something that seems a prerequisite for the development of civilization and this is fossil fuels. However, most oil have formed before the Chixulub event, but it would have been pumped out the ground by whatever civilization was present at that time. IMO this is a much more important factor to be considered than metal

  • Rob

    Fossil fuels aren’t a prerequisite for civilization in general. The series of events that led to us having a fossil fuel civilization vs. an electrically powered one (initially with coal/oil, but very quickly with wind) was a winding one. Had JP Morgan backed Tesla for another year, we could’ve had power electric power without wires. That alone would have pushed for electric cars without batteries. A dino civilization with an increasing focus on electrical power fueled by the wind would not have necessarily depleted the fossil fuel reserves we see.

    And, I doubt your assertion that most oil formed prior to Chixulub. Is there proof?

  • Nicholas Werner

    This is the premise of an issue of one of my favorite online comic strips, Perry Bible Fellowship.


    Seeing this odd theory made me immediately think of this brilliant comic.

  • My comment might be incorrrect. Moderator has my permission to unpublish it.

  • Jack Saalweachter

    For all we know, our geological sciences are all skewed. I rather doubt it, though – if the metals had been previously mined, I don’t think they would be present as ores, even after sixty million years. Our debris would rust and disperse itself into the groundwater and oceans far earlier than that if we suddenly vanished.

    It’s somewhat plausible to my mind that we might not notice a lack of a resource as much as we would notice finding a dino-mobile junkyard in the ground. If there had once been ten times the ore and oil in the ground as there was for humans to find, would we notice that our deposits were only one-tenth the amount that ‘should’ be there, or would we think that that must be how much oil forms over a few hundred million / billion years?

    And since it must be said: Dino Singularity.

  • What the dinosaurs may have looked like: http://www.easyscreens.info/gallery/20080213/1.jpg

  • Hal, I’m not sure I get your point. Is it that fossils are so rare that if humanity’s dispersion of species is ended after a few centuries, then no one is likely to find the fossil evidence?

  • Nancy, I meant that if global warming kills off all life on earth, then there will be no fossils to find.

  • Overcoming Cryonics

    Instead of only looking for fossils we should also check if any dinosaurs cryonically froze themselves or uploaded their brains. We should be careful about unleashing them, though, given that they are predators.

  • Douglas Knight

    I don’t buy NL’s theory. (the mobile part)

    We’ve transplanted a lot of species, but they haven’t had time to reach equilibrium. I imagine that if we went extinct, they would change a lot before reaching equilibrium and it wouldn’t be obvious that they’d migrated, rather than evolving from local species. It certainly would look like something dramatic happened, though. Maybe enough information would be left to figure out what happened, but it might look like a typical die-off.

    Also, it’s not obvious to me that the transplanted species wouldn’t simply die off and never touch the fossil record. It makes sense that islands are vulnerable to rabbits, but it doesn’t make sense that kudzu is well-adapted to North America. Perhaps it’s really adapted to suburbs, and if humans died off, it would too. This would make humans even more like a normal die-off.

    It would be very big and bad news

    Yes, but don’t over-do it. If a 100M year asteroid appeared in a 100ky interval, it would be a 1/1000 coincidence. Anthropic reasoning or the possibility that all asteroid strikes are artificial could push that number either way.

  • Paraskeptic

    Has anyone asked the Flying Spaghetti Monster about this? She’d likely be able to tell us all the details.

    One might also ask about the Devonian aquatic species that migrated to the Alpha Centauri system. After all, there’s equally as much evidence for that hypothesis as there is for dinosaurs on the moon.

  • Observer

    It is only human arrogance that assumes life as it is now works the same way as it did so long ago. Perhaps they left for reasons that would not be obvious to human thought. Perhaps they will return some day. Perhaps they already have, and are watching you right now.

  • Istros

    Other intelligent life form in the geological past? It may be, but where are the fossils? Perhaps we can think the fishes, or the insects. But a lot of species is nearly the same, than about 100 million or more years ago. For example: the sharks or the crocodiles. They could have evoluted some intelligent form. So where are the fossils? I know our world hasn’t discovered corretly yet. We have to open theese doors, because our Universe is huge.

  • Mark

    It is interesting that the fossil record of the late Cretaceous shows a decline in species numbers, for quite a time before the K/T boundary. Dinosaur eggs have been found to be thinning during this period, probably due to environmental disturbance. Throughout the period before the K/T boundary there is strong climate change evidence, for both heating and cooling.

    So we have a period, long before any asteroid impact, where species are being lost and climate change is increasing, over short time scales.

    (ring any bells???)

    Of course it’s also a possibility that these changes were entirely natural. But the alternative scenario of an intelligent species making a mess of a planet is also possible…

  • Brian Macker

    While were speculating: Intelligent dinosaurs were much more intelligent than us, invented Bayesian bio-optical logic computers exhibiting even greater super intelligence using plant fibres, ants, and twigs. Were able to predict their future demise and being control freaks decided to commit mass suicide instead. Thus leaving no trace of their civilization before they ever hit the stage of mining.

    Seems about a likely, given the evidence, as finding dino prints on the moon.

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  • Dylan

    Perhaps, being as technologically advanced as these Stephen-Hawkingosaurs apparently were, they forsaw their impending doom by asteroid/comet and all went into hybernation, where they remain?

  • Keith Edmonds


    • thefix2010

      actually they were shown in the first apollo mission 11. if you check apollo 11’s little west crater you will find 3 reptile sculptures of a snake center of the mound the T-rex and a raptor type. you can easily find this image through google earth and it allows you to magnify the image.

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  • BookDragon

    In 2001 the concept of dinosaur parts on the moon was proposed by maj. Doug Shull – http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/mpml/message/3807