Dino Psychology

You might not expect a scholarly study by two psychology professors to involve a theory about why dinosaurs became extinct. Yet UB’s Michael Frederick, along with Gordon G. Gallup, Jr., of the University at Albany, State University of New York, recently published “The demise of dinosaurs and learned taste aversion: The biotic revenge hypothesis.”

“I knew when we decided to write this paper that there’s no shortage of research on dinosaur extinction, and there are plenty of expert paleontologists out there,” says Frederick, assistant professor in the Division of Applied Behavioral Sciences in the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences. “And yet, here’s me and Gordon.”

Populations of large herbivorous dinosaurs were shrinking even before a massive asteroid impact cemented their extinction. The pair’s hypothesis describes a scenario in which the development of alkaloid toxins in flowers left dinosaurs, who required massive amounts of food each day, no choice but to poison themselves.

To develop their theory they looked at research on aversive behavior—the natural, defensive reaction that, for instance, causes humans to react negatively to the taste of tequila after a night of too many margaritas. Based on studies of animals that are evolutionarily related to dinosaurs, such as crocodiles and birds, they believe that dinosaurs were very likely unable to develop aversive behaviors in relation to their food.

Frederick’s work falls under a field of psychological study called history theory, which investigates the life circumstances of an individual to determine causes of different psychological traits.

“It explains these quirks in behavior that seem maladaptive,” says Frederick, “but then when you really lay them out and think about it there’s this underlying logic that does make sense.” In a current study he’s looking at capillary samples to make a measure of lifetime stress, which can be used to gauge harshness of living conditions from neighborhood to neighborhood.

According to Frederick, there’s more work that can be done to solidify the biotic revenge hypothesis. “There’s the potential to find remnants of toxic plants in fossilized dinosaur guts—that would be really powerful. We know that flowers were emerging, and we think the alkaloid toxins were developed around that time or spreading.

“There’s the potential to find remnants of toxic plants in fossilized dinosaur guts—that would be really powerful.”

“It’s a hypothesis that flows into testable predictions that we can actually look at,” he continues. “If future studies help us explain our observations a little better, that’s a step forward. And if not, well, we explored it and ruled it out. Either way, I’ll be happy.”

Kyle Fierstien is a senior at UB, majoring in English with a specialty in professional writing.

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