Friday, February 19, 2021

Dinos in Pop Culture - Star Trek: Voyager - Entry 3

 And the last of my Star Trek entries into the Geology and Dinos in Pop Culture is perhaps the greatest dinosaurian related episode of Star Trek to date. The episode is from Star Trek: Voyager, Season 3, Episode 23, entitled "Distant Origin".

This clip above is just a small portion of the episode, in which I highly recommend watching the whole thing if possible. In the episode, the crew of the Voyager are faced with the Voth. A species that, after some genetic determination, evolved from hadrosaursians and somehow ended up across the galaxy into the Delta Quadrant. Their supposition was that this hadrosaurian species survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and were isolated on an island, where eventually they evolved space-faring technology to somehow eventually leave Earth and end up across the cosmos. The best part is when they start researching the history of the Voth, leading them to Eryops, "from the Devonian era". 

Eryops from the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Distant Origin"

Their reconstruction of Eryops though, does not actually resemble the current reconstructions (pictured below). Nor is it from the Devonian, having been found in Permian deposits over 100 million years later. However, this reconstruction looks amazingly like a pelycosaur, like Dimetrodon, just without the sail.

Eryops reconstruction from Britannica

Eryops was an amphibian, and was supposed to stand in on Voyager as the "last common ancestor of cold-blooded and warm-blooded organisms." My assumption is that they were looking for the split between mammals and reptiles. However, that is not entirely an accurate thing, since mammals evolved much later. What we need to search for is the split between Synapsids (the group that evolved into and includes mammals) and Diapsids (the group that includes crocodilians, dinosaurs, and birds). Both of these groups fall under the classification of amniotes. 

The branch between these groups is thought to have taken place in the Lower Permian, approximately 300 million years ago and would have involved early synapsids, such as the pelycosaurs (kind of pictured in the show) . And although pelycosaurs are considered basal synapsids, not the ancestors to both dinosaurs and mammals, it's not out of the realm of possibility that the actual ancestor would have several similar characteristics. 

Dimetrodon skeleton. Image courtesy of ScienceSourceImages.

So although their name dropping of Eryops was 100% incorrect, perhaps their model was a bit closer to reality. 

The show also asks what was the "most highly evolved cold-blooded organism to develop from the Eryops" and the show pictures a Hadrosaur. Specifically, a Parasaurolophus. 

The "most highly evolved" dinosaur according to Star Trek: Voyager.

Evolutionarily speaking, all reptiles, and this includes all dinosaurs/birds, would have evolved from the basal diapsids. So by saying the "most highly evolved", you are making assumptions that one organism is more evolved than another one, which is not how evolution works. There is no organism that is "more highly evolved" than another. Each organism is adapted to their own environment. I am assuming by "more highly evolved" they mean more intelligent, which is another matter entirely. And even then, it is assumed that the theropod branch of dinosaurs, the one that evolves into birds, would be much more intelligent than the sauropods, which were larger and lumbering herbivorous dinosaurs. Heck, the birds even survived the end Cretaceous extinction, which none of the Sauropods did. (well except this one branch that went off into space.

Evolution of the Voth from their Parasaurolophus ancestors

My last point about the episode is where they show where the Parasaurolophus evolved into a "more advanced" race, the Voth in this instance. This evolutionary idea that should the dinosaurs have survived the extinction at the end of the Cretaceous (minus birds of course), they had the potential to evolve into a humanoid species. This is not a new concept to Star Trek. Back in 1982, (Russell and Séguin) proposed a similar idea while studying the troodontid Stenonychosaurus

Reconstructions of the small Cretaceous theropod Stenonychosaurus inequalis and a hypothetical dinosaurid (Russell and Séguin, 1982)

While being a bit tongue in cheek, it has prompted discussion about the possibilities of future evolution of the non-avian dinosaurs ever since. 

So, however you see it, this episode was a dinosaur wonderland. 

Russell, D. A., and Séguin, R., 1982, Reconstructions of the small Cretaceous theropod Stenonychosaurus inequalis and a hypothetical dinosaurid: Syllogeus, v. 37, p. 1-43

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