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In Star Trek Voyager, the Voth are an intelligent, humanoid species of descendants of dinosaurs (hadrosaurs). Paleontologists estimate, that up around 99% of species, that ever lived, died out. However, because of the strict conditions, that must be met for fossilization, we only know a very small fraction of those species. Given that dinosaurs lived for roughly 165 million years, how realistic is the show’s idea of an intelligent dinosaur species we did simply not discover in our past?

On a related note, would future civilizations find evidence for human existance in 65 million years, given that our civilization only lasted for around 10000 years, and only had planetwide influence in recent history?

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    $\begingroup$ Read Harry Harrisons' "West of Eden" $\endgroup$ – MiguelH Nov 25 '19 at 9:43
  • $\begingroup$ You might find some useful information on this related question $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Dec 3 '19 at 13:45
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It is entirely possible there could have been an intelligent saurian species; if, for instance, you had an intelligent species that evolved in part of Gondwanaland that's now buried under the ice in Antarctica, it would have low odds of discovery. That said, it's unlikely. You'd need for all its ancestral and related lineages to also not have been discovered. If humans went extinct before the first members of the genus Homo left Africa, and Africa itself was unavailable for searching, it would be equivalent to an alien paleontologist never having found any fossils of any primate. There'd be some evidence of big-brained animals with manipulative capability somewhere, but we've never found anything even hinting at, say, a dinosaurian equivalent to the opposable thumb.

And that leads into the second problem; I would be surprised, but not earth-shatteringly shocked, if a paleontologist found a big-brained dinosaur with capable hands holding a stone hand-axe. It's on the edge of possibility, but it's there. An industrial civilization is another thing entirely, and I base that on one thing: mining.

Mines are not things that randomly appear willy-nilly. They have geological settings where mineral deposits form, and you find specific types of deposits in those areas and not in others, and their ages can be hundreds of millions of years old or even older. The problem for the idea of a pre-human industrial civilization is that there is no evidence of anyone having disturbed these deposits, even though some of them would have been just as accessible and of a size and quality that if there'd been someone around capable of mining them and needing the metals, they would have.

We've never found, for example, a geological formation where there's a halo of low grade ore, and right where you'd expect to see the high grade stuff there's a plug of sedimentary rock of a very different age...as if there'd been a hole where someone had extracted the ore and the resulting pit had filled in over time. We've never found a rock formation where you have sedimentary rock or later mineral deposition that looks like it filled tunnels. We've never found a location where the rock looks like it formed from processed tailings.

Again, it would be theoretically possible this sort of evidence lies in Antarctica, but it would require that the intelligent dinosaur species made it to industrial civilization but never spread very far from where it evolved, not even to the part of the same continent that later detached and became Australia (where many of those aforementioned mineral deposits that show no signs of having been disturbed exist). The odds of that appear so ridiculously low as to be essentially impossible.

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It depends on the definition of intelligence used. In addition to ourselves, we humans have determined that chimpanzees, bottle nosed dolphins, elephants, African grey parrots, rats, crows, dogs, pigeons, pigs and octopuses are intelligent.

Brain size of brain size to body size is not an indicator of intelligence.

Consider the humble dog, Canis familiaris. The brain of a wolf-size dog is about 30 percent smaller than that of an actual gray wolf, its ancestor.

The dog is successful not because of the size of its whole brain per se, but because domestication has led to subtle brain changes with a stunning result: the ability to live in the world of people.

One measure of intelligence can be how a species interacted with its environment for its own success. So far there is no evidence to show how dinosaurs interacted with the world, as it was during their time so we do not know how intelligent they were, we can only guess.

As to evidence of human existence in 65 million years, we humans have been prolific over vast areas of the planet. We have create huge urban environments. In the US alone, the region from Boston to Washington DC is effectively one large amalgamated urban environment.

Some evidence of our existence will survive, whether it be foundations for our buildings, sewer pipes, roads (because they have depth as well, if they remain in situ) or our waste dumps in land fill.

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  • $\begingroup$ How does the example of the brain size of a dog support the claim that the dog is not an indicator of intelligence? Aren't dogs less intelligent than wolves? $\endgroup$ – gerrit Dec 3 '19 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ @gerrit it really depends on how you measure it. Dogs are very good at the kind of tasks that measure intelligence in humans but that is probably because they can empathize with humans. Wolves are probably smarter if you measure intelligence by the ability to hunt elk on the tundra. $\endgroup$ – Borgh Dec 3 '19 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Borgh The example I like to think of is their footprints: "Compared to wolves, dogs walk like they're drunk.". I admit this is a very unscientific measure of intelligence. Dogs are successful because they made friends with humans ("if you can't beat them, join them"). But is that intelligence? $\endgroup$ – gerrit Dec 3 '19 at 13:55
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YES - it is entirely plausible that there are many dinosaurs we have not found, and YES - it is most definitely possible to detect our civilisation in 65 million years time.

The difference is that dinosaurs have not left any evidence of intelligence like cities, or longer lasting materials, so only those individuals that happened to have died in a place that preserves their bodies and bones for fossilisation are found.

Keep in mind that the smattering of dinosaur bones we have found is very rare and their full preservation even rarer - there have been only a small number of partial skeletons of Tyrannosaurus found in the world and no fully intact Tyrannosaurus skeletons at all (in fact the 2 most recovered skeletons are only 80%/85% complete) despite the strong representation of this dinosaur in literature and film.

This means that even if a dinosaur dies in the exact spot that geologically would be preserved (perhaps in mud) then covered with rocks until fossilisation occurs, plus the odds of finding and excavating the bones without too much loss in completeness makes chances of useful discovery very small. There are likely thousands of species we have not yet discovered.

Technological intelligence is different to simple intelligence - the dinosaur might be the smartest dinosaur around but that means nothing if it cannot manipulate objects, write language, create and propagate ideas, cultivate food, create cities. It would die and have the same chances of discovery as other dinosaurs.

However if Technological intelligence is present, evidence of technological existence would be easy to detect. Our civilisation, by emitting complex hydrocarbons that do not exist naturally, would produce chemicals that are detectable in 65 million years time easily, and even detectable from telescopes many light years away by altering the atmosphere.

Our plastics (especially PET) do not biodegrade - they only photo degrade. If buried, they will be present and discoverable forever unless pushed down into magma. Even biodegradable or metal particulate matter would be detectable and preserved within ice in the polar regions, as would evidence of increased carbon emissions and other gasses not attributable to natural causes.

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    $\begingroup$ I wanna make a mark on this world, which is why I don't recycle and drive an inefficient vehicle. :D $\endgroup$ – Muuski Dec 3 '19 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ Are you confident about that 65 million year figure for atmospheric chemicals and plastics? I mean...that's a long long long time. Several times longer than our longest lived radioactive fission products. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Dec 13 '19 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen Absolutely. Studies of the ancient atmosphere is a known and exact science, with its study extending back to the primordial atmosphere. Refer britannica.com/topic/evolution-of-the-atmosphere-1703862 - in summary atmospheric evidence and composition can be detected in crust and ocean / sea or other pockets through both direct and indirect means - in fact biological atmospheric effects can be easily detected. Fossil Gas Pockets, dating from 2.8 billion years ago, give compositions discoverable in sedimentary and other rocks, and there are other sources of information too. $\endgroup$ – flox Dec 13 '19 at 13:22
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Palaeontology and mineralogy should be bona fide subjects for Earth Science Stack, but the powers that be have ruled in the past that they are not. I think it is better to leave science fiction out of it. No, it is not feasible that there ever was a dinosaur which came close to human intelligence. Most of them were rather dim-witted, but it is suspected that a few of the brightest might have been about as intelligent as a dog or a cat. It is hard to be sure. The idea of a super-intelligent, civilized species is not realistic.

There certainly might be dinosaur species not yet discovered, but not many. A dinosaur civilization comparable to our own would leave abundant traces, and even a more primitive one like the Ancient Egyptian civilization would leave easily identifiable traces. I sometimes wonder how many billions of years the pyramids will survive.

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    $\begingroup$ There are stratigraphical traces that will survive. On oceans plastic rocks are being formed. That can't be cleaned. As related on a sci-fict book I read (in spanish, there is no english translation), aliens fall in a +1by era on Earth where humans have dissapeared and they found evidences of inteligence on TVs! They clasiffy the humans in those who had TV and those who hadn't (the novel is really funny :)). In land it will depend if we clean the dirty dumps we have expanded for everywhere, but an Holocene clear level showing "intelligence" will long long survive on Earth is my guess. $\endgroup$ – user18261 Nov 25 '19 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ As for piramids, any rock survives to erosion for a by, unless United Nations of the future preserve them in any way. $\endgroup$ – user18261 Nov 25 '19 at 11:49
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Members of the Raptor family of dinosaurs (the famed Jurrassic Park Velociraptors were actually chicken sized... an animal like the ones in the franchise wasn't discovered until the first film was in post production) are thought to be highly social predators that used persistence hunting strategies to hunt and ambush prey. This is important because among the most intelligent animals in the world, high society functions and persistence hunting are common through lines. The later is impossible without the former. In fact these attributes are part of the reason why humans have developed the most complex language skills of all animals Humans unique distinction as tool using distance persistence predatory hunting supplemented by omnivore diet is very unique in the animal world and considered to be the winning combination for a genius predatory animal, but it's the total combination that is unique, not a single trait.

Canaines are also persistence predators and the fact that dogs are "mans best friend" seems to be a rather unique evolution in the aninmal world as well... typically when two animals with the same niche occupy the same environment, one will go extinct... but domestic dogs and humans seemed to have teamed up and worked together. Compare to wolves, which would be extinct if but for humans intentionally backing off and giving them some space.

Animals with advanced social communities are also not unique and are exhibited across the kingdom including many insects, such as bees, who are further removed form humans than dinosaurs genetically speaking. It's actually a skill that doesn't take long to aquire on an evolutionary time line. Consider your pet cat, and the difference in the meow it makes when it wants you to feed it and when you step on it's tail. The Cat's Meow evolved exactly because of humans use of vocal communication. Species of wild cats have far less communicative range of sounds than a house cat and will rely on body language when communicating to others rather than vocal sounds, which work for House cats because humans are more understanding of vocal language.

Tool use is also not unsusual and while most animals that use tools tend to be very close cousins of humans (most primates have some tool use skills), it's not exclusive. Dolphins will use sea spounges to protect their nose when digging in sea floor sand, otters have their "rock" and will use kelp blankets to keep from floating off while sleeping. Some species of birds, including Corvins (crows) are also quite intelligent and documented tool use. This would also favor Raptor like Dinosaurs because of all the dinosaurs, Raptors are the closest relatives of modern birds and share more common liniages than any other dinosaur species known.

I discussed elsewhere, but the time between the beginning of dinosaurs and the age of man would be more than ample for intelligence to develop. If we condense the whole timeline of Earth's existence to a single 24 hour day (Midnight of this day occurs right now), the oldest known fossil of a living thing would appear at 5:36 am, sexual reproduction first appear just after 6:00, terrestrial plants would appear. Dinosaur would exist for the 45 minutes between 10:56 PM and 11:39 PM. The age of mammials be only exist less than half that time (21 minutes) by comparison and Homo Sapien would only appear at 11:58:43 PM... a 1:17 minute period of time.

With specific deference to the Voth, Voyager showed that the closes dinosaur known to be related to the Voth was the Hadrasaur, which was a herbivore. As of now, grazing animals were likely not conducive to evolution a highly developed civilization. Evolution is not going to favor a design that is efficiency to the niche, and intelligence is a very costly investment for a creature that does need it let alone the ones that don't, but the thing about evolution is that similar traits are known to develop for wildly different reasons. The octopus, for example, has the comparative intelligence of a house cat despite the fact that no where else in invertebrates is there a similarly intelligent species. This would suggest that the needs conducive to the octopus' evolution of intelligence of this level are not the same needs that lead mammalian or avian intelligence. There's a world of difference from the very neurological systems that support it. And yet, it thinks more like us than any of it's more closer mollusk relatives.

Evolution will only produce a creature that is "smarter than your average bear" if there exists a reason for it to do so. If no such reason exists, average bear is just fine. Consider the Shark: Their evolution as one of the top predators of the ocean occurred long before the dinosaurs walked the Earth... and Sharks back then have little in difference to our modern sharks. It is one of the most successful innovations of evolution... and we don't consider it to be the sharpest knife in the drawer by any stretch of the imagination.

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Possible, but not likely.

This answer makes the case using Evolutionary Theory. Using it, the evidence seems to be against the theory "of a [super] intelligent dinosaur species we simply did not discover [existing] in our past":

  1. If we look at the evolutionary history of all life, we see a steady progression from simple to complex organisms. So if we go back in time, we should generally expect life to be less complex than it is now. This makes sense because complexity from random combination is a process that increases as time goes on. If enough time has not passed, then certain combinations simply cannot be reached.

    This doesn't mean that intelligent life in the past was not possible. It is just one reason to be skeptical of it.

  2. The second is that intelligence is a major indicator of fitness and survival. This doesn't necessarily mean that an intelligent species of dinosaur could not have existed and then been wiped out. But it does mean that we would expect to see enormous speciation of that dinosaur (the species splits into other species). Probably filling different niches around the world.

    So just like how apes are intelligent and have speciated, becoming hundreds of different species of ape today. We would expect to see the same kind of divergence in a species of dinosaur that is highly intelligent and has such an enormous fitness advantage.

    So now we are looking at probably hundreds of different species of intelligent dinosaur that have somehow escaped the fossil record. This is not impossible, but the evidence against this theory is starting to grow.

  3. The next improbability, is that none of these species would have somehow made it into the modern day in one shape or another. Basically we are saying that none of the myriad of intelligent subspecies emerging from this dinosaur, managed to make it to the modern day even though they have one of the biggest fitness advantages that any organism can have.

    Unless some massive and abrupt extinction event made the world completely uninhabitable for all variations of this creature, this outcome is very unlikely. And we are talking about something like massive irradiation that wipes out the entire globe except for cockroaches, or some other similar insane extinction level event.

    So we have a reasonable case against these dinosaurs ever existing on Earth, but no compelling reason to think that they did.

  4. Occam's Razor is a scientific principle that tells us that the simplest explanation is usually the one that is factually correct. This principle tells us to discard this "never discovered super intelligent dinosaur" idea because there is no evidence for it, and to accommodate the idea we have to make lots and lots of special exceptions.

Conclusion:

This could be possible somewhere. On another planet perhaps? However our own history here on Earth does not support it.

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Can a planet-dominating intelligent species vanish into the past without leaving relics and traces which future intelligent species might find? At first it seems unlikely, but the more I think about it, the more reasonable it becomes...

Despite how messy and monument-crazy we currently are, there is no reason to believe that future technological and cultural evolution won't change those behaviors. Once we master the sciences needed to harvest energy from non-polluting sources and to transform our garbage and waste gasses back into functional raw materials, the negative marks we leave on our home world should decrease considerably.

With those technologies in hand, we might embrace a return-to-nature aesthetic movement which could bring down our giant concrete constructions and replace them with smaller, more beautiful, carved wooden structures. With our science far surpassing our physical needs, we might conquer our psychological need to build permanent structures which can stand for millennia.

On a less rosey path, technological advancements in our weaponry might also push us away from our planet scarring behaviors. Biological weapons have already made living in large population centers are risky gamble. Add weaponized nanite disassemblers to the arsenal and no historical monument or holy place will be safe. Warlords will no longer have to stop at genocide. Now they can erase all signs that an enemy ever existed.

So if it is possible for us to get to a place from which our mark on this world can be erased, then it is possible for your smart dinosaurs as well. Maybe their technological adolescence wasn't as bad as ours currently is. Not all teenagers leave the bedrooms looking like a war zone.

I have always believed that this planet was built far too well to just host a single intelligent species with a couple thousand century shelf life. It is far too permanent and self-repairing for such a simple purpose. Maybe like so many things of natural design, its life-supporting surface and atmosphere are recyclable, only needing short recuperative breaks between each use. We might not be the first and are hopefully not the last species to gain enough intelligence to appreciate this wonderful home.

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