Photo credit: Jean Lacovara
No, oil doesn’t come from dinosaurs. It’s a persistent myth and I’m asked about it a lot. You may have heard this idea in school, read it in books, or taken it on authority from learned persons holding forth about the nature of our planet. Recently, an Internet meme has been bouncing around that shows a collection of small dinosaur toys. The overprinting reads, “If oil is made from decomposed dinosaurs, and plastic is made from oil, are dinosaur toys made from real dinosaurs?” It’s a fun idea, but no.
How did this misconception arise? It’s hard to know. People have been thinking about petroleum for a long time. Oil, tar, and asphalt were known to our preindustrial forbears and used by them in limited ways. Two thousand years ago, Szechuan Chinese drilled for oil and natural gas using iron bits attached to bamboo pipes. The gas was channeled through bamboo conduits into homes where it provided heat and illumination. In the eighth century, the streets of ancient Baghdad were paved with natural asphalt. And petroleum tar has long been used to seal the wooden hulls of ships. But these early adopters did not implicate dinosaurs in the formation of the Earth’s oily products. They didn’t know about dinosaurs.
Although we humans have always lived in a world that secreted its past in the rocks and fossils beneath our feet, we were blind to the ancient workings of the Earth until quite recently. We were isolating enzymes, measuring the distance to stars, and making tires from vulcanized rubber before we crystallized the thought that there were dinosaurs in this world. That occurred in 1842, when British anatomist, Sir Richard Owen, grouped the remains of three “saurian reptiles” into a new “tribe,” which he called Dinosauria
. Thus, the myth that petroleum comes from dinosaurs must be a modern construct.
The modern oil industry traces its origin back to the wildcatters of Pennsylvania, who began tapping into shallow Appalachian oilfields in 1859 — the low-hanging fruit of petroleum. These deposits date all the way back to the Paleozoic Era, the age before dinosaurs. Only about 25% of the world’s supply of oil can be found in rocks this old. Most petroleum, 54%, is found trapped in the rocks of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods of the Mesozoic Era, the age of the dinosaurs. Geologists hoping to tap the Earth’s black gold followed the strata out west to the Great Plains and beyond, to the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Plateau, and the Basin and Range, where vast expanses of Mesozoic deposits host a significant percentage of our planet’s petroleum wealth.
But, if you say the word "fossil" to the average person, even in the context of "fossil fuel," what comes to mind? Dinosaurs!
Fossils fuels are just that — combustibles of ancient biological origin, preserved in rock. But they’re not made of dinosaurs. There were never enough dinosaurs in the world to generate the Earth’s great stores of oil. And dinosaurs lived in the wrong environment. They were all terrestrial creatures. Oil comes from decaying marine organisms. But, if you say the word "fossil"
to the average person, even in the context of "fossil fuel," what comes to mind? Dinosaurs!
Dinosaurs, more than any other creatures, stand in for the past. They are emblematic of the ancient. When the coelacanth fish, once thought extinct, was found alive, it was dubbed the “dinosaur fish.” Same with the Wollemi Pine; when the tree, thought to be extinct, turned up in Australian forests, newspapers called it the “dinosaur tree.” Dinosaurs reigned for 165 million years. A long time, but still a thin fraction of Earth’s four and a half billion year history. And though dinosaurs were speciose, the complete group occupies but a single branch on the vast and bountiful tree of life. Nevertheless, in common parlance, fossils
. It’s no wonder, then, that marketing executives at the Sinclair Oil Corporation decided to play off of these popular associations for an ad campaign.
In 1930, Sinclair began using the image of Brontosaurus
on their marketing material. People loved it. Then, in 1933 at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago, they sponsored a large outdoor exhibition, featuring nine full-size dinosaurs set into a reconstructed Mesozoic landscape. The response was overwhelming. Sixteen million people came to gawk slack-jawed at the giant beasts returned from Earth’s last great age. In The Sinclair Dinosaur Book
(1934), a follow-up to their popular exhibition, Sinclair is nuanced about the relationship of dinosaurs to petroleum, writing about oil as if it were a fine wine:
Sinclair uses dinosaurs to symbolize the vast age of the crude oils which are refined into Sinclair Opaline Motor Oil and Sinclair Pennsylvania Motor Oil (by and large, the oldest crudes make the finest lubricants). It was during the lifetime of such prehistoric creatures that nature was mellowing and filtering under the earth the crude oils which are refined into Sinclair Motor Oils.
After their blockbuster success at The Century of Progress, Sinclair never let go of the iconography of dinosaurs. To this day, you can find the green Sinclair Brontosaurus
watching over fuel pumps across the country. Their crafty marketing campaign, I think, sealed the link between dinosaurs and oil in the public imagination, drilling the faulty connection into the minds of nearly everyone. The bad wiring goes something like this: Oil is fossil fuel, and most of it comes from the age of the dinosaurs. Fossils equals dinosaurs, therefore dinosaurs equals oil.
But if fossil fuel does not come from dinosaurs, then where does it come from? Plankton. That’s right. Petroleum does not originate with the Earth’s largest organisms; it begins with its smallest. Most of the biomass in any ecosystem is contained within the bodies of its humblest members, the ones way down near the base of the food chain. In the oceans, that’s phytoplankton, also known as microalgae. These microscopic organisms, mostly diatoms and dinoflagellates, are wondrously able to turn starlight into food. Through photosynthesis, they produce proteins, fats, and carbohydrates — complex carbon-based molecules. Like most tiny organisms, their generations turn over rapidly. When they expire, their minuscule bodies rain down upon the sea floor, where they form organic oozes that may be miles thick. If these biogenic deposits are buried by younger sediments, and cooked by heat and pressure in just the right way, oil and natural gas may form.
Taking the long view, petroleum is really a type of solar energy. That may sound nice, but it’s not innocuous. When we burn it, we take carbon from another age, sequestered by ancient plankton, and dump it into today’s atmosphere. There, it traps heat, causes global warming, and acidifies the oceans. In a sense, we’re adding the power of the ancient Mesozoic Sun to today’s Sun, and it’s overheating our planet.
I’m sure this won’t come as a shock, but don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Dinosaur toys are not made from dinos, but they are made from dinoflagellates that used starlight from another era to stitch together the carbon-based molecules that today we turn into plastic. A quick search revealed that there are actually plastic plankton toys available online, plastic plankton toys made of — plankton.
÷ ÷ ÷
Dr. Kenneth Lacovara
has unearthed some of the largest dinosaurs ever to walk our planet, including the super-massive Dreadnoughtus
, which at 65 tons weighs more than seven Tyrannosaurus rex
. Through his work, blending exploration with the latest techniques from medicine and engineering, Lacovara portrays dinosaurs as vigorous, competent creatures — the adaptable champions of an age. Why Dinosaurs Matter
is his first book.