Kra Phylogeny

Meet Gar the KraI’ve been asked to explain the origins of the Kra, those intelligent, human sized dinosaurs that feature prominently in my Dinosaur Wars novels and short stories. So, here goes.

There are two ways of looking at this question. First, one can consider the semi-scientific idea that an intelligent species might have arisen during the Age of Dinosaurs, and wonder how that could have happened in the evolutionary sense. Second, given the long history of science fiction stories involving dinosaurs, how has the concept of fictional dinosaurian intelligence evolved over time? I’ll address both.

Among the paleontologists of our time, the notion of dinosaurian intelligence crops up more often than you might guess. Although no current dinosaurologist would risk his or her reputation by actually proposing a human-like intellect among the creatures of 65 million years ago, there have been plenty of scientific discussions of the brain power that existed inside the crania of Cretaceous creatures large and small. Scientists have published paper after paper describing relative brain-case sizes and comparing modern mammals and birds to tyrannosaurus, triceratops, velociraptor, and other dinosaurs. While the modern creatures almost always win out in terms of body-to-brain mass ratios, and thereby get scored as the smarter creatures, it’s not a slam-dunk issue when you start looking into the dinosaurs that perch closest to modern birds in the evolutionary tree. In fact, velociraptor and its cousins among the maniraptoran and dromaeosaurian lineages of dinosaurs are quite comparable to modern birds in that body-to-brain ratio. And among these, the subgroup of troodonts leads the pack with representatives that rank equal to modern birds, if not slightly higher.

Kra OriginsAs the diagram at right illustrates, I chose to place my “Pteronychus” species of intelligent dinosaur right smack in the middle between the brainiest of the dinosaurs, the troodontids and the dromaeosaurids. This placement leaves a little ambiguity as to the exact predecessors of the Kra (as the brainy Pteronychuses have named themselves), but I like it that way. That leaves a little authorial wiggle room for me to adjust the evolutionary tree if future fossil discoveries make a re-alignment of the Kra’s origins a necessity.

On to the second question. As far as the Kra’s literary predecessors, I can be quite a bit more definitive. The history of stories published about intelligent dinosaurs is pretty explicit, if you visit any library or cruise the web in search of the family tree. The real granddaddies of dinosaur fiction didn’t expend any significant ink on intelligence. For example, there’s nothing smarter than a lizard in Jules Verne’s 1864 Journey To The Center Of The Earth, or The Lost World, published by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1912, although these authors get credit for having originated the entire genre of dinosaur adventure fiction of which my Dinosaur Wars stories are an evolutionary outgrowth.

Unless I’ve missed something in my research, the first writer to portray a dinosaur with speech, weapons and other trappings of civilization was Harry Harrison with his West Of Eden novel featuring the very lizardy Yilane, human-sized but very slimy and reptilian, published in 1984, almost simultaneously with a short article published by John C. McLoughlin entitled ‘Evolutionary bioparanoia’ in Animal Kingdom magazine, in which a human-sized, intelligent dinosaur species, shown below, was suggested as the possible culprit in the extermination of all dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Era.

SmartosaurusA friend gave me McLoughlin’s article while I was writing my first Dinosaur Wars novel and I’m sure it had some influence on my thinking, although I didn’t go as far as suggesting as McLoughlin did, that dinosaurs nuked themselves into oblivion.

Next in the succession of intelligent dinosaur stories were the nearly simultaneous appearance of Robert Sawyer’s Far-Seer novel about intelligent dinosaurs living in a distant solar system, and Stephen Leigh’s Dinosaur Planet, published in 1992 and 1993, respectively. Also in 1992, came James Gurney’s highly acclaimed Dinotopia, in which most of the dinosaur species exhibited intelligence at one level or another. There are more books with smartosauruses in them, but too many to mention here and in fairness to myself, my own smartosaurus books came along in 2000 and beyond, so enough said.

There’s been an evolution in all this fiction that parallels the evolution in scientific thinking about dinosaurs. As time has progressed, fictional dinosaurs have gotten less slimy, less scaly, less cold blooded, and more feathery, more intelligent, and more dangerous in turn, up to and including wielding world-destroying power in the realm of fiction. I wonder what we scientists and novelists will think of next?

About Tom Hopp

Thomas P Hopp is a scientist and author living in Seattle. He writes medical thrillers, natural disaster novels, and the Dinosaur Wars science fiction series.
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4 Responses to Kra Phylogeny

  1. Randall Karstetter says:


    You are on the cutting edge, scientifically and fictionally, in the evolving field of dinosaur intelligence. I find it amazing we can even attempt to speculate on the capacities of anything that lived sixty-five million years ago. While I agree with you that we may ultimately conclude the dinasaurs reached levels of intelligence far greater than we imagined when we first started recognizing their fossils, I have a hard time believing they had developed industries and manufacturing capabilities similar to ours without leaving any fossil records of it. If they had weapons and clothes as depicted in your novels, shouldn’t we have uncovered fossils of tools, equipment, energy transport, smelters and facilities where the raw material and final products were made? I would think 65 million years from now someone would see our discarded hard drives, sewing machines, and carbide and titanium tools in our strata. Postulating that someone would find our bones and not any of our technology, as suggested by your ‘humanizing’ of the dinosaurs, seems a bit of a long stretch. How do you explain or deal with the conflict of greater intelligence in the dinasaurs with the lack of fossil evidence of any developed technology? Could there have been a limit as to how far their intelligence developed which is far less than what the fiction writers are implying? Forgive me for being a skeptical scientist.

    But thank you for your wonderful and entertaining novels and ongoing research.

    • Tom Hopp says:

      Randall, give some thought to how few fossils we actually have in our museums right now. Sure the sum total of fossilized objects might be several million, but the great majority are sea shells. When you move to higher organisms, the number plummets. How many T rex fossils are in museums? Maybe parts of a hundred skeletons or so. But fossil strata analysis suggests rexes were around for five million years or so. And only a hundred found so far. And most of those just fragments of bone, not whole skeletons.

      So, consider the reign of an intelligent species. How about humans? Civilized for about 10,000 years. Compare that to T rex’s reign of five million years, divide into the one hundred fossils found, and you get quite a bit less than 1 chance to even find a single skeleton, let alone an artifact.

      You suggest artifacts like hard drives would become fossils, but metals corrode, plastics turn to oil and drain away, and silica weathers to dust, not in millions of years, but in thousands. How about an artifact like the Sphinx, or the great pyramid of Cheops? They’ve already got deep furrows of weathering on them, and at about 5 thousand years old, are already midway to their fates, which is to become mere bumps on the landscape. In millions of years, even the dust will have blown away.

      I appreciate that your issue here arises from the signs we see everywhere that we have sullied our own world with pollution and refuse. I agree that we have made a mess. But I think you’ll need to reset your thinking to a sixty-five-million-year timeframe to see where my concept of a civilization vanishing without a trace comes from. In the fullness of geological time, every trace of our being here would vanish as well. You’re showing just a bit of that all-too-human trait of an excessive self-opinion. Yes, Randall, we may be making our world a mess these days, but no, Randall, it’s not a permanent condition — given 65 million years for the earth to heal its scars.

  2. Inferdramon says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. It was interesting to read what went on in the development of the Kra.

    Randall, I think Thomas made another post that might answer your question regarding the speculation of advanced technology without fossil evidence. Here’s basically the gist of it, if I understood it correctly:

    Technology erodes very quickly. The Titanic, only a little over a hundred years old, if even that, is already very rotted away. Tech and buildings and such can disappear within thousands of years, with very few surviving millions.

    In other words, there could have been a lot of advanced technology hundreds of millions of years ago, but due to erosion and other factors, all that has been destroyed by time, thus no evidence. So just because we don’t see any metal or other technology stuff back in the Cretaceous doesn’t mean it wasn’t there; it’s just been obliterated.

    Imagine the human race going extinct in the next…100 years or so, and forwarding to, oh say, 10 million years from now. Do you think there’d still be evidence of human civilization? No. They would all be eroded away by time. There might be a new civilization of another species, and they might speculate they being the first intelligence race, and assume we humans were pretty dumb. And why blame them for not believing we were intelligent enough to make a civilization? The evidence of our civilization would have been long destroyed.

  3. Randall Karstetter says:


    OK, you got this skeptical scientist. Not with the argument that objects of advanced technology won’t leave fossils. If a calciferous bone will leave a fossil, certainly a carbide drill tip or diamond polishing stone would. But the odds of finding one? Possibly a much longer shot than finding feathers on a T. rex. I would like to think our voluminous production would leave a well-defined and discoverable fossilized strata, but your point of a species living five million years and us finding so little evidence of their existence has me worried. We’re just a flash in the pan archaeologically. It would be an extreme stroke of luck if anything we see today is seen in ten million years, let alone sixty-five million years. So, based on that, your hypothesis that the dinosaurs could have developed into a highly technologically advanced civilization, even for a brief time such as ours, is within the realm of possibility.

    While it may sound far-fetched, it’s about as far-fetched as telling an archaeologist in the 1920’s that dinosaurs would be covered with feathers and fur. There is a real (although extremely remote) possibility a T. rex skeleton may be found some day with a weapon in his claws defending himself from a dilophosaurus with a weapon in his claws. I think it would be pretty cool if you were still alive if that were to happen.

    Thank you for expanding our minds as to what might have happened sixty-five million years ago. If Jurassic DNA were brought back to life, we might have a lot more to worry about than just teeth and claws.

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