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Unknown Dinosaurs: Golden Age of Discovery Ahead

Spinosaurus is the newly crowned biggest land carnivore, at 55 feet long and 8 tons. (Image credit: Joe Tucciarone)

The next several decades could prove a golden age for dinosaur hunters looking to discover new species of the ancient reptiles.

A new statistical analysis predicts that more than 1,300 unique dinosaur genera await discovery by paleontologists.

In biology, a genus is an organizational group made up of one or more separate species; the plural of genus is genera.

"It's a safe bet that a child born today could expect a very fruitful career in dinosaur paleontology," said study co-author Peter Dodson of the University of Pennsylvania.

Recent Discovery
T. rex was once considered the largest carnivore in history. Then Giganotosaurus was found. Recently, Giganotosaurus was dethroned based on estimates from a new skull of Spinosaurus, shown here. Learn more.

But that child's grandchildren might not be so lucky, Dodson said, as new discoveries will decline sharply in the early 22nd century, according to his new analysis.

Great century ahead

Since dinosaur research began in earnest in the 19th century, 527 genera have been found; that number is increasing by about 15 percent each year. The majority of dinosaur species are known based on a single fossil specimen.

The researchers predict that 75 percent of all discoverable genera will be found within the next 100 years, and 90 percent within the next 140 years. Dodson predicts that 1,850 dinosaur genera will eventually be known.

The new study, which Dodson co-authored with statistician Steve Wang of Swarthmore College, is detailed online in the journal for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

An international effort

The new analysis, which does not include avian dinosaurs such as archaeopteryx, is a revision of a 1990 census by Dodson that takes into account new discoveries made in the years since.

Dino Fossils

One reason new discoveries are expected to increase dramatically in coming years is dinosaur research is increasingly becoming an international effort.

"The 1990s saw an 85-percent increase in the number of new fossil discoveries," Dodson said. "The dinosaur field used to be the pursuit of white Anglo-Saxons, but with recent explosions of dinosaur paleontology in places like China, Mongolia and South America, that is clearly no longer the case."

The researchers point out, however, that there are only so many dinosaurs that can ultimately be found. Fossilization is itself a rare event and not all dinosaurs become fossils. At some point, paleontologist will uncover virtually all of Earth's discoverable dinosaur fossils.

Lost forever

Dodson says his new estimate of dinosaur genera awaiting discovery probably does not reflect the true diversity of all the dinosaurs that ever lived. Scientists predict that nearly half of all dinosaur genera that ever existed died without leaving any trace.

Those unknown dinosaurs will remain lost to science forever.

"I would never suggest that this prediction, however statistically sound, is the final word on dinosaur diversity," Dodson said. "My intention is to fuel the discussion using the facts at hand, and this is the best estimate we can make with the data available."