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Jeff Person's blog

Busting a Myth about Dinosaurs: Does Oil Come from Dinosaurs?

As a paleontologist, I have found that there are a few misconceptions about dinosaurs. Some of them have gone by the wayside when the research has been able to penetrate the media bombardment we face every day, while others have persisted for decades for a variety of reasons. One of these seemingly undying myths is the idea that oil comes from dinosaurs. This is an interesting idea that I believe stems from a pop culture phenomenon nearly 100 years old.

Most people have a basic understanding that oil comes from dead plants/animals/organic matter. However the misconception comes when thinking about which animals and plant remains helped create that oil. I believe a great deal of this misunderstanding comes from the Sinclair Oil symbol—a small, green, sauropod dinosaur named “Dino”. The reason for this symbol has nothing to do with where the oil is coming from, but rather has a more historical story.

Sinclair Oil mascot

Dino, the Sinclair Oil mascot trademarked in 1932, was practically ubiquitous across the United States after WWII.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, dinosaurs were big business. Museums across the eastern United States were scrambling to get the “best” skeleton and out-do other museums. They all wanted the biggest, most complete, fiercest, etc. This was the time of the infamous dinosaur wars. One of the prominent paleontologists at this time was Barnum Brown. He was the discoverer of Tyrannosaurus rex in 1902 (Osborn, 1905) and was a prolific fossil hunter. Some say he was the greatest dinosaur fossil collector ever. In the early 1900s, Brown had a relationship with the Sinclair Oil and Refining Corporation. He assisted in writing their promotional pamphlets and designing stamps in exchange for monetary support of his dinosaur collecting expeditions (Mitchell, 1998).

The Sinclair Dinosaur Book

Images of Sinclair’s promotional and educational booklets handed out in the 1930s (Spence, 1966).

“To give better academic stature to its promotions, Sinclair financed for several years the dinosaur fossil search expeditions of Dr. Barnum Brown, then curator of fossil reptiles at the American Museum of Natural History,” (Spence, 1966).

Barnum Brown by airplane

Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History, ready to depart on a bone hunting expedition in 1934 (Spence, 1966).

To capitalize on the popularity of dinosaurs, “Dino” was created as a marketing tool aimed at getting customers to believe that better oil came from older rocks. One of their marketing signs claimed it was “mellowed 80 million years” (Spence, 1966). The public equated Dino with power, endurance, and stamina (Spence, 1966). I’m sure those were qualities that Sinclair was happy to be branded with. Although the pamphlets and stamp books made reference to how oil was formed even before the dinosaurs existed, it seems the association of Dino and oil was too difficult to separate.

Graphic depicting how oil is formed

Graphic depicting how oil is formed (Chernicoff, 1995).

How oil actually forms:
When plants and animals living in the world’s oceans die, they sink to the ocean floor where their remains are eventually buried by sediment. Over time, as more of this organic matter is accumulated and buried deeper and deeper, it begins to change. Once certain pressures and temperatures are reached underground, the organic material changes into a substance called kerogen. As kerogen is buried even deeper, the increasing temperature and pressure transform it into hydrocarbons – the main constituents of crude oil and gas . The hydrocarbons will migrate through the pore spaces in rocks and accumulate in natural traps and pool together. It is these traps and pools that oil companies are searching for when they drill oil wells. It was this same process that occurred in North Dakota and formed the Bakken crude being drilled today (Nordeng, 2014).

Chernicoff, S., 1995, Geology, Worth Publishers, Inc., 593 pp.
Mitchell, W. J. T., 1998, The last dinosaur book, The University of Chicago Press, 321 pp.
Nordeng, S. H., 2014, Building the science for advancing oil and gas exploration and development in the Williston Basin: Geo News, v. 41, no. 1, p. 14-18.
Osborn, H. F., 1905, Tyrannosaurus and other Cretaceous carnivorous dinosaurs: American Museum of Natural History, Bulletin 21, p. 259-265.
Spence, H., 1966, A Great Name in Oil, Sinclair Through Fifty Years, F. W. Dodge Co. / McGraw Hill Inc., 104 pp.

Life of a Fossil: From Death to Exhibit

Have you ever thought about how the many dinosaurs on exhibit in museums across the country got there? What is the journey taken from the time the animal dies until it goes on display? Do all animals become fossils? If the path to becoming a fossil begins at the moment of death, then every plant and animal must run a gauntlet of forces, any of which can stop the process of fossilization.

Picture a Triceratops during its last day on Earth. After giving up the ghost (so to speak), a plethora of forces will begin attacking the future fossil.

First, the Triceratops might be exposed to animals that would like to make a meal out of its remains. This would include scavengers spreading the remains across a large area, wind and rain eroding away the remains, or even small insects and bacteria eating away at the bones. Ultimately, the remains need to be buried quickly, ushering them away from all these potential hazards.

Next, the remains must stay buried for thousands to millions of years. The main forces to avoid during this period are geological. The bones/fossils must survive all the geological forces that could potentially destroy them. These include mountain building, volcanoes, earthquakes, erosion, and landslides (to name only a few).

So is that it? Now that the bones have become fossils, they just wind up in the museum for us to enjoy, right? Not quite.

Now it is time for the remains to come to the surface. This step is really about timing. The fossils must be exposed on the surface and be discovered. Sounds easy enough right? Well, there is a catch. Not only do they need to be visible but they need to be visible to someone who recognizes them for what they are…fossils.

4-step fossilization process

Visual representation of the fossilization process

Did dinosaurs recognize the fossils being exposed at their feet during their time walking the planet? Would you be able to recognize a fossil in the ground if you saw one? More to the point, would you be able to recognize a small part of an exposed fossil in the ground? Often, when fossils are discovered, only a fraction of the bone is exposed, while the rest is still buried under the surface. The fossils must be collected before the elements have had a chance to erode them away. How many fossils of ancient animals simply disappeared because they were exposed at the surface at the wrong time? How many fossils of shells, fish, or ancient reptiles did the dinosaurs destroy because they were walking on them?

Lastly, if you found the partially exposed fossil and recognized it for what it was, could you get it out of the ground intact? Someone could find the most beautiful or significant fossil ever discovered, but if they can’t get it out of the ground without it breaking into dozens or more pieces, they have only a useless pile of fragments-- not something that could go on display at a museum.

The final leg of the journey is entirely reliant on humans. The collected fossils now must travel safely back to a lab or museum, be removed from the remaining rock/dirt matrix, and still be in good enough shape to go into an exhibit. This often means not only the quality of the fossil must be good, but the fossil must also fit into the theme of the exhibit.

T. rex and Triceratops skeleton casts

The dinosaur exhibit at the ND Heritage Center State Museum

The next time you walk through a fossil exhibit, I hope you remember that all the fossils you see on exhibit traveled this path. Do you ever think about what we are leaving future humans to discover about us?