Did Dinosaurs Drop Prehistoric Acid?
Picture the wild-eyed unpredictability of a college kid tripping on LSD. Now compound that image with the power of a 100-foot-long, chisel-toothed dinosaur. A crazed, deadly creature tearing through prehistoric Pangea on a bad trip.
Or just click here for an artist’s rendering.
If Hollywood scripted Dinosaurs on Acid, it could steal the record for camp currently held by Sharknado. But this theory is better than a script—it’s a peer-reviewed report published in a scientific journal. Paleontologists are really pondering the question we never thought to ask: Were dinosaurs tripping on LSD?
Last year, Dr. George Poinar was sent what appeared to be a standard sample of amber fossil that German scientist Joerg Wunderlich had purchased in Myanmar in 2001. Encased within it was a specimen he assumed to be a flower. But Poinar, a paleo-entomologist at Oregon State University, knew instantly what it was: a blade of grass topped by a distinctive fungus.
Now this may not sound thrilling to us plebeians, but Poinar was “absolutely amazed.” Until this fell into his lap no fossil containing the fungus called ergot had ever been found, and it was previously unproven that grass even existed during that early period of Earth’s history. Estimated to be between 97 and 110 million years old, this was the oldest ever grass specimen and likely evidence that the herbivore dinosaurs were consuming plants with hallucinogenic properties.
“It opens a whole new door,” Poinar says of the findings in a field where one blade of grass transforms the picture of prehistory Earth. “Most of the image is still dark, but we have these little bits of light.”
After eight months of studying the sample, findings were published by Poinar and his team at OSU along with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in the current issue of the Palaeodiversity Journal based in Stuttgart, Germany.
But let’s return to the question at hand: Were dinosaurs getting high millions of years ago?
Poinar is confident that dinosaurs consumed the grass, but there’s no way to know what it might have done to their brains or behavior. “The sauropods [dinosaurs of the era] would have to eat a fair amount of the affected grass,” Poinar says. Then, citing previous research that found dinosaurs grazed as close to the ground as cows and sheep do, he asserts that smaller dinosaurs could have consumed enough toxins to feel the drug’s effect.
The psychedelic features of synthetic LSD come from extracting one of the more than 1,000 compounds found in ergot. Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD in the early half of the 20th century, noted that when this particular ergot derivative was administered to test subjects "the experimental animals became restless during the narcosis." The rest—Beatles songs, federal bans, and long-haul road trips—is history.
Poinar is no stranger to the psychological impact of LSD. Although he says he never took the drug himself, he spent the 1960s in Berkeley, and now works out of Corvallis, Oregon, a small college town with a hippie bend.
“I know the effects,” he says. “I’ve seen what it can do.”
Dr. Mark Norell, the chairman of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, is here to temper these pipe dreams a bit.
“It's not like giant dinosaurs are eating this stuff and walking around stoned all the time,” he says. “It's around today and you don’t see lots of wasted herbivorous animals.” Ergot grows wild, and though it has been known to change animal behavior, they’re thought to usually avoid it because of its bad taste.
The version of the ergot fungus that existed 100 million years ago isn’t exactly the same as the one found today—this particular specimen came from a now-extinct breed—but the researchers assume the two have the same characteristics.
If the components were similar, this wouldn’t be a plain-old acid trip. Ergot has blazed a deadly trail through history, and for more than just its psychedelic components. In the Middle Ages, thousands were killed by the fungus, which had infested large quantities of rye flour. It wasn’t pretty: Ergot produces gangrene if consumed, by constricting blood vessels and fingers and toes until they turn black and fall off. This pain was so severe, likened to being burned alive, that the outbreak was dubbed St. Anthony’s Fire, named for an Egyptian monk who was tortured by demonic attacks. There’s also been speculation connecting ergot’s symptoms to the erratic behavior deemed witchcraft during the witch trials in Salem.
But any theory of dinosaurs going wild on a hit of acid is, well, not a theory at all, Norell says. “Ergot existed then like it does today: If it had an effect, we don’t know. How big was the effect? We can’t tell. To me, it’s more an anecdotal kind of thing.”
And we’re back to Hollywood. The Dancing Dinosaurs, he posits, would be the prehistoric prequel to Fantasia’s multi-colored dream of cavorting animals.