A One-Stop Survival Guide to Your First Night in the Jurassic Period

It’s 150 million BCE and there’s not a single Shake Shack in sight. What are you going to do about it?

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

Imagine this scenario.

We’ve been thrown back in time to the Great Age of the Dinosaurs — the Mesozoic Era. Imagine the wonders of this long-extinct world, bounding with life so large that there’s no doubting our temporal distance from modern-day Kansas. Brachiosaurus necks swing resolutely between towering canopies. Terrible bipedal beasts dash across the horizon, presumably “on-the-hunt”. Our closest living ancestor is the shrew-like creature scurrying out of sight across the forest floor. There is so much to take in and even more to question. So let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment.

Where exactly are we? We’re on the prehistoric continent of Gondwana. We’ve been teleported back approximately 150 million years to the Jurassic Period to resolve a very important intellectual curiosity. Where can a guy get something to eat?

On its surface, this question might feel frivolous in the face of some other realities we are confronting. We’ve just become contemporaries of the genera Elaphrosaurs, Ceratosaurs, and Allosaurus — some of the most ferocious predators to have ever competed on earth. Atmospheric concentration of CO2 is over 1500ppm which is enough to give us a subtle headache in the short term (and maybe worse in the long term). Also since when was time travel invented? With that full plate of problems, food seems like a no brainer — we can just eat whatever’s around, right?

Let’s sit with that question. What is around us?

Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Most foods modern humans consume have been artificially selected over thousands of years of agriculture. And most of the foods which aren’t agricultural products haven’t evolved yet. This is an alien world. Angiosperms, or fruit-bearing plants, won’t emerge until the late Cretaceous Period — a quick 70 million years from our timeline. Mammals are a very narrow branch on the tree of life, and simple grass hasn’t evolved yet. It’s also likely that many Jurassic plants would be toxic to or indigestible by our human tummies. Hopefully the stakes of our predicament are becoming clear.

Our Challenge: Survive for one night.

We’ll try to find around 2000 kcal of food, sourced from a variety of food categories. If we can find foods to meet our needs for the first night, let’s take the bold assumption that we can continue to do so for the duration of our stay among the dinosaurs. No need to outline the case for what happens if we can’t.

Let’s begin the hunt with plants to start simply. The Jurassic Period was abundant in plant life but the kind that might seem a bit foreign to us today. This was a period before the “flowering plants’’ or the angiosperms took center stage on earth. For simplicity, we can consider flowering plants to be any plant that produces fruits or flowers. So what plants are around? Gymnosperms. Think evergreen trees with cones. These plants reproduce seeds that are naked for the world to see, hoping that the wind carries them to a far away plot of fresh soil.

While we might be hard pressed to find any leafy greens, we are in a world abundant with seeds — some of them edible. Particularly, the plant order Ginkgophyta thrived during the Jurassic Period, yielding one species in particular that’s still alive today. Ginkgo biloba, also known as the Ginkgo tree, was a top gymnosperm in this period. More importantly, ginkgo tree seeds are edible! These seeds can be eaten as nuts or if we get creative, maybe we can even ground it into a flour for flatbread (remember, we need yeast for bread to rise and i’m hard pressed to find a *safe* fungus that can substitute for us). Ginkgo seeds are still eaten today and on their own, apparently taste like chestnuts. While we have cause to be excited, it’s a little too good to be true. Assuming that the ginkgo seeds we find on the jurassic tree growing next to us are the same as the ones from our home time period, 2021, these seeds have a number of toxins we must be careful to avoid. We might also have to compete against a dinosaur called Supersaurus to get our fair shake at the local ginkgo tree. While we are off to a good start, we will have to keep looking.

We’ll have to look for some type of leafy green. However, we should be careful not to eat just anything that crosses our line of sight. While the long-necked herbivores around us can eat most things, our stomachs have no mechanisms for breaking down highly fibrous plant material (aka we can’t extract any calories from them). We should also be careful because many of these plants likely contain micro-doses of toxins that might give us bad stomachs, headaches, or serious dizziness.

We need to start by looking for something familiar, and many ferns from our time period have their roots in the Mesozoic Era. (Note: we’ll take some creative freedom here and place a particular fern, the ostrich fern in the Jurassic Period. While some findings suggest that the fern existed this far back, several other studies suggest that it didn’t appear for another 25 million years.) Look at that — we recognize some ostrich ferns! If we are careful to harvest only the young sprouts called fiddleheads, we can harvest and eat enough of these to satisfy some of our nutritional needs. However, given that ½ a cup of fiddleheads only provides 22 calories, we would need to eat upwards of 45 cups to meet our nutritional goals for one day. We need something with a few more calories. It seems like we need some meat.

We’re on the hunt for mammals. While most modern mammals won’t appear for another several million years, the Jurassic Period is abundant in multituberculates, a Mammalian subclass of small ancestors to modern mammals. These types of mammals are thought to have given birth to live, premature young and nursed them like modern marsupials. They range in size from field mice to beavers, so it seems like we can have our pick. Additionally, these mammals were nowhere near the top of the food chain and were likely to be prey to the more agile dinosaurs. They might make for good steaks over our campfire. The hardest part of building them into our diet will probably be catching them as they are probably skillful burrowers, scurriers, and climbers.

Now we have our Ginkgo seeds, our fiddleheads, and our steaks. You might be wondering, “why don’t we go fishing for a nice Jurassic fish fillet?” Well, we should probably stay away from large bodies of water because giant crocodiles, sharks, and ichthyosaurs dominate the marine food chain. We would likely become something’s afternoon snack before we caught something worth eating.

Wrapping it up!

Photo by Matt Whitacre on Unsplash

If you managed to gather all of these ingredients, let’s get to cooking! With some sea salt carefully evaporated from ocean water, we can salt our Multituberculate meat. Perhaps we could boil our ginkgo seeds into a stew and mix in chunks of meat. We can roast our fiddlehead ferns en masse on a stone, using melted fat from the Multituberculate we caught. Serve hot, and enjoy!

Work Cited

“Jurassic Period Facts”. Jurassic Period Facts: Dinosaurs, Mammals, Plants | Live Science. livescience.com. 16 Apr. 2013. www.livescience.com/28739-jurassic-period.html. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.

The Hall of Mammals. 08 Apr. 2021. ucmp.berkeley.edu/mammal/mammal.html. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.

Introduction to the Cycads. 08 Apr. 2021. ucmp.berkeley.edu/seedplants/cycadophyta/cycads.html. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.

“Jurassic Period Information and Facts”. Jurassic Period Information and Facts | National Geographic. Science. 08 Apr. 2021. www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/jurassic. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.

“Fossil Reveals Long-Lived Mammal Group’s Secret”. Fossil Reveals Long-Lived Mammal Group’s Secret. Animals. 08 Apr. 2021. www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/130815-multituberculate-rugosodon-early-mammal-evolution. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.

Paleocene mammals of the world. 08 Apr. 2021. www.paleocene-mammals.de/primates.htm#Carpolestidae. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.

“What are dinosaurs?”. What are dinosaurs? | Natural History Museum. 08 Apr. 2021. www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-are-dinosaurs.html. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.

“Time — Dinosaurs from the Late Jurassic period | Natural History Museum”. Dinosaurs from the Late Jurassic period | Natural History Museum. 08 Apr. 2021. www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/dino-directory/timeline/late-jurassic/gallery.html. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.

“Brachiosaurus | Natural History Museum”. Brachiosaurus | Natural History Museum. 08 Apr. 2021. www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/dino-directory/brachiosaurus.html. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.

The Washington Post. The Washington Post. 08 Apr. 2021. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/metro/urban-jungle/pages/101012.html. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.

“Ginkgophyte | plant division”. Ginkgophyte | plant division | Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. 08 Apr. 2021. www.britannica.com/plant/ginkgophyte. Accessed 08 Apr. 2021.

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Environmental Engineering, Columbia 2020. MSc. Candidate @ Imperial College London.

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