Most oil reserves were formed between 65 and 252 million years ago. While this does overlap with the ‘dinosaur times’, oil is a marine sediment made of the remains of algae and plankton.

Skeletons of prehistoric reptiles such as plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs (neither of which count as dinosaurs) have been found in the same geological layers as oil and they may have contaminated the oil deposit. But to say that oil is made from dinosaurs is like saying that bread is made from insects, just because the odd one occasionally falls into a flour mill.

Oil sediments formed in shallow seas that were teeming with life near the surface but stagnant and dead on the seabed. As dead plankton and microorganisms rained down, they buried the ones below them faster than they could decay. This trapped the organic matter in an oxygen-deprived layer that sank lower and lower as it was compressed from above. After 100 million years of this, the bottom layers were under several kilometres of clay and sand, and the heat and pressure at these depths converted the organic material into oil.

In contrast, a five-tonne plesiosaur falling dead to the seafloor would be very unlikely to remain undisturbed for long enough to be safely buried. Instead, it would be a temporary oasis for fish, crustaceans and worms that would quickly strip away the organic parts. We see this happening today when whale corpses fall to the seabed.

Coal is a much better place to find fossils; in fact, many plant and animal remains have been found preserved in coal seams. But coal deposits date from the Carboniferous era (359 to 299 million years ago), about 57 million years before the earliest dinosaurs. And even those animal fossils are embedded in, rather than contributing to, the coal deposit itself.

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Asked by: Ian McCoy, via email

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luis villazon
Luis VillazonQ&A expert

Luis trained as a zoologist, but now works as a science and technology educator. In his spare time he builds 3D-printed robots, in the hope that he will be spared when the revolution inevitably comes.