May 13, 2010
Every now and then I stop and ask myself “Why dinosaurs?” Why spend 400 posts (and counting) tracking them across our cultural landscape, from B-movies to new discoveries? What is it about them that keeps me coming back?
As a child, I was enthralled by dinosaurs. They were real-life monsters that were both fascinating and terrifying, and I had high hopes that my amateur excavation in my grandparents’ backyard would yield a fully-articulated Triceratops skeleton (or at least a few dinosaur eggs). Being that I was shoveling through the topsoil of suburban New Jersey, that dream never materialized, but it hardly damped my enthusiasm for the prehistoric creatures.
But dinosaurs are not just kids’ stuff. Though often viewed as kitsch which has no real importance or relevance to the “real world,” dinosaurs have long played important roles in how we understand the world around us. Even before dinosaurs had a name, their bones fueled legends of dragons and monsters in cultures across the world, and when they were finally recognized by science in the early 19th century, they challenged the long-believed notion that the world was created “as is”—they were monsters bristling with spikes and teeth which spoke of a lost world separated from us by the gulf of time. Though they would not become symbolic of evolutionary change until a few decades later (as in T.H. Huxley’s idea that birds had evolved from a dinosaur-like creature), they powerfully drove home the point that life had dramatically changed over time, and they became new cultural icons for the modern age.
Dinosaurs continue to cast long shadows over the cultural landscape. Families flock to museums to gaze at their remains, and despite being known for over 100 years, Tyrannosaurus is a celebrity few Hollywood stars can match in notoriety. Dinosaurs are everywhere, but they are much more than beloved monsters. Once scientists recognized that the non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out in one of the worst mass extinctions in earth history 65 million years ago, it became apparent that we owed our existence to their demise—had the tyrannosaurs, hadrosaurs, horned dinosaurs and other Cretaceous lineages survived, mammals may never have been allowed to proliferate in the empty habitats the dinosaurs left behind. (Though, interestingly enough, the evolution of dinosaurs may not have happened had it not been for an earlier, even worse extinction which almost entirely wiped out the lineage of vertebrates to which we belong.) Perhaps even more fantastically, we now know that one lineage of dinosaurs survived in the form of birds. Many of the traits we consider unique to birds, from feathers to a unique series of air sacs that allow them to breathe efficiently as they flutter about, evolved in dinosaurs first, and we can quite confidently say that birds are living dinosaurs. These are not just bits of trivia—they are lessons from Deep Time which can drastically change the way we understand nature.
The skeleton of a dinosaur is not just a natural curiosity to be gawked at. It is a vestige of another time which simultaneously embodies the natural phenomena of evolution and extinction—the ever-changing nature of life. That is why I just can’t tear myself away from dinosaurs. Their story provides context for our own, and I will keep tracking dinosaurs for years to come.
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